Did Marc Bergevin use Analytics to Build His Unconventional D-Core?

On behalf of the Hot Sauce family, our condolesnces to David Pastrnak, his wife Rebecca Rohlsson and their families

Against all odds the Montreal Canadiens are set to take on the Tampa Bay Lightning tonight in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals. If someone had come back from the future to tell you that this would be your 2021 final, the large majority of people would probably only believe the latter half of this statement. Hockey isn’t won on paper because this isn’t a math test, the Canadiens run to the cup final has lifted a city when they need it most and every player on this team deserves credit.

General Manager Marc Bergevin had a vision and went full Doug Armstrong in committing and sticking to it in the face of adversity. Now that he and this team is finally reaping the rewards the fans, media and outsiders are starting to take notice and appreciate the way that this team was constructed. The Habs depth up front has been their calling card all season and everyone knows of the aura of Carey Price, even if they tried to slander his name in the regular season. However, Montreal’s defenseman took the brunt of a lot of the frustrations when the team was struggling, but is their value finally starting to come through?

The title of this article is posed as a question on purpose. One, because it is intended to make you think; two, on the surface this is a blasphemous question and three, I intend to successfully change your mind and get you to agree with the concept! Let’s get the obvious out of the way first, I have no numbers to back up this claim, however the concept itself will have a logical argument that will make you watch the Habs game a little differently tonight.

The Habs D-core goes against convention, it is build around stay at home defenseman who all have a mean streak to their game. The primary reason is of course to protect Carey Price. Ever since the Chris Kreider intentional run in, zero opposing players have even gotten close to Price again (Chiasson none withstanding). A rested Carey Price that can see the puck on every shot is near impossible to beat which is the foundation and identity of this team.

The Habs do have a top tier puck moving defenseman in Jeff Petry, but he is alone in this aspect. Despite his offensive prowess, Petry does have one common skill set that all Habs defenseman have. Montreal’s D-core is great at stepping up at their own Blue line to force the opposing team to dump the puck in. The argument of this article is that this is by design because Carey Price is the team’s top puck moving ‘defenseman’. Despite the lack of numbers to back this up, I will argue with full confidence that the large majority of the Habs’ successful breakouts start with Carey Price.

There is no better goalie in the NHL at playing the puck than Carey Price and do even try to say Mike Smith, who is impressive in his own right, however he is not on Carey’s level. Price’s ability to play the puck isn’t exactly a revelation, however, what if Bergevin and his staff knew this, pulled up the analytics and saw that Price playing the puck gives the team their best chance to move the puck up ice and out of their zone? Not everyone will agree with this statement and to each their own, but there is no denying that this is absolutely plausible.

At this point, those who track and understand analytics are hopefully scratching their head. Most likely thinking “goalies stop and leave the puck for their defenseman, of course their successful breakout percentages will be higher as technically they are the first player to start the breakout”. While true, I could argue that Roman Josi get’s so many line carries because he is the one that skates the puck out of his D-zone on the Power Play. You have to earn that responsibility with the puck and subsequent line carries that come with it. In Price’s case, his ability to do so much more with the puck that basically makes this a moot point.

The second major benefit to Price playing the puck as often as he does is that it screws up the opposition’s forecheck. Dump and chase is meant to wear down the opposing team’s defenseman, however what happens when the goalie is the one playing the puck? The forward can no longer go in full steam and hit somebody which the premise of dump and chase itself. When Price has the puck both defenseman can act as an outlet option which will inevitably spread out and counter the opposing team’s forecheck. Or if there is no immediate pressure from the other team, Price simply has to prop the puck up, which anyone who has ever played defense will tell you is heaven sent.

With previous experience working in analytics, this is something that I noticed a few years ago and started to watch a little more closely. Bergevin’s recent personnel decisions reinforced this idea with the additions of Ben Chiarot and Joel Edmundson. Both are strong defensive defenseman who can stand opposing player’s up and the blue and can most definitely clear the front of the net. As Kevin Bieksa loves to say, they are meat and potatoes kind of guys, which apparently are Carey Price’s favourite defenseman to play behind. When you have $10.5M invested in one player, wouldn’t you want to do everything in your power to maximize their skills set as well as their impact on the game?

If anyone reading this has or knows of any analytics to support or completely discredit this notion, please share! I would love to know if this concept has any legs or if I am just a love drunk homer who’s team is competing for the Stanley Cup.

As always don’t forget to check out the rest of the Hot Sauce Family and check out our Youtube page for all of our podcasts and videos! If you are like us and can no longer tolerate the Leafs network broadcast of Habs games, join our Live Stream Watch Party! For every Habs game Alex the Intern will be joined by members of the Hot Sauce family and/or friends of the show as we cheer on Les Habitant jusqu’au bout!

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