This is the eighth part of the Habs players analysis series for the season 2017-18. Be sure to check out parts one through seven below.
Part 1: Brendan Gallagher and Max Pacioretty
Part 2: Alex Galchenyuk and Jonathan Drouin
Part 3: Paul Byron and Phillip Danault
Part 4: Andrew Shaw and Nicholas Deslauriers
Part 5: Charles Hudon and Artturi Lekhonen
Part 6: Jacob de la Rose and Byron Froese
Part 7: Jeff Petry and Victor Mete
For these reviews, only players who played at least half of the season will be covered. I’ll use some traditional statistics but mainly the advanced analytics eSAT metric, especially the eSAT Diff, eSAT FAR and eSAT AAR. If you are still unfamiliar with this advanced statistic, I suggest you read the article introducing the eSAT that will give you a better understanding of the metric.
In brief, eSAT Diff (effectiveness-of-the-Shot-Attempts Differential) shows the level of impact the player had on his team, therefore influencing the impact on the team rankings. It can also be use as a measurement to determine an MVP player.
The eSAT FAR (effectiveness-of-the-Shot-ATtempts-For-Above-Replacement) describes the quality of the offensive supply or the capacity to convert it into successful attack. The league average is at fifty percent, so top should be over percent and top should be over 50 percent.
Finally, the eSAT AAR (effectiveness-of-the-Shot-ATempts-Against-Above-Replacement) shows the quality of opportunities allowed to the opposition. Therefore, an eSAT AAR over the fifty percent mark would suggest a higher ability to shutdown the opponent’s offense.
But there’s more to the eSAT AAR, it will also tend to increase when players are in possession of the puck. On that account, it connects perfectly with the adage ‘the best defense is a good offense.’
Entering the summer of 2017, Karl Alzner was much coveted due to the lack of defensemen available on the unrestricted free agent market. At the time, Alzner decided to sign with the Canadiens, hoping to go further than the second round of playoffs, something that the Capitals seemingly couldn’t do. “The possibility of winning it with the Canadiens is something,” said Alzner. “I’d love to go to the promised land with this team.”
With the Washington Capitals winning the Stanley Cup on Thursday night, Alzner’s words, at the time of his signing in Montreal, now seem rather ironic. “It’s very emotional to leave Washington,” he said. “That part is difficult, but at the same time, I want to win. That’s why we all play hockey, and it was frustrating to keep getting eliminated in the second round.”
As a rearguard with the Capitals, Alzner was paired with mobile and offensive-minded defensemen like Mike Green, Matt Niskanen and John Carlson. When joining the Canadiens, the defensemen who filled this description was Jeff Petry.
The Alzner-Petry duo couldn’t build an efficient defensive chemistry and were often caught out of position. In a little more than 735 minutes playing together at five-on-five, they showed an eSAT AAR of only 45.8 percent and an eSAT Diff of -16.78, which represents the second worst combination for Alzner since 2010. In fact, the worst combination of his career was in 2013 playing along side Mike Green.
Being categorized as the number one shutdown defensemen for the Canadiens, Alzner was the player used the most on the penalty-kill, with a little more than 233 minutes in that situation. However, his performances were not worthy of that title.
Among the defensemen who played more than 150 minutes on the penalty-kill, with an eSAT AAR of 44.7 percent, Alzner only ranked 62nd of 78 in the NHL. Drew Doughty was the top defenseman in that category with an eSAT AAR of 62.9 percent.
From late February till the end of the season, Alzner was twinned with Noah Juulsen, and the rookie seemed to have stabilize Alzner’s play. The pair was a lot more reliable at five-on-five showing an eSAT AAR of 57.8 percent.
Over the years, Karl Alzner has been consistent in the number of hits taken. Defensemen will receive more hits than forwards, due to the opponent’s forecheck. There are several reasons why a defenseman is receiving more hits than another.
In Alzner’s case, it could be because he had difficulty finding support in the lower zone to make a pass, therefore he’s forced to hold the puck longer and receives punishment. Obviously, this doesn’t help to create effective zone exit, and it keeps pressure in the defensive zone.
This season Alzner took 159 hits at five-on-five, ranking him sixth among NHL defensemen. However, the Canadiens had four members of its blue-line the top-35 in this category.
It should be noted that Alzner was not the only Habs blueliner to admit having difficulty with Claude Julien’s ‘swarm’ defensive system. He said it was nothing like the system used in Washington. And J.J. Daigneault’s penalty-kill scheme was a disaster.
For next season, some believe that Karl Alzner could find himself on the third pairing of the Canadiens defense. It is clear to me now that he should not be paired with Jeff Petry. In a small sample his pairing with Shea Weber wasn’t compelling either. This only leaves a spot on the left side of the third pair, where he could again join Noah Juulsen and return to the form that they showed at the end of last season.
When Jordie Benn was acquired in 2016-17, he made such a good first impression that Canadiens management decided to protect him in the expansion draft. His friendly cap hit also played a part in that decision.
His 15 points last season met expectations in term of offensive production. However, his offensive contribution dropped to his lowest level since the beginning of his career with an eSAT FAR of 37.7 percent.
Being able to play on both sides of the ice, Benn was shuffled around many of his teammates. From mid-November till mid-December, Benn found himself on the first pair with Shea Weber. To say the least, it wasn’t an optimal situation and it should not be repeated next season. At five-on-five they had an eSAT FAR of only 26.3 percent.
On the defensive spectrum, Benn was simply the worst defensemen for the Canadiens on the penalty-kill. Of the hundred defensemen that played more than 125 minutes on the penalty-kill, he was ranked dead last with an eSAT AAR of 36.3 percent.
However, even though he didn’t have success with Weber at five-on-five, Benn was the only player who complimented him well on the penalty-kill. It’s unfortunate that the two defenseman only played 25 minutes together, because their eSAT AAR was impressive at 71.2 percent. If they had played together more often and had maintained that rate, the Canadiens penalty-kill would have been far better than second last in the league.
It is now two straight seasons that Benn hasn’t been helping his team on the penalty-kill. In 2016-17, with the Stars and the Canadiens his unit had a save percentage of only .798, while this season it was only .802. This is one of the main reasons why his eSAT Diff is so low, therefore he hasn’t been a positive factor for his team.
Despite his difficulties with a man short, playing at five-on-five Benn did offer decent performances. He was the best defensemen among the Canadiens in shots blocked and 18th in the NHL, and showed an eSAT AAR of 52.8 percent, ranked 37th in the NHL.
On the depth chart, Benn should be considered as a number six or seven defenseman, and he should occupy a shutdown role. Therefore, Benn should be given most of the minutes on the penalty-kill alongside Weber. However, if he can’t find a way to help his team in that situation, he might see his contract buried in the minors, in my opinion.