Jacques Martin’s System Costly to Habs Success (part one)

All Habs is very pleased to feature another fine piece from our friend Habswatch.  This in-depth look at the systems employed by Canadiens coach Jacques Martin will be presented in two parts.  Today, the key components to achieve success in the NHL are outlined.

Your comments are welcome.

by HabsWatch, Special to AllHabs.net

MONTREAL, QC. — When it comes to coaching strategy and systems, is it better to adapt to the strengths and weaknesses of the lot your given, or bend the will of players to execute a system you feel wins hockey games? And what if you were given a clean slate and had a direct say in the makeup of the team you’d be coaching, your way?

For Jacques Martin, not only did he get a clean slate, he had a direct say in the player acquisitions former Canadiens General Manager Bob Gainey would make on his behalf to fit the system he planned to implement in Montreal. As someone who stopped coaching the year before and had been a peer in the GM ranks since 2006, Martin was in a unique position to advise Gainey and then assistant GM, Pierre Gauthier, on targeting players who could best execute his system.

And just how clean a slate was Jacques Martin given? Eleven players left the Habs that summer, HALF the roster including seven forwards, six from the top three lines; Koivu, Kovalev, Tanguay, Lang, Higgins, Kostopoulos and Dandenault and four defensemen; Komisarek, Brisebois, Schneider & Bouillon. The “Go for it” strategy to win the Stanley Cup during the Montreral Canadiens 100th season ended in disaster and missed opportunity, trading away a second round pick and flipping thirds with Atlanta to try and secure the last playoff position in the last game of the regular season.

Given the situation, had the Habs taken the long view and traded most of the outgoing players for prospects and picks at the deadline rather than be buyers, the Canadiens would have been in a far stronger position to reload under Martin, both with available cap space that summer and a restocked farm system. A valuable lesson for casual fans that big revenue teams like the Montreal Canadiens sacrifice long term success far too often for a chance at just one round of playoff revenue… while praying for more. But I digress.

The day Jacques Martin was hired he and Bob Gainey spoke with the media and some of the quotes really stood out at the time, particularly since the core of the team and 11 players overall still needed to be replaced that summer:

JM: “I believe in a puck-possession game,” – “I think the best defence is if you can play in the offensive zone.”

JM: “I don’t think that I’ve ever been a coach that stifled [a player's] offensive ability,”

JM: “We have the skill level to play [an up-tempo] game, and you’ll see an exciting brand of hockey.”

JM: “When you look at the players who are in the organization, there is a strong nucleus, a strong base, to build a winning team, and I’m really looking forward with excitement to leading this team next year.”

BG: “We needed someone who could look at our young players and help them realize their potential. Jacques fit that description perfectly.”

Twenty nine days after Jacques Martin and Bob Gainey uttered those words and one day before the July 1 free agent feeding frenzy began, Gainey pulled the trigger and traded for Scott Gomez to become the center piece around which Martin’s system would be built. The day after that, Gainey signed UFAs Brian Gionta, Mike Cammalleri, Jaroslav Spacek and Hall Gill, followed soon after by Mathieu Darche, Travis Moen and Paul Mara.

What it really takes to win

To fully comprehend the strategy Martin would use in Montreal and the systems designed to execute that strategy, it’s important to first examine and understand what aspects of the game truly contribute the most towards success.

To do that, I created a composite team made up of the last ten Stanley Cup winners to see what game elements they had in common and where those elements ranked among the 30 NHL teams on average. In short, was there a pattern for success? The resounding answer is yes:

Stanley Cup Winners – Recipe for success

YEAR TEAM DIV G/G GA/G 5-5 FA PP% PK% S/G SA/G FO%
1999-00 NEW JERSEY 2 1 5 6 1 12 1 2 18
2000-01 COLORADO 1 4 4 8 3 19 7 4 7
2001-02 DETROIT 1 14 7 21 9 10 2 9 8
2002-03 NEW JERSEY 1 14 1 4 30 1 2 1 11
2003-04 TAMPA 1 3 11 3 16 10 3 4 16
2005-06 CAROLINA 1 3 19 12 17 19 6 19 5
2006-07 ANAHEIM 1 9 7 7 3 5 7 5 6
2007-08 DETROIT 1 3 1 1 3 8 1 1 1
2008-09 PITSBURGH 2 6 17 6 20 8 18 18 19
2009-10 CHICAGO 1 3 6 4 16 4 1 1 3
10 YEAR RANK AVG 1.2 6 7.8 7.2 11.8 9.6 4.8 6.4 9.4

All things being equal, offense wins Stanley Cups. More specifically, offensive pressure is critical so Jacques Martin is right in that regard. Winning teams need to be top ten in most aspects of the game and while some teams can get by having just one or two elements outside the top 15, teams that implement and execute an attacking style of hockey are rewarded with a Stanley Cup.

