Montreal is winning with mix of old ways and new (Trending Topics)

Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images
Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images

Ask any NHL fan the reason the Montreal Canadiens were any good last season. The answer is going to basically begin and end with “Carey Price was incredible.”

Ask any NHL fan the reason the Montreal Canadiens are off to one of the hottest starts in NHL history this season. The answer is a lot more complicated.

Last year the Habs were abysmal in a lot of ways. They were 10th-worst in score-adjusted possession, were tied for 20th in share of high-danger chances, were pretty inefficient at getting what few attempts they did make in the attacking zone (10th-worst in CF/60) actually on the goal (13th-worst), and gave up the eighth-most attempts per 60 in the league to boot. And yet because Price was basically lights-out every single night, the Habs finished with 110 points (second-most in the league) and 43 wins in regulation or overtime (tied for third). Pretty tough to lose when you only concede 189 goals in 82 games, even if you give up as many shots as Montreal did (a 20th-in-the-NHL 2,470).

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So they looked like a hell of a candidate for some serious regression, even if Carey Price continued to stand on his head, which at the very least didn't seem as though it would be out of the question. That's not to say that Montreal didn't improve in the offseason, because they certainly did. Adding guys like Jeff Petry for a full season, Alex Semin, and Tomas Fleischmann should always help your team on some level. But they didn't improve so much that “being among the best teams in the league again” seemed like a realistic prediction to make.

And yet here we are, with the Canadiens having enjoyed nine wins in their first 11 games, the best record in the league by far, and so on. Not even getting fed by the Vancouver Canucks the other night was enough to dampen anyone's spirits.

The big reason why? Montreal has entirely changed its approach while keeping together a talented (but previously misused and miscast) group of players, adding to that group, and also, hey, still getting extremely lucky.

And when you say “lucky,” that in fact includes the performance of Carey Price, who is not only playing at the same high level observed last year, but actually improving on it. The team's 5-on-5 save percentage last season was an incredibly impressive .935. So far this year, it's .952 prior to Thursday night's loss in Edmonton. That's going to win you plenty of extra games — Montreal has allowed just 11 goals in 10 games at full strength — even if the offense still isn't as good as it perhaps should be; luck factors in here, too, because the team is shooting 8.4 percent at 5-on-5, 11th in the league ahead of Thursday's games.

Also luck? Montreal's schedule has been pretty easy to this point. Toronto, Boston (when Boston was dreadful), Ottawa, Pittsburgh, New York, Detroit, St. Louis, Buffalo, Toronto again, and then Vancouver. Lots of Ws that you're not exactly going to have to work all that hard for mixed in there, though obviously a few of those teams can give anyone a game. Still, it's not a swing through the Central on the road.

However, even beyond that, and judged on a purely foundational basis, the Habs are so much better now than they were last season, specifically in their own zone. They've reduced high-danger chances against per 60 minutes by more than 11 percent, cut shot attempts against by 6 percent, and cut goals against by 26 percent (though obviously that number has a lot more to do with save percentage than anything else). This comes, however, as they're starting more shifts in their own zone, which really tells you something about how they've changed their approach.

And if you need eye-test support for the numbers, you get it any time you watch a Habs game. They carry the puck in far more often than they did last season, when chip-and-chase was the name of the game. They're also getting a lot better at making sound first passes to re-establish possession when they get the puck in their own zone after long bouts of defending (which they still do too often). The old statistic is that if you carry the puck into the attacking zone, you're going to generate twice as many shot attempts on that possession than a possession in which you dump it in.

Player-tracking from Sportlogiq supports that this is what Montreal is doing, and almost certainly why it is therefore dominating opponents to the tune of 53 percent score-adjusted corsi. As of a few days ago, Montreal led the league in percentage of controlled zone entries at more than 54 percent. Second-place Florida was at just 51.5 percent. Controlled entries help you get more shot attempts which tends to get you more shots on goal which tends to get you more goals, usually because you're getting those attempts and shots from in closer to the goaltender, and often with more traffic. It's generally easier to score on the rush than the cycle, but if the second-best controlled-entry team in the league is getting into the attacking zone with the puck on its stick just 51.5 percent of the time, you quickly come to understand that it's a very difficult thing to do with regularity. Any edge here can therefore make a major difference.

That's not to say that it's all sunshine and roses for the Habs, because obviously no one keeps up a .900 winning percentage. And more to the point, there are still issues here that the team will need to address. For one thing, it is allowing more shots to get through to Price on fewer attempts (73 percent, up from about 71.7 percent last season), though it must be said once again that they've cut the high-danger chances per 60 considerably so far this season, so they are at least of a somewhat middling or even low quality.

But still, they continue to spend more time defending than they'd probably like, and a big reason for that is also found in the Sportlogiq data: They are simply content to dump the puck out of their own zone more than they should. They, in fact, have the one of the worst controlled-exit rates in the league (that data as of Oct. 25) despite the fact that they're excellent at doing it when they try.

Doesn't make a whole hell of a lot of sense, but maybe that's just Michel Therrien still not being as good as he should be, and certainly thinks he is, at his job. If you try something conducive to winning — that is, holding onto the puck as much as possible in all areas of the ice — and find you're good at it, you should perhaps keep doing it, but one wonders if score effects creep into strategies here as well.

The Habs are so often in the lead this season — by my count, it's 60:27 trailing, 190:02 tied, and 349:31 leading in all situations through 10 games — that they have no real impetus to drive them to necessarily “need” the puck out of their zone, other than the sheer bloody-mindedness of the exercise of keeping the puck away from their opponents. But this is the time of year to form good habits, and if you want to whale on division opponents and other teams in the East, then frankly, more power to you. It probably doesn't help to take your foot off the gas, especially if this is a new system and everyone should be really settling into it at this point.

It's hard to base too many predictions for the remainder of the season on the results of just 10 games, but the Canadiens really do seem to have completely changed their approach to the game overall, and if these patterns continue will be far less reliant on Price basically doing enough to win every trophy available to him. Which is a good thing, because as great as Price is, the Habs gambled a lot last season on some pretty slim odds, and just happened to come out ahead.

This season, they're doing plenty to get the odds in their favor. Having Price continue to be world-beating helps too.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

All stats via War on Ice unless otherwise stated.