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

| February 11, 2011

We present the second part of Habswatch‘s in-depth look at Jacques Martin’s strategy and systems.  Today, the coach’s career record and personal philosophy for success are examined with a eye towards their impact on the performance of the Canadiens.

If you missed part one of the series, you can find it here.


by HabsWatch, Special to AllHabs.net

What Jacques Martin thinks it takes to win

Now that we’ve seen what game elements winning teams stress the most, it’s time to take a cold, hard look at Jacques Martin. To do that, I looked back at his last 10 years of coaching prior to Montreal, looked at how his teams performed the year after he stopped coaching them and how Martin has fared in Montreal after getting a clean slate of players to execute his system:

Jacques Martin coaching record

YEAR TEAM DIV WINS G/G GA/G 5-5 FA PP% PK% S/G SA/G FO%
1997-98 OTTAWA 5 34 24 9 21 21 17 3 5 22
1998-99 OTTAWA 1 44 5 3 5 15 8 3 5 22
1999-00 OTTAWA 2 41 6 10 14 12 4 3 3 14
2000-01 OTTAWA 1 48 3 9 11 10 3 4 16 21
2001-02 OTTAWA 3 39 5 14 11 10 17 3 10 15
2002-03 OTTAWA 1 52 3 5 5 2 10 6 3 26
2003-04 OTTAWA 3 43 1 8 1 1 18 6 3 27
2005-06 OTTAWA** 1 52 1 2 1 4 4 1 7 12
2005-06 FLORIDA 4 37 21 16 9 24 14 3 29 8
2006-07 FLORIDA 4 35 11 21 12 13 16 2 15 25
2007-08 FLORIDA 3 38 20 14 20 6 16 4 29 23
2008-09 FLORIDA** 3 41 17 10 11 24 9 15 30 24
2009-10 MONTREAL 4 39 26 13 22 2 12 25 26 16
2010-11 MONTREAL *46 *25 *6 *9 *12 *5 *5 *15 *18
10 YEAR RANK AVG 2.5 42.1 9.1 10.1 10.0 10.7 11.5 3.5 11.4 19.5

* Pace & ranking after 54 games ** Team performance without Martin as Coach

Ottawa

Excluding his first year in Ottawa, the entire time Martin coached the Senators they were a puck-possession team capable of sustained offensive pressure. Lots of quality shots producing enough chances to be a top six offense and generally a top 10 club 5-on-5. The Achilles heel of all those Senators teams was primarily in goal where the weak save percentages carried into the playoffs in five of seven playoff appearances under Martin. There are valid concerns that he appeared to have difficulty adapting to changing conditions under pressure in the playoffs but that’s hard to quantify.

What can’t be ignored is the fact the Senators got better the after Martin left. Their offense went up and their goals against went down relative to the rest of the league in a post-lockout season that saw the average number of power play opportunities per team jump by about 100. Most telling was the goal differential widened by 30 over Martin’s last season, helped in large part by even more offensive pressure generated by 5-on-5 goal scoring that went from fourth to second best. So, for as good as the Senators were under Martin, one has legitimate reason to question if he was actually holding them back.

Florida

When Martin went behind the bench in Florida he altered his system to compensate for fewer offensive players capable of playing solid, two-way hockey. His strategy became more passive and while 5-on-5 goal scoring benefited from a group of big forwards who could and did capitalize on a volume of low percentage, perimeter shots the Panthers 5-on-5 ratio fell every year Martin was coach.

Where his system ultimately failed was the passive system he implemented just didn’t force teams to take enough penalties. In fact, the number of power play opportunities dropped every year he coached the Panthers, ranking them 30th, 30th and 29th, effectively wasting an improving power play percentage that was 24th, 13th and 6th during his tenure. And yet again, after Martin stopped coaching the team improved. More wins, more goals, fewer goals against and much better 5-on-5 goal scoring that jumped back up to sixth best in the league.

Montreal

Jacques Martin had a full month of meetings with Gainey, Gauthier and their pro scouts to have a say on which number one center the team would target to anchor his system and which players would best complement the puck-possession, best defense is good offense mantra he spoke about when the Canadiens signed him to a four year contract to coach the Habs.