For fans who believe that anything can happen once the playoffs start, that marketing department belief system only goes so far as eight of the last ten Cup winners won their division. The two exceptions were New Jersey who finished with the second best record in the East in 1999-2000 and Pittsburgh in 2008-09 who were fourth best. Ranking matters and squeaking into the playoffs rarely gets you past the second round .

Strategic priorities for building a Cup contender

1. Shots on Net – Ranked 4.8

It’s not enough to just throw pucks on net. What matters most is generating a lot of quality shots in a league where good goalies get beaten only about eight per cent of the time. That means bodies screening the front of the net for tips along with second and third chances at loose pucks. Only once in the last ten years has a team (Pittsburgh) not been in the top seven in shots on net and only twice has a team not been top ten in total goals scored.

2. Goals Scored – Ranked 6.0

While defense is important, offense wins hockey games and doing that requires a lot of quality shots as described above. Seven of the last ten Cup winners were top six in goals scored and only twice (Detroit and New Jersey) were outside the top ten, both finishing 14th. Detroit off-set their offensive production the year they won with the seventh best goals against average while New Jersey was the league’s best.

3. Shots Against – Ranked 6.4

No surprise really. A key to winning is preventing opponents from not only generating a lot of shots but quality shots. That means shot-blocking, offensive pressure and face off percentage to gain puck control in the defensive zone. Only twice has a cup winning team (Carolina and Pittsburgh) not been top 10 in allowing the least amount of shots on net.

4. Even Strength Play (5 on 5) ratio – Ranked 7.2

On average, about 65 per cent of a typical NHL game is played 5-on-5 so naturally the bulk of goals are scored at even strength. With less open ice, entering the offensive zone with control of the puck, winning one on one battles on the side boards, corners and behind the net are keys to maintaining possession and generating the offensive pressure Jacques Martin alluded to. Only two Cup winners (Detroit and Carolina) were ranked outside the top 10 and only one, Detroit was ranked (21st) outside the top half of the league. Looking at the goal totals tells the full story on 5-on-5 ratio.

5. Goals Against – Ranked 7.8

The key to fewer goals allowed is fewer quality shots on the goalie which means shot-blocking, forcing teams to the perimeter, having a defense that can move bodies, clear rebounds and allow the goaltender to see the shooter. Seven teams were ranked top 10 and only two (Carolina and Pittsburgh) were ranked (19 & 17) outside the top half of the league. Teams with a higher goals against could off-set with higher goal support, which both Carolina (third) and Pittsburgh (sixth) did the years they won.

6. Face Off Percentage – Ranked 9.4

Establishing puck control matters but it’s not critical. Six teams were ranked top 10 and only Tampa Bay, New Jersey and Pittsburgh were ranked (16,18 and 19) in the bottom half of the league when they won.

7. Penalty Kill Percentage – Ranked 9.6

Given that most goals are scored at even strength, people tend to fixate on the percentages. Still, seven teams were ranked top 10 and just two (Colorado and Carolina both 19th) were ranked in the bottom half of the league. Most Cup contenders have a PK north of 85% so teams who have trouble scoring 5-on-5 must generate more power play opportunities and/or tighten the defence even more to compensate.

8. Power Play Percentage – Ranked 11.8

As with the PK, people tend to focus on the percentages and not the actual number of penalties their system forces other teams to take. Without question, a solid power play can be a difference maker as a 12th best average ranking suggests but ultimately it’s risky to overly rely on the power play to off-set a lack of scoring elsewhere, particularly 5-on-5.

Return tomorrow to All Habs for part two of this article as Habswatch details the impact of Martin’s systems and coaching style.

(AP Photo/The Canadian Press,Graham Hughes)

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5 Enlightened Replies

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  1. Profile photo of CoachK says:

    A wonderful look in what Martin and Gauthier should be considering as they try to get the Habs to the “elite” tier of the NHL. Can’t wait to read the rest tomorrow.

  2. Great analysis, can’t argue with numbers. Carolina stands out to me on that list as a slight exception but overall, guess Cam Ward has a lot to do with that. Safe to say, Habs are far from those numbers.

    Great work Habswatch!

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