It would take nothing short of incredible controversy to rob Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price of the Hart Memorial and Vezina trophies Wednesday at the 2015 NHL Awards in Las Vegas. His record-breaking 44-16-6 record, his .933 save percentage, his 1.96 goals-against average all speak to a season for the ages that should rightfully be capped off by both honors. But is there a parallel universe out there in which it’s also capped off by a Stanley Cup?
Is Carey Price Hot Enough?
Hockey fans hear it all the time, how all you need is a goalie to get hot at the right time in order for a team—any team—to have a shot at winning it all. While Montreal won the Atlantic Division and was generally considered a good team overall with 110 points earned, one has to believe the above sentence has rarely rung truer for another squad.
Montreal was 20th in goals per game (2.61), but led the league in goals against per game (2.24), with Carey Price securing the William M. Jennings Trophy in the process… well, co-securing it with Chicago Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford, who ironically hails from Montreal (Chateauguay) and just won his second Stanley Cup in two calendar years.
It’s ironic because Crawford is largely considered a relatively weak goalie (as far as starters go), yet has captured two more Stanley Cups than Carey Price has or possibly will ever have, blessed with an (obviously) championship-caliber team in front of him.
This isn’t exactly a new phenomenon, either.
Boston Bruins Envy
Since the 2004-05 lockout, the Conn Smythe Trophy, awarded to the player deemed most valuable to his team during the playoffs, has been handed out 10 times. Only three goalies have won it: Cam Ward of the Carolina Hurricanes, Tim Thomas of the Boston Bruins, and Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings. Of those three, only Thomas is a (two-time) Vezina Trophy winner. Quick got nominated once.
Looking at just the Stanley Cup-championship goalies of the past decade, much the same story is revealed, with maybe just Dominik Hasek of the 2007-08 Detroit Red Wings tacked on as another Vezina-caliber goalie who won it all. However, that postseason, a 43-year-old Hasek made only four appearances in net, while Chris Osgood—again, merely a good, not great goaltender by general consensus—took over the lion’s share of goaltending duties.
So, arguably, over the last decade, just one championship team, the 2011 Boston Bruins, enjoyed Vezina-caliber goaltending from the start of the regular season through the playoffs (Thomas won both the Conn Smythe and Vezina that year). However, those Bruins were far from a one-trick pony, with almost three goals per game scored during the regular season. They scored even more during the playoffs (3.24).
They had Milan Lucic score 30 goals for what will likely be the only time in his career. They got 75 games out of the oft-injured David Krejci. Perhaps most impressively? They got 80 games out of Nathan “worth as much as David Clarkson because I’m injured so much” Horton.
That was of course the season that Horton scored the overtime winner against the Canadiens in Game 7 of the two teams’ first-round series, with another incredible performance from Price gone to waste. That postseason, he had a .934 save percentage.
One thing that was different in regard to that specific Jacques Martin-coached edition of the Habs relative to this current one was the ability to score, at least in the playoffs. Despite Thomas going on to win the Vezina, they had relative success against him, netting 17 goals in the first round.
Granted, that works out to a pedestrian 2.43 goals per game, but consider two things: One, that Montreal scored just 2.08 this past postseason. And two, that Thomas ended that postseason with a .940 save percentage and 1.98 GAA. Credit must go to those Canadiens as a result. They gave the Bruins all they could handle in the first round and just fell short. Looking at that regular season’s analytics, it’s easy to see why.
In sharp contrast to this year, Montreal actually had a decent even-strength Corsi for rating of 51.6% (48.5% this year). That was actually even higher than Boston’s (50.7%), with that Boston team actually acting as an outlier in regard to the following statement: Since the 2007-08 season, for when analytics data was first made available, every Stanley Cup winner has been ranked in the top five during the regular season in that category.
The only exceptions to that rule, aside from the Bruins who still posted an above-50% rating, are the 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins. They had one of 48.1%. They were also coached by Michel Therrien… until he was fired 57 games into the season with a mediocre 27-25-5 record and replaced by Dan Bylsma, under whom the Penguins became analytics darlings.
Since Bylsma was hired so far into the season though, that’s not really reflected in the overall Corsi for rating mentioned above. The following year, Pittsburgh had one of 52.1%, placing sixth in the league. This is not really news, though. Most everyone critical of Therrien has reported upon these stats before.
It’s admittedly the same old story, but not just specifically in reference to him. When both the Tampa Bay Lightning (53.0) and Blackhawks (53.6) beat the New York Rangers (49.5) and Anaheim Ducks (51.0) in their respective conference finals, those were also victories for the analytics community.
When Chicago beat Tampa in six games with a combined 327-326 edge in shot attempts, it technically was another. But in reality the series was just between two evenly matched teams. The fact that the first five games in the series were decided by a single goal for the first time since 1951 is proof of that.
Winning Isn’t the Only Thing In Montreal… Goaltending Is
One would think, in such a scenario, that goaltending would have provided the edge. Instead, Crawford beat out Ben Bishop. Sure, Bishop played through a torn groin, but, like him or hate him for his 6’7” height advantage, at the end of the day a just-good goalie beat out a one-time Vezina nominee, because goaltending just isn’t everything. In Montreal, it unfortunately is and will continue to be unless something changes.
Analytics can help predict who will win the Stanley Cup but they are most helpful in predicting who won’t. Sure, Price can steal a playoff series or two, but to expect him to win four rounds is insanity. It’s never worked before. Why would it start now? Especially with the limited number of seasons he’s got left in his prime.
Montreal has the talent to win, and not just in net. P.K. Subban and Max Pacioretty are elite players on defense and at forward, while the Canadiens have a good-enough core to do some serious damage, as they proved in 2014. The Habs obviously still fell well short then.
Winning the Stanley Cup isn’t easy. It obviously helps to have an elite goalie like Price in your corner. It helps more when you can score some goals for him to work with. Price no doubt deserves the Hart and Vezina. He also deserves some more support for a realistic shot at more significant hardware.