Trouble is, Martin brought the Florida system to Montreal, not Ottawa’s which he alluded to in quotes to the media the day he was hired and ultimately, it’s costing the Canadiens wins and a higher playoff ranking. As I described in the composite Stanley Cup winning team, defense does matter and that’s all well and good but it cannot come at the expense of offense.

People may point to the wins, currently tied for sixth in the NHL as proof-positive that Martins system works. It’s not. Had it not been for Carey Price not only bouncing back this season but being a top 10 goalie in the NHL and top five for the first quarter of the year, the 25th ranked offense would only be good enough for 10-12th in the standings.

Martins system costs wins

Simply put, if Carey Price was just good this team would be just a few points away from a draft lottery pick, the exact same place they were last year as trade deadline day approached and the primary reason is an over-commitment to defense at the expense of offense, and it’s costing the Habs wins.

Despite more victories this year, the Habs are on pace to score just one more goal than last season which ranked their offense 26th. This season that puts their offense 24th and no team currently holds a playoff spot with fewer goals scored.

Martin didn’t or couldn’t install a puck-possession system in Montreal and part of that is a lack of sizable players who can win enough puck battles along the boards to retain possession and maintain pressure in the offensive zone, especially in front of the net and in the slot.

Even strength play matters

The Habs are ranked ninth in 5-on-5 ratio but sit 24th in actually scoring goals 5-on-5. Again, goaltending and defense have elevated the ratio and masked the inability to score goals at even strength where 65 per cent of the game is played and where a full two thirds of all goals are scored.

To fully appreciate the situation, it helps to comprehend what Carey Price said recently about how it’s easy for him to play goal when the team is able for force shooters to the perimeter. Indeed it is. The Habs sixth ranked goals against average has limited opponents to an average of just eight scoring chances per game from the front of the net or slot.

Not only are the Canadiens also being limited to just eight scoring chances from the same piece of real estate, it’s taken 20 per cent more shots from the perimeter to get those prime chances. In short, opposing teams are doing a far better job forcing the Habs to the outside than their own sixth ranked defense, to the point where 72 per cent of their shots are low percentage attempts. In contrast, the Carey Price is pleased 64 per cent of the shots he faces come from the perimeter.

The lack of a sustained volume of quality shots 5-on-5 has ultimately hurt the Habs and part of reason is too many peripheral players and too few who are big or mobile enough to win board battles and go to the net and stay there. Beyond Max Pacioretty, the only other player willing to regularly park himself in front of the net is 34-year old Mathieu Darche, who gets just eleven minutes of ice time per game. Players like Gionta will dart in and out for rebounds and tips but they can’t stay in the paint or block the view of opposing goaltenders.

Chris Nilan spoke on-air with Team 990’s Mitch Melnick on Thursday before the Canadiens hosted the Islanders and had this to say about the Habs 5-on-5 play:

“With a team like that… again with its smaller guys, and the premium guys like that, Gionta, Gomez, Cammalleri… guys like that, you definitely have to have a cast of characters around there that could protect them and be there and play a physical game, not only to protect them and to be there for them but so you can score goals 5-on-5. They can’t score goals 5-on-5 because they don’t have the size.

You know, if they score off the rush, fine but they’re not going to score off the dump and regain control of the puck and then make plays at the net. It’s just not going to happen, it’s not going to happen. The odd time it will. You know, they might get lucky, there could be a defensive breakdown in the offensive zone by the defensive team.”

Passive offense negatively impacts the power play

Because Martin’s Habs are being forced to the perimeter, unlike his teams in Ottawa and Florida, his current system of a passive offense based on transition and turnovers has exposed it’s key weakness. That style of play doesn’t force opposing teams into taking a lot of penalties, particularly hooking, holding and tripping calls that a pressure game forces opponents to take more often. The Canadiens currently rank 18th in total power play opportunities and are on pace for 291, a 30 PP improvement over last year’s 30th ranked team so while there’s been some progress, it’s not nearly enough to compensate for the lack of production 5-on-5.

