As we continue our shift to the offensive side of the game, we begin our center breakdown series with the Montreal Canadiens. The Habs have long been searching for a true number 1 center. Can Galchenyuk fit that role? Is Danault on a strong upwards track? We dive into those questions, and more.
Quality of Competition
It is essential to understand quality of competition before going any further. On any team, the top center will likely face better defenders than the number 2 center, who will face better than the number 3, and so on. As a result, you cannot compare each player with each other as it would not be apples to apples. What we can do is understand how each player fared in his role and compare that with other players around the league who played in similar roles.
Note – the averages you’ll see in the comparative analyses should be taken as directional and with a grain of salt. We’re working towards building specific averages for each “role” (e.g., what is the average among top line centers who face the top defense pairing?). We will have that in the coming week.
To understand the chart: the x-axis (defense QoC) represents the strength of defenders that each center went up against. Players on the right (e.g., Galchenyuk, Danault) often faced better defenders than Shaw, Plekanec, and Mitchell. This also makes intuitive sense: Danault often centered the #1 line and so did Galchenyuk (when he was center; but even when he played wing he still was viewed as a top scoring threat from opponents).
The y-axis (offense QoC) represents the strength of opposing forwards that they faced. Galchenyuk being lower down means the coaching staff weren’t as comfortable matching him up against opponent top lines. Plekanec and Danault, on the other hand, routinely drew those tough assignments.
While both QoC are essential, to simplify our analysis we look at offense QoC when comparing a defensive ability of each center. Similarly, we focus on defense QoC when analyzing the offensive ability of each center.
Our 3-pronged analysis
We will examine each player along 3 criteria that are critical for a center iceman in today’s NHL.
1. Ability to drive possession and make his teammates better
2. Ability to drive offense and generate goals for his team
3. Ability to be defensively responsible and play a 200 ft game
1/2. Ability to drive possession, make his teammates better, and generate scoring chances / offense
The quality of competition is a standardized version of the Y-Axis of the above QoC chart. I included it to help highlight the context around each player. Galchenyuk faced tougher defensemen than Plekanec and Shaw, for example, and that should be considered as we examine differences between each player.
Possession driving factor measures the center’s ability to drive possession (starting in their own zone), elevate the play of their teammates, and create offense. Danault (PDF +8.1) really excelled in this role. Consider Radulov and Pacioretty, 2 of Danault’s wingers: their possession numbers are 10% higher when playing with him. Danault was even solid in this regard in 2015/16, but really took a jump this past-season, despite drawing tough defensive and offensive assignments. He’s a solid #2 center, but questions remain as to whether he can A. take one more step offensively, and B. continue to produce against the toughest defenders.
Scoring chance generation measures a center’s ability to generate high danger scoring chances, and adjusts for zone starts, quality of linemates, etc. Danault was very solid, Galchenyuk was OK, while Plekanec struggled. Plekanec’s inability to “create” scoring chances is a strong indication of decline. His SCG of -2.8 was worst on the team last year.
We included Radulov in the above chart to highlight his ability to generate strong scoring chances despite facing the toughest QoC. Still, Danault showed ability on his own (SCG +9.7).
Andrew Shaw, while facing 2/3rd line opposition, fared well as a possession driver (PDF +7.3). People were after Shaw during his penalty streak mid-year, and perhaps rightfully so, but there is no denying that AS is a strong 3rd line center with flexibility to move up and down the lineup as a winger.
Alex Galchenyuk struggled in 2016/17 – but there are reasons to believe he can improve significantly next season. While his PDF of -0.7 was worst on the team, indicating an inability to elevate his teammates and drive possession, he was much better last year (PDF +5.38). That said, he faced much weaker QoC last year.
Galchenyuk’s 5v5 scoring numbers, on a per 60 minute basis, were still solid in 2016/17 and even better last year. Danault led the team in both goals and primary assists per 60 in 2016/17, further emphasizing his successful campaign playing the pivot role between Pacioretty and Radulov.
Interesting to note Plekanec’s low offensive numbers. This doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone who watched Montreal this year, but it does raise a big question: Does Plekanec still bring value defensively? Answer: Yes.
3. Defensive Ability
The Y-Axis (same as QoC above), measures the quality of forwards that each player faced. Plekanec and Danault at the top means that each faced the top opposing forwards. The X-Axis (scoring chance suppression) measures ability to minimize high danger scoring chances, and adjusts for team strength, zone starts, etc. Players in the top right box are those that excel defensively despite facing the top competition.
In that regard, Plekanec leads the way. His SCS metric of +3.3 is excellent. Danault, too, excelled defensively posting an SCS of +1.7. Mitchell was also solid defensively in his 4th line role – but here is a good example of why QoC is so important. Mitchell