The 100th NHL season is upon us. Training camp opened on-ice sessions on Friday, September 15th, as the hockey community as a whole still waits with anticipation for another eventful season. One that will be filled with surprises, extraordinary performances by old heroes and the emergence of new ones.
The Canadiens enter their 108th season with some questions. The largest, most impactful, question revolves around Claude Julien and the system he’ll employ in his first full season as head coach in his second tenure with la Sainte Flanelle.
Julien arrived on St. Valentine’s Day and was immediately the talk of the town. Despite all the roses and chocolates, he was not set to make any sweeping changes from the system seen under Michel Therrien at mid season. Now as the camp opens, Julien has carte blanche to implement his system that is based on team play.
Like his predecessor, Julien is seen as a defensive coach, but his system is designed to keep his squad out of the defensive zone as much as possible. All NHL coaches value defence first using their own methods, the subtle differences are in how they generate offence. In the case of the Canadiens, Julien has a team capable of playing an up-tempo game with more than their fair share of speed.
When Julien led the Bruins to their Stanley Cup championship with back-to-back Cup finals appearances, his blueline resembled the one that has been assembled in Montreal. Both are designed to keep shots from high danger areas down to a minimum, a system that fits perfectly with a team backstopped by a franchise goaltender.
The defence also boasts better mobility than it is given credit for. That said, there is a hole in proven top four talent. The loss of Andrei Markov has not been filled by a proven talent. His five-on-five (5v5) time can be absorbed by the new arrivals. The issue is how to take advantage of the forward corps’ speed in the transition game.
To take advantage of that speed, the saveur du jour is to have a blueline filled with puck carrying defencemen. Yet in Julien’s case, he has historically preferred his defence to clear the front of the net, use positioning to gain possession and to use short, simple passes to clear the zone, simplifying their work and minimize turnovers.
Using this no frills style of puck movement may play into the team’s depth in speed. Allowing the forwards to attack the opposition blueline with that speed while keeping possession across the blueline instead of playing a dump and chase style seen during Michel Therrien’s era.
— Blain Potvin (@Potsy_70) September 11, 2017
Once in the offensive zone, Julien prefers his forwards to use the defencemen to generate shots on net.
Shots by Defencemen (2011)
Zdeno Chara 264
Dennis Seidenberg 166
Johnny Boychuck 154
Andrew Ference 78
As seen, the defence under Julien is very active in the offensive zone. Under Therrien last season, the defence weren’t anywhere near as active getting pucks to the net.
Shots by current Habs defencemen last season
Shea Weber 183
Jeff Petry 173
David Schlemko 118
Karl Alzner 81
This demonstrates a need to allow the defence to become more involved. To keep these numbers in perspective, the Habs perennial offensive defenceman Andrei Markov had 98 shots, granted, his strength was his passing game. Schlemko was added, as he is likely to be used as a top four to begin the season.
This system generates more offensive opportunities for tip ins and rebounds, methods that work well with the quick release and lunchpail type players that are spread around the Habs roster.
Having more shots put onto the net from the point will help generate more rebound and tip in opportunities. This type of offence will improve production numbers for the middle six forward group who are made up of players who like going to the net or have quick releases.
As seen in the graphic below, the Canadiens are already adept at getting to the net as part of a team offensive strategy. This strategy could also help to open up high danger areas of the ice in the high slot.
In this type of system, Julien’s teams never had point-per-game players, or even a 70-point player. However, his teams did boast was a balanced offence. That balance was achieved using this system.
Current Habs such as Brendan Gallagher and Andrew Shaw would benefit most from the implementation of this system. They are consistently around the blue paint and score the majority of their goals in this position. More rebounds and possibilities to tip pucks means a higher rate of scoring chances for them. It isn’t hard to see similarities in the overall makeup of both squads.
The key to his, and any system really, will be goal differential. Ensuring the defensive side is taken care of, it can provide room to maneuver for top offensive weapons such as Max Pacioretty and Jonathan Drouin.
Let us have no illusions, the games will never be confused with the firewagon hockey of the 1970’s that many fans long for. It will most likely be wins earned with hard fought one goal leads. Yet, this is the type of hockey that should translate well into the playoffs.
Special teams will also be a major focus for Julien. The penalty kill (PK) last season finished an NHL-ranked 14th at 81.1 per cent. The addition of Alzner and will help the first wave immensely.
The second wave on the PK should improve slightly from a full season with Jordie Benn and Petry pairing. If the team remains as disciplined as last season, and can find a way to kill just 7 more penalties from last season, which is possible with the new additions, the PK percentage could jump into the top seven in the NHL.
The Habs’ power play (PP) is another area in need of improvement. Despite all the talk of the loss of Markov causing PP Issues, he actually only had one goal and 12 PP points which is not irreplaceable.
Mark Streit had 13 PP points last season and can replace that PP production, that is, if he is dressed and on the roster. Montreal’s PP was 19.7 per cent effective placing them at 13th in the NHL. As mentioned before, the roster turnover may provide an improvement.
Julien will likely resort to using a four forward set up on his top PP wave that should play 90 seconds of any two minute PP. If the Habs can generate the same number of PP opportunities this system can possibly score five more PP goals than last season. Doing so would place this PP in the top 10 of the NHL.
Having a repeat season of strong 5v5 play and adding in improvements to both the PP and PK, if they were both to be top 10 in the NHL, would do more than enough to offset for any perceived loss of talent.
Julien was afforded a learning period with the core of this group. He then was able to spend a summer tailoring his approach for this upcoming season. He will have a clean slate to approach the season with players eager to play and hungry to win.