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Canadiens' perfect start backed by statistics

by Rob Vollman

The Montreal Canadiens have won seven straight games, a season-starting streak never before accomplished in the history of the team.

Rob Vollman is a pioneer in the field of hockey analytics and the co-author of Hockey Abstract. His innovations include Player Usage Charts on Home Plate Save Percentage. He will contribute a regular column to throughout this season.
They have scored at least three goals in each game and have not allowed more than two, leading to an impressive 23-7 goals differential.

With its hot start, Montreal has established itself as the team to beat, with more than just its one well-known weapon: goaltender Carey Price.

Last season, the Canadiens won the Atlantic Division with 110 points, and much of that success was attributed to Price, who won the Hart Trophy, the Ted Lindsay Award, the William M. Jennings Trophy and the Vezina Trophy. Beyond Price, Montreal's performance was unspectacular; it finished in the lower half of the NHL in almost every non-goaltending metric.

So far this season, much has changed. Improvements have been made across the board and Montreal is dominating opponents in a way that is no longer dependent on the lights-out goaltending of Price.

Category 2014-15 Rank 2015-16 Rank
Goals per Game (GF/GP) 2.61 20th 3.29 6th
Shots per Game (Shots/GP) 28.5 25th 34.3 1st
Shot Attempts per 60 Minutes (SATF/60) 43.53 18th 47.38 6th
Power Play Percentage (PP%) 16.5% 23rd 14.3% 22nd
Goals Against per Game (GA/GP) 2.24 1st 1.00 1st
Shots Against per Game (SA/GP) 30.1 21st 28.1 11th
Shot Attempts Against per 60 Minutes (SATA/60) 46.22 24th 42.40 16th
Penalty Killing Percentage (PK%) 83.7% T-7th 91.7% T-1st
Share of Shot Attempts in Close Game Situations (SAT Close) 50.79% 15th 52.77% 7th

The table illustrates the transformation by the Canadiens from being below-average offensively and defensively into one of the League's strongest teams by almost any statistical measure. Price continues to dominate games with a .966 save percentage, but there is a more complete and competitive team in front of him.

How did Montreal evolve from being an average team with elite goaltending to a well-rounded team that plays effective, possession-driving hockey in all three zones? In my view, it was through superior coaching, the continued development of talented young players, and the shrewd acquisition of free-agent depth.

Coaching is often overlooked in team evaluations with some critics quick to suggest it doesn't have a big impact in the standings. Those critics often don't have the tools to measure coaching impact. Six years ago, I developed a simple metric to rate coaches based on how their team performed in the standings compared to the season before. To avoid penalizing coaches who were already quite successful, or rewarding those who took over teams that weren't, I adjusted each team's previous season 35 percent toward the League average before making the final calculation. The final formula has been surprisingly effective at identifying which coaches will guide their teams deep into the Stanley Cup Playoffs and which will soon be on the hot seat.

Montreal's Michel Therrien scored well in this metric, but so did his staff when each coach's experience in other leagues was tabulated. The Canadiens had one of the League's more experienced coaching staffs; three staffs had achieved more combined career success.

The experienced coaching staff, which includes Clement Jodoin, Daniel Lacroix, J.J. Daigneault and goalie coach Stephane Waite, has been the key to the continued development of young forwards Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher, who continue to follow in the footsteps of the Canadiens' top talent, defenseman P.K. Subban and forward Max Pacioretty, who are in their prime. Forwards Tomas Plekanec and David Desharnais and defenseman Andrei Markov also deserve a lot of credit for the transformation.

In the end, perhaps it's Montreal general manager Marc Bergevin who deserves the most credit. It's amazing that Montreal has Price for $6.5 million per season, and the five forwards mentioned above for less than $20 million annually. That careful management of the NHL salary cap has given the Canadiens the flexibility it needed on defense to secure Subban long-term and to re-sign unrestricted free agent Jeff Petry.

In an offseason when some teams invested too little in free agency and others mortgaged too much, Bergevin shrewdly reinforced depth by adding veteran wings Alexander Semin and Tomas Fleischmann for a combined salary-cap charge of $1.85 million.

Closing Thoughts

The early success will boost expectations on a team already predicted to do quite well.

Each season, I gather every set of published divisional predictions. This season, 46 of 87 "experts" ranked Montreal second in the Atlantic Division, behind the Tampa Bay Lightning. My assessment, which was written before the Canadiens acquired Semin and Fleischmann, was that "better depth might be enough to make Montreal a Cup contender."

Many opponents may have started the season thinking that Price was the only problem to solve in order to defeat Montreal. That thinking is evolving as the early part of the season continues.

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