The Montreal Canadiens should not be this bad

Thomas WilliamsHockey writer
Yahoo Sports Canada
The Habs should not be in this freefall. (Getty)
The Habs should not be in this freefall. (Getty)

After Thursday’s defeat to the Edmonton Oilers at home, the Montreal Canadiens are on an eight-game losing streak — for the second time this season.

It should be considered impossible, but within the 45 games the Canadiens have played this season there are two significant runs where they have been able scrape up just four points through 16 games total.

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This leaves the once-hopeful Habs nine points out of a wild card spot and at the bottom of the five-team pile vying for the eighth playoff position.

Despite the atrocious spot in the standings and the likelihood of them missing the playoffs for the third consecutive year, the 2019-20 Canadiens have every reason to wonder why the results aren’t going their way.

“Obviously, we’re not winning,” head coach Claude Julien told reporters after the 4-2 loss to Edmonton. “But we’re not a team that comes into games and gets completely dominated. We’re still doing our job to keep guys going and keep them motivated.”

Through the last eight games, where the Canadiens have earned one single point, the team has a shot-attempt share of 53.8 per cent, meaning they have been able to control the majority of play throughout those losses.

As Julien recognizes, his team is certainly not getting run out the building in terms of possession. It hasn’t just been their recent losing streak either — they have been consistent in their play all season long.

Only the Carolina Hurricanes have a better shot attempt differential this season. Last year’s Eastern Conference finalists are at the top with 55.9 per cent share, but the Canadiens are second with 53.9 per cent.

This rate of possession has been persistent.

via Evolving-Hockey
via Evolving-Hockey

Other than starting off the season slightly below, the Canadiens have kept their differential above zero for the duration of their campaign.

There has been no point this season where Montreal suffered a streak of being heavily outplayed in this realm, rather they simply rose to an above-average position and have stayed there so far.

This level of performance should indicate some minor success by itself, and the Canadiens’ ability to get their own shots off from high-danger areas on the ice has been impressive, too.

via Sean Tierney/@chartinghockey
via Sean Tierney/@chartinghockey

Comparing two of their offensive metrics — shot attempts for rate and expected goals for rate — Montreal is placed among the league’s best. Securely surrounded by teams that have more wins than themselves, the Canadiens are the outliers.

Rather than opting for one over the other, this team is able to balance both quality and quantity for their offence.

Based on where exactly they get their shots off in the offensive zone and their league-leading 63.63 shot attempts per-hour rate, the Canadiens should be an offensive powerhouse.

But they are stuck in the mud of actuality and what they are able to produce.

Unfortunately for the easy solution, it’s not like this team is bad defensively, either. They are allowing a below-average amount of shot attempts against (20th in the league) and expected goals against (18th), providing fans with no simple justification as to why this team is losing games at the rate they are.

Their defence is reliably strong and their ability to keep shots to the outside of their own zone should be effective in the long run.

With this in mind, it’s clear the Canadiens are solid on both ends of the ice compared to league averages, so can all of this just be chalked up to recent luck?

Their PDO — the sum of their shooting percentage and save percentage — on the season is at 98.8. Only five other teams have a lower total. With the assumption that historically this number should always hover around 100, the Canadiens are simply waiting for their turn to get a hot streak.

Unfortunately for them, key forwards Jonathan Drouin, Paul Byron, and surprising addition Joel Armia are all injured, and arguably their best forward in Brandon Gallagher is now potentially battling a head injury or concussion. As of Friday, it’s fair to say their forward group is depleted.

With that talent and health scarcity, it’s hard to imagine their 5-on-5 shooting percentage of 7.5 per cent (sixth-lowest in the league), rising in any significant way.

Like a giant black cloud over the mid-point of their season, injuries have certainly affected Montreal, but not necessarily any more than any other typically mediocre NHL team.

Not even in the top half of the arbitrary listing of Canadian NHL teams, the Canadiens’ man games lost are completely average compared to the rest of the league.

Left with no significant option in front of the net to blame for this mid-season travesty, Carey Price and the other goaltenders are certainly part of the reason why this team is losing more games than it should.

Unfortunately for simplification, Price carrying a -8.14 goals saved above average cannot be the sole performance to attribute the lack of team success to.

It’s certainly a terrible mark, but the 32-year-old has the second-highest number of appearances by a goaltender this season, allowing his GSAA to take a nosedive.

Price warrants a portion of the blame for the Canadiens’ missteps, but the other metrics should generally allow some wiggle room for his lowly performance ruining the entire season.

Montreal is in an extremely weird position and can simply be seen as a team that underperformed its numbers. But everything that generally tells whether a team is good or ba — ignoring their spot in the standings — describes the Canadiens as a decent team that should be competitive.

If at the end of the season this team is still leading the league in some offensive metrics while supplying some steady defence but are left on the outside of the playoffs, some critical questions should, and surely will, be asked.

All stats via Hockey-Reference, Natural Stat Trick, and/or Evolving Hockey.

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