If Jacques Martin won’t or can’t alter his system to increase 5-on-5 goal scoring and force teams into taking enough penalties to make them top 10 in PP opportunities, the stress on Carey Price and the defense to squeeze more blood from the stone and tighten up even more is an unrealistic expectation. It also shifts far too much responsibility onto the power play to make up the difference against Cup contending teams who on average limit opposing teams to a 15 per cent success rate, or worse.

One can’t help but notice the attacking style Guy Boucher has implemented in Tampa Bay has forced opponents into giving the Lightning the second most power play opportunities in the NHL while being able to capitalize on the volume of chances to be ranked third in PP goals scored.  Even their 5-on-5 play has steadily improved once they found a goalie who could stop a beach ball.

That said, Jacques Martin does deserve a sizable chunk of credit for the defensive play of the Habs but his over-commitment to that aspect of the game has negatively impacted the Canadiens ability to generate offense and ultimately that has and will cost them wins, turning the Stanley Cup winning recipe upside down in the process.

(AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Ryan Remiorz)

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  1. brandon says:

    Wow great insight.. Everybody should read this to understand that either he’s gotta change it up, or find someone who will. Great Piece

  2. Great stuff Habswatch. Had never really thought about it this way, but after reading your article(s), it’s evident that their lack of sustained offense is the primary reason they are unable to increase their total number of power plays. When you constantly play on defense and are chasing your opponent, well, it’s the perfect recipe for the invert effect of putting your opponent on the power play rather then yourself.

    Great work!

  3. Avatar of HabsWatch HabsWatch says:

    Thank you all for the positive comments!

  4. Wamsley says:

    It isn’t exactly fair to say the Sens vastly improved after he left. Sure the numbers point that out from 04 to 06, but what about 03 to 06?

    Those numbers favor no discernible change and Martin was 2 minutes away from playing for a Stanley Cup championship with Lalime in goal.

    The Panthers numbers? The difference is negligible in 08 and 09. Nothing you can definitively pin on a coach.

    I don’t understand crediting Price for saving this team and then essentially point out that he is facing lower quality opportunities. Opportunities that are lacking because of Martin.

    Maybe if Montreal had Stamkos, Lecavalier and St. Louis we would be seeing a more open system like Boucher is running, outside of that I don’t think it has any relevance. Martin has proven in the past when he has the horses he will let them run. 6 times the Sens ranked in the top 6 in goals, 7 times in the top 5 in shots on goal and 3 times in the top 5 for 5 on 5 play.

    I just don’t see how this definitively proves that he is costing this team success. Is 6th place in the east without Markov all season where you thought they would be? This team is playing without there top 2 offensive players and their highest paid players (outside of Plekanec) are having poor years. Poor coaching?

    You lead the audience with “can’t make adjustments for poor goaltending” then use “hard to quantify”. If it can’t be quantified, leave it out because that has zero basis outside of leading the reader towards your conclusion. You compared 04 to 06 even though you know that scoring was up league wide. A comparison to the mean would create a more fair assessment. You ignore 03 when Martins team was as dominant as 06.

    I just don’t think your argument proves anything except to people who dislike Martin.

  5. HabWatch says:

    Wamsley,

    I never said the Sens got vastly better after Martin left. I said they got better and they did just as I described.

    As for his Florida years with fewer offensive weapons, Martin became more passive. 5-on-5 goal scoring was solid but their ratio 5-on-5 fell every year he coached the Panthers and they also drew fewer penalties every year. Fact. Basically, less offense coming from fewer opportunities being generated.

    I’ve credited Martin for improving the defense in Montreal but with the offense barely above sea-level, the team will struggle badly if Price and the D can’t maintain their solid pace.

    There’s just no room for error and the stress on goaltenders who know game in and game out that any mistake will likely cost them the game cannot be ignored. Without Price being All-World in Oct & Nov this team would be 10-12th with more goals allowed than scored. There’s no way one could expect that performance to be sustained for long.

    This past off-season there was an opportunity to address the lack of 5-on-5 production which was primarily coming from being denied time and space in the middle of the ice and in front of the net. As I said, opposing teams have and are doing a much better job pushing the Habs to the outside.

    Same thing happened last year yet there were no tangible changes among the players who log the most minutes that are depended upon to score.

