Monday, October 24, 2011

Fundamentally Flawed?

You know, usually I am one to preach more calm than panic. And, you know what, having a team you watch play a sport win or lose probably shouldn't elicit such violent reaction anyway. But 7 games into a season, I wanted to suggest that perhaps those that have been calling for the most drastic action after losses may in fact have a point.

I've heard keep calm and carry on many times over since that opening shutout. While I don't disagree (I still highly recommend having the results of contests you can't control occupy the right strata in your life), I am starting to find that throwaway line as naive as the "fire the coach" that comes out after a line is broken up.

You see, the problem with the "don't worry, it's early" approach to things is that it assumes that a) this is a beginning and b) that we haven't seen enough. Of course, we know this isn't true. The Canadiens didn't shoot up from the ground in September, nor did this edition of the team. The group is largely the same one that we watched a few months ago and most of the core elements are the same as the team that we have been watching now for 2+ years.

And while it's true that this team has been a winner (at least in the sense it's won more than it's lost), we also know that at critical times it has shown itself to be lacking.

So if your concern is solely rooted in whether this team will ever win a game again this season. Then by all means, please subscribe to the "keep calm" mantra. They will simply because every team encounters teams that play worse than them sometimes, not matter how flawed an approach.

But, if like me, your primary concern is whether the team actually has a chance to win the singularly important game that can only happen in June (and win enough in order to get there) then perhaps we should be more concerned with some of the demonstrable traits of past teams found lacking showing up in this one.

Let me explain.

I think the team has a pretty fundamental flaw relative to its rivals and I see it and feel it as I watch our opponents' approaches to games as they contrast with that of our Habs.

Some would say it's that the team can't score, but I don't think that's subtle enough. What I am starting to think it is, is that the team cannot devise a way to play when they are behind. It goes beyond scoring (though that's obviously the chief symptom), it goes to choosing where to attack knowing when to change, holding onto any momentum, even clearing a zone.

And let's not get into a silly argument about the word "cannot". I don't mean in absolute terms, I mean that relative to their rivals and especially relative to those teams we can recognise as true contenders, they fall well short.

I wrote about this last year (To Watch Beyond Goal 1?), but I've since beefed up the piece with some research with depth to it.

Take this set for example:

Record after trailing first



This is the combined record of the Habs since the true new beginning of the summer of 2009 when they got new personnel all over the ice and a new coach. This is not to say they were a good comeback team before that point (they weren't really), but just to identify a logical point where I can stop compiling.

27th in a 30 team league (CBJ is better if you look) and not exactly in the best company down there, though at least those teams got their draft picks. The telling thing really is the gap between the Canadiens and the better teams in the league over this time.

Washington over the same period actually achieved what most would consider a record above 0.500 from trailing first and several key teams got points from more than half of those contests (Detroit, San Jose, Pittsburgh). The other teams that we might consider elite from this span like Vancouver and Chicago are right near the top of this pile as well.

The Habs by contrast got points in only about a third of the contest in which they fell behind first to put themselves in the company of the lottery crew.

If you want some encouragement, you will notice that at least unlike the Bruins, the Habs have made a habit of scoring first more often than not over this two-plus year period. So perhaps their record when scoring first (setting the table themselves) makes up for their other shortcoming.


Record after scoring first




To this I'd say, the team has done well. It's good to score first more often than not, and it's very good to win more than 70% of those games in which you do that. But as we can see from the list, the team is not exactly setting NHL records with the early leads. They have been the 11thish best team over the span and in a group of teams around the same level.

We know from having had to eat a lot of fingernails in recent springs that the team hasn't offset one shortcoming with an enormous strength.


In wanting to create some composite of this, I landed on a simple quotient.

Difference in winning percentage Scoring and Trailing 1st




It's probably not that useful, but it does seem to highlight a few points.

For one thing, St. Louis is weird.

For another, 2 generally seems to be a number that you'd rather be under than over in this case. Boston and Vancouver hover at that level, but being well to one side of 2.00 like the Habs are seems to mean something entirely different from being on the other side if you take association to mean anything.


One way to win, lots of ways to lose


Last night marked the fourth time this season that the team has scored first. It was the third loss from ahead. If you combine this misfortune with what I think is amounting to a pretty hefty trend showing plenty of writer's block within the comeback thinktank then I do think there's proper reason for a sensible amount of concern.

Time will tell certainly, and when I wrote my piece last season, the team answered with "Nothing but comebacks" January.

Still, when I am looking for the evidence that come April I won't be rocking back and forth hoping for a goal I have a good feeling will never come to preserve a season, I would take comfort in getting a glimpse of that evidence this month.

I don't recommend you fans change anything about your routine or your belief in the team, but I do hope that those who do this for their living (any coach, ahem) has a little look into this phenomenon. If they can spare the time.

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