Time, Time! Can’t Stand the Horror! The Canadiens and Icetime

by Jacob Saltiel
nhl-ice-time8482-2010-premium

If a Coyote gets icetime in a forest, but no one’s around to watch it…

On Tuesday, Pierre Lebrun wrote an excellent article about managing icetime in the compressed season. Citing the Blackhawks, Blues, Bruins, and Sharks as examples of teams that roll four lines, Lebrun argues that the key to winning consistently with more games in fewer days than usual, is for teams to avoid playing their top forwards more than 20 minutes a night.

He notes the following: “In fact, the Bruins and Sharks don’t have a forward at 19 minutes; the Blues have only one such player (T.J. Oshie, 19:16) and the Blackhawks have two (Patrick Sharp, 19:09; Patrick Kane, 19:02).”

The idea is simple; if the best players aren’t exhausted at the end of the game and their 3rd and 4th lines don’t hurt the team, those teams that can afford this distribution of icetime lower the risk of injuries and the possibility that players abandon their systems due to exhaustion. Lebrun quotes Andy McDonald in support of this:

“Guys being somewhat energized and not being tired, we’ve been able to come back in the second and third periods in a lot of games. We’ve been able to play on top of teams, and that’s the style we play; we’re an aggressive forechecking team, put a lot of pressure on the puck all over the ice. We can’t do that when we’re tired. We’re really in good position having the depth we have and having the coach manage it that way.”

So, Habs fans, how do the Canadiens stack up against this theory this year? According to the NHL.com statistics, the only forward above 19 minutes a game is Tomas Plekanec at 20:40. This is likely because Plekanec is the only Habs centre that can be trusted to take a defensive zone draw on the penalty kill (he’s averaged 4:03 minutes a game shorthanded) on top of playing 2nd line minutes and the powerplay (3:14/game). The next most-played forward is Brian Gionta at 18:47.

To take Lebrun’s argument a step further, it’s also important to note how much the bottom-line forwards are playing, since the smaller the ratio between top-line minutes and bottom-line minutes, the more the coach is actually rolling four lines. This year, only one Habs forward averages fewer than 10 minutes a game, and that’s Ryan White at 9:25. His number’s driven down because he treats the penalty box like a short-term hotel with excellent soap samples and a minibar.

Ignoring Plekanec and White, every other Habs forward falls between about 24 and 17 shifts a night, which probably explains why the Habs continue playing hard right to the end of the game. Mike Boone, in his About Last Night column on hockeyinsideout.com, attributed this phenomena to a psychological change in the team: “Unlike last season’s chronically dispirited squad, the 2013 Canadiens play like they expect to win. They were not demoralized by temporary losses of momentum against the Devils and Jets.”

More persuasively, this might simply be because Therrien isn’t stuck with dividing the 60 minutes of a hockey game between  the Pacioretty-Desharnais-Cole line, Plekanec and Gionta every night. Last year, players like Nokelainen, Palushaj, Blunden, Engqvist, and Staubitz occupied roster spots and averaged no more than 9:21/game. Palushaj, who was on the team for 38 games last year, averaged 7:33/game. This problem became worse when Gionta went down with an injury midway through the season.

Not only were the 2011-2012 Habs overplaying their top players, Martin and Cunneyworth likely did so to protect their soft bottom lines from getting lit up regularly.

Now, 5 games is an insignificant sample size, and injuries may skew the numbers later in the season. Just by watching the games, however, anyone can see that the gritty players occupying the bottom lines (Armstrong, Prust, Moen) and the Gals on the 3rd line (Galchenyuk and Gallagher) can not only handle more minutes, but in the latter case might even start stealing minutes from top-line players before the short season is out.

Of course, this might all change tonight when the Habs start playing strong opponents, starting with the Ottawa Senators.

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