    Nobody knows if Martin can’t (Personnel) or won’t (Ego) change to be more successful in the middle of the ice 5-on-5 in order to score more and create more PP opportunities but the longer we go with no corrective action, the more obvious it becomes that Martin truly believes he can win, his way. The jury is out on that one.

    Meanwhile, the evidence is overwhelming that offense ultimately trumps defense, at least for teams that actually win Stanley Cups.

    As for this statement -> You lead the audience with “can’t make adjustments for poor goaltending”

    I didn’t actually say that either.

    Cheers

  6. Jordan says:

    As soon as you said defense can’t come at the expense of offense you completely lost all credibility to me. In my 12 years playing hockey, my 3 years coaching, and a lifetime of watching, I’ve never heard of any coach, no matter how offensively minded they are, tell them to be offensive even at the expense of defense. Everything starts from the goal out. Good defense will lead to offensive opportunities. “Defense wins hockey games” is the quote I’ve heard all my life.

    This whole article reads more like an “I hate Martin” article rather than anything credible to me, no matter how many stats you throw in there.

  7. HabsWatch says:

    Jordan,

    Seems you didn’t really look at the stats I provided. Based on the last 10 Stanley Cup winners, only two had a goals against average outside the top 15 and seven were top 10. Defense IS very important.

    What’s more important is offensive pressure. A volume of quality shots, even strength play where 2/3 of the game is played and goal scoring. 8 Cup winners were top 10 and 6 were top 5 in goals scored.

    To win, teams must be solid both offensively and defensively but scoring is the difference maker. Simple as that.

    Cheers.

  8. Verge says:

    This will sound egotistical, so please allow me to apologize in advance, but I was just saying this to a Hawks fan friend of mine. I didn’t have all the numbers, but it’s relatively easy to see that the Habs need a lot more offense overall. They are MUCH too reliant on Price and Subban at this point.

    I pointed out to my friend that Grant Fuhr’s numbers are pretty darn average, yet the Oilers won five Stanley Cups back in the day. Let’s face it; they didn’t have to play as much defense, because they had a GREAT offense (no pun intended, seriously).

    Thanks for the analysis! I am sending my friend a link to this article.

    One note; I don’t think it’s necessarily size, but strength and temerity that matter the most, as well as skill, of course. As you say, you need someone to dig out those corner shots, etc., but you also need someone who can think and play highly skilled hockey. Rocket Richard weighed a little over 160 for the entire early part of his career, but he was tough as nails!

    Thanks again!

  9. HabsWatch says:

    Verge,

    Thanks for the comments and recommendation. By size I mean functional size, to be able to drive the net and STAY there for screens, tips and rebounds. Smaller players with the heart and willingness to pay the price in front of the net are far more valuable than bigger players who aren’t willing to play in the dirty areas. The Canadiens just don’t have enough top 9 players willing or capable of maintaining position in front of opposing goaltenders.

    Currently, the Habs typically time their drive to the net with the arrival of the puck but are brutal converting on second chances because the opposition D has a relatively easy job clearing the crease after the initial attempt.

    You need solid defense to have a shot at winning but ultimately, teams that can generate more offense, especially at even strength tend to go deeper in the playoffs. Any system that over-emphasizes defense at the expense of offensive pressure hasn’t won a Stanley Cup in more than a decade.

    Cheers!

    • Verge says:

      I agree.

      Sent your article to my friend. Haven’t seen a response yet…

      I’m an engineer, so I respect your data-based analysis. Can’t handle analyses that don’t have numbers to back them up; in my mind, and in my profession, they are literally useless!

      Thanks again. I’m glad that I stumbled upon this blog. I am loving it!

  10. HabsWatch says:

    Verge,

    Thank you very much for the feedback. I believe in looking at stats in context to better understand a situation. I’ve done a series of articles to examine some of the most common misconceptions in hockey today, some of which I’ve written for All_Habs so if your interested in checking them out, just click on the web link attached to my login name or go to http://www.habswatch.com

    All_Habs is a great focal point for Habs stories and article I’ve written for them also appears on my site, with links to where they originally appeared here.

    Hope you find some of it interesting :)