If there is one thing Canadiens fans and it’s attendant media agrees upon in this post season it’s the fact that their power play sucked. Big time. And it’s been like that for four years. Since 2011, the only time it’s success rate was better than 19th in the league was the lockout shortened 48-game schedule of 2013. That season aside, it’s league ranking has been 28th, 19th and this past season 23rd.
Naturally, talent plays a part in a successful power play, but coaching has a bigger role. For some reason the Canadiens have been unable to find anyone with the ability to put a reasonably successful system in place.
Everyone has a theory. Marc Bergevin tried to make light of it during his May 15th news conference. “Our power play did struggle. We finished 23rd in the league. In the playoffs we got better. I think we were 16th in the league but there were only 16 teams left.”
POOR POWER PLAY A PLAYOFF DIFFERENCE-MAKER
Actually the Canadiens were 15th out of the 16 playoffs teams with only 2 goals in 36 opportunities over 12 games for 5.6%. In last year’s playoffs the Canadiens scored on 19.7% of their chances, a total of twelve goals. Eight of them came in the seven game Boston series which put the Canadiens into the Eastern Final. We can only imagine where the Canadiens might be right now if they had managed to score as many as eight power play goals this playoff run.
Times have changed over the last five years in the NHL. Shot blocking has become an art form for one thing. But it’s still useful to recall the period between 2005 and 2011 when the Canadiens power play was consistantly near the top of the league.
THE GOOD OLD DAYS
After two years as head coach of the Hamilton Bulldogs, general manager Bob Gainey promoted Doug Jarvis to the Canadiens coaching staff in 2005. Head coach Claude Julien immediately assigned him the power play. Over most of the next four seasons the Canadiens were the most feared team in the league with the man-advantage. His PP units included Kovalev, Koivu, Ryder, Markov and Souray. After finishing fifth in the league in ’05-’06 the Canadiens were number-one two years in a row. In 2006-2007 Sheldon Souray’s 19 power play goals was an NHL record for defensemen. Souray for left for Edmonton via free agency and Mark Streit replaced him and the power play kept kicking it. Then for some still unknown reason Gainey and Jarvis had a falling out and Jarvis’ contract was not renewed. Kirk Muller then was moved up to run the power play. In his toolbox Muller had Plekanec, Gomez, Cammalleri Gionta, Markov plus at various times Roman Hamrlik, Marc-Andre Bergeron and James Wisniewski and things continued to cook. In his two seasons the Canadiens ranked 2nd and 7th.
Muller left to take the AHL Milwaukee head coaching job and things have been downhill since.
And since then, excluding the shortened lockout season the Canadiens PP has ranked 28th, 19th and 23rd.
When asked back in the day, why the Canadiens power play was so successful, Jarvis said, “I tell the guys to shoot the puck; to look for the shot first. We don’t want to make that extra pass. We want to get the puck to the net.”
In the seven years since Jarvis made that statement, things have changed. For one thing, shot blocking has become an art form. Penalty killers are much more aggressive. Passing lanes are hard to find. What made the Canadiens successful between 2005 and 2011 was puck possession. The Canadiens had forward talent that had the ability to cleanly make offensive zone entries, especially Kovalev and Koivu in the Jarvis era; Gomez and Gionta under Muller.
Since then under Jacques Martin and then Michel Therrien the Canadiens have played ‘dump and chase’ which has spilled over into play with the man-advantage. The result is a loss of possession and an equal loss of opportunity.
WHAT LIES AHEAD
To close out the subject during his news conference Bergevin said, “We’ll meet with the coaches… and try to find solutions. I’m not going to point fingers. The hockey decisions are me and Michel. He’s aware of that. I’m aware of that. We’ll move forward.”
Seems easier said than done. Bergeron is on record as being happy with his current coaching staff. Barring an off-season defection, unless he believes there’s a solution in-house, that means finding a specialist. And where do you find this special teams guru? Definitely not in Hamilton or St. John’s. In the three years Sylvain Lefebvre has been Bulldogs head coach his team’s power play has finished last in the league twice and 29th the other season. In 2009-2010, the year Guy Boucher took Hamilton the AHL’s Western Conference final was named coach of the year, he had the league’s sixth ranked power play. Under the self-imposed French language coaching restrictions Boucher, who coached Bern Switzerland last season, seems to be the only apparent candidate. We’re told he was considered for the head coaching job in Toronto before they hired Mike Babcock. There are still a few teams looking for a head coach and Boucher’s name remains out there. I wasn’t a big fan of some of the stuff Bucher pulled while coaching Tampa Bay but he is an imaginative guy and that’s something sorely lacking over the last four years.