The Eye On Hockey staff gets you ready for the NHL season by looking at some of the more interesting teams and storylines in the league for 2015-16. Next up, we take a look at the Montreal Canadiens who are relying too much on Carey Price to win every game for them.
He not only ended up leading the NHL in save percentage and goals against average, he also won pretty much every major award he could possibly win by taking home the Hart Trophy (league MVP), Vezina Trophy (best goalie), Ted Lindsay Award (most outstanding player as voted by the players) and the William Jennings Trophy (playing for team with fewest goals allowed). He became just the second goalie in league history -- joining only Hall of Famer Dominik Hasek -- to win the Hart, Lindsay, and Vezina in the same season, while he is the only goalie to win all three, plus the Jennings.
He was not only one of the top players in the entire NHL, he was probably the single biggest reason the Canadiens not only finished with 110 points in the standings -- a result that sent them into the playoffs as a favorite in the Eastern Conference -- but also perhaps the single biggest reason they even made the playoffs.
No team in the NHL this past season relied on its goaltender to carry them as much as the Canadiens did, and if they have any hope of taking the next step and becoming a Stanley Cup team during Price's prime years they're going to need to make sure they do more to help him out.
Goaltending can be the make-or-break ingredient for a team in the NHL. We saw the impact a bad goaltending performance can have on an otherwise good team when the Minnesota Wild slumped through the first half of the season. In Montreal, we saw the impact a great goaltending performance can have on what probably a very average team.
But for as great as Price is, it can't all be about him.
1. Carey Price bailed out a bad offense in 2014-15
When it comes to the Canadiens' offense the numbers speak for themselves.
They were simply were not very good. They finished 20th in the league in goals scored, 25th in shots on goal, and 22nd on the power play. They did all of this while being a supposedly strong defensive team that allowed the 10th most shots (more than 30 per game) in the league and were the second-worst playoff team in terms of 5-on-5 shot attempt differential (the only team that made the playoffs that was worse than them: Their first-round opponent, the Ottawa Senators).
They were just one of eight teams that finished the season in the bottom-10 in shots on goal and shots against. They were the only one of those teams to make the playoffs, while the other seven in that group were among the worst teams in the NHL (Colorado, Columbus, Philadelphia, New Jersey, Arizona, Toronto and Buffalo).
By almost every objective measure they should have been significantly worse than their final record.
So how did they end up being so good? Because this guy won all of these awards...
To get a full understanding for just how important Price was to the Canadiens' success, just consider the number of points they were able to pile up in the standings when their offense provided them with no more than two goals in a single game. That is omething that happened 40(!) times during the season, 10th most in the NHL and more than any other team that made the playoffs.
In those games, even with a stunning lack of goal scoring support, the Canadiens still managed a points percentage of .425 with a 14-20-6 record. That's actually a ton of wins given the offensive production, especially when you consider that no team in the NHL won more games when scoring two goals or less.
The league average was only .271 in such games.
If the Canadiens had simply been an "average" team in those games in terms of the points they earned, getting only 27 percent of the 80 possible points in the standings, that would have resulted in them going from the 110-point team that they were, to a 97-point team that would have been a fringe playoff team. They would have gone from facing the Ottawa Senators in the first round, to potentially facing the Presidents' Trophy winning New York Rangers, if they even made the playoffs at all.
Their success in those games was tied entirely to Price.
They were an almost unbelievable 12-14-5 in the games he started and scored no more than two goals (a .467 points percentage). In the games he didn't start where they scored no more than two goals, they were just 2-6-1 (a .277 points percentage, right at the league average).
If a team is only going to score two goals in half of its games, it better have a damn good goalie if it has any hope of making the playoffs.
Fortunately for the Canadiens, they did.
There is just one problem for them in 2015-16.
2. Carey Price probably won't be this dominant again
Given the season he just had and the hardware he collected it's hard to argue that Price isn't the best goalie in the world right now. And if he's not, the list of players ahead of him is an extremely short one. And even though projecting future goaltending performance is an often times impossible and frustrating task, Price seems to be one of the few exceptions that you should be able to count on for consistently strong play on a year-to-year basis.
But he's probably not going to continue to play at the superhuman level we saw this past season, simply because no goalie should be expected to be that dominant, for that long. It's an unrealistic expectation. He simply set the bar so high that it's going to be nearly impossible to reach it again.
Since the NHL started keeping track of save percentage as an official stat, Price's performance in 2014-15 was just the ninth time that a goalie appeared in at least 50 games and finished with a save percentage higher than .930. In the previous eight examples the performance dropped to an average of .917 the following year.
Even if Price's performance drops down to something like .920 or .925 -- which would still probably be among the best in the league -- and the Canadiens still give up more than 30 shots per game as they did this past season, you're looking at an additional 15-20 goals against over 60 games.
If their offense doesn't get any better, that could make a pretty significant difference in where they finish in the standings and the type of matchup they potentially get early in the playoffs.
3. The Canadiens' offense can -- and should -- be better
The thing about Montreal's offense is that it does have some talent on this roster. It's not going to be Dallas, or Pittsburgh, or Chicago when it comes to scoring, but it also shouldn't be near the bottom of the NHL, either.
P.K. Subban is one of the very best players in the NHL along the blue line and makes an impact all over the ice, while Max Pacioretty is one of the top goal scorers in the league. When you add guys like Tomas Plekanec, Brendan Gallagher, and a player with the upside of Alex Galchenyuk to that core they should be able to be a reasonably dangerous team offensively.
But they're not.
A lot of this might come down to the system under coach Michel Therrien, and there is very good reason to believe that they might have a limit as to how far they can go playing this particular style of hockey. Therrien has a lot of strong qualities as a coach, especially when it comes to defensive zone play. But the system can at times be so suffocating that it ends up being a negative because it takes away the team's ability to create offense.
It happened during his time in Pittsburgh. It might be happening here.
No matter how good a team is defensively or in net, it still has to be able to score goals to win a championship. Only five of the past 25 Stanley Cup winning teams finished that season lower than 10th in the league in goals scored, while only three finished lower than 15th and only two (the two recent Los Angeles Kings' teams) were lower than 20th.
Seventeen of them were in the top-six.
The Canadiens did take some steps this offseason to help improve their offense. Trading Brandon Prust for Zack Kassian will give them a big, physical presence at the bottom of their lineup that still has the potential to contribute more offensively than Prust did.
They also took a chance on free agent forward Alexander Semin, signing him to a one-year contract that carries very little risk with the potential for a big reward.
But whether the improvement comes from within and a bit more aggresiveness with the puck, or from players coming from outside the organization, the Canadiens have to be better offensively and stop relying on Carey Price to win every game for them by himself.
Just because you have the best goalie on the planet doesn't mean you have to put all of the pressure on him.