Rabid Habs

Parity In The NHL

Habs' David Desharnais

As NHL playoff races continue to tighten, I find myself checking the league standings with greater frequency. With 3 games remaining, there exists the possibility of 6 different first round opponents for the Habs; Ottawa, Boston, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Islanders or Capitals. The fact that there remains such uncertainty raises the question; has there ever been such parity in the NHL? Consider this:

  • Excluding the strike shortened season in 2012-13, the average number of points required to qualify for the postseason (since 1998) in the Eastern Conference was 90.07. This year, that number could be as high as 101. To add context, 83 points was enough to secure a postseason birth in 2000.
  • This season, there are 12 playoff teams within 9 points of each other (Eastern and Western Conferences combined)
  • 15 points currently separate the team with the highest number of points (107) from the 18th place club (92). To put that in context, 37 points separated the 1st and 18th place teams in 1998-99. As recently as last year, those same parameters resulted in a 28 point divide.

In summary, more games are going to overtime, more teams are being awarded with the OTL point and, as a result, the standings have become more compressed.

So, what does this mean? Respectfully, I believe there are more teams with a realistic chance of winning the Stanley Cup this season than at any point in the last 15 years. As poorly as Montreal has played during the last 15 games, the Canadiens remain a team with potential. In fact, I would not be surprised if they were swept in the first round, nor would I be surprised if they beat the Rangers in the Eastern Conference Final. I am not sure if “get in and see what happens” has ever had the potential to be so true. Hockey can look to baseball as an example of a professional league where teams squeak into the postseason and enjoy playoff success. Could this season provide hockey’s version of San Francisco vs Kansas City? Time will tell. What I do believe we are seeing is the outcome of games hinging on critical components, namely special teams and goaltending. Yes, it’s true that Boston and LA are both recent examples of teams to have won Stanley Cups without strong power plays. However, those teams were much more complete than many of the teams this season. The salary cap has helped to introduce further parity and teams no longer have the luxury of carrying $4+ million dollar players on the 4th line. With the possible exception of Chicago (at full health), I don’t believe there is a team who can win without great goaltending and strong special teams. What success the Canadiens hope to enjoy this season, must come at the hands of Carey Price and a PP lineup that must feature the team’s best players.

The regular season is a time for experimentation. However, in Montreal, despite the team struggling to find any kind of consistent pressure on the PP, let alone results, the organization has chosen to continue to play the same players, in the same position. Despite having recorded 85 shots on goal, David Desharnais remains a fixture on the man advantage. To put that number in perspective, 359 other NHL players have more shots on goal this season, including many fourth liners (Cody McLeod is but one example). If the Canadiens have any hope in the playoffs, the lineup must be adjusted to properly distribute ice time among those players with the best chance of driving results. I think Desharnais offers value as our third line centre. I believe, if aligned with capable wingers, he can help create offensive balance deeper within our lineup. It will be important to get him away from the opposition’s best centres (top 6) and allow him to exploit a match up on the third line. One or two personnel moves could ultimately decide the fate of this team and the redeployment of Desharnais could be a game changer. In games so closely contested, the coach will also be a pivotal factor going forward. Coach Therrien will need to develop a game plan and adjust to his opposition as effectively as he did against Boston last year. Making this key adjustment, would help force our opposition to counter as opposed to the Canadiens waiting to adjust to the strengths of the opponent.

In closing, this season is not to be written off. Although some might think that believing in this edition of the Montreal Canadiens is akin to a membership in the flat earth society, I still believe that the team has the pieces in place to go on a run. A team with Price, Subban, Markov, Pacioretty, Plekanec plus the supporting cast is capable of beating anyone in the East. Montreal is healthy and they have depth beyond that of any other eastern conference team. So, it’s hurry up and wait for the playoffs to start. None of the remaining three Habs games hold the ability to greatly impact playoff positioning, so the focus shifts to personnel adjustments and staying healthy. As a reminder, the 1992-93 Canadiens went on a 17-4-1 run, before slumping to finish the season with 7 wins in their final 18 games. Following 2 losses in Quebec City, something clicked and magic ensued. This isn’t the spring of 1993, but it’s a reminder that anything can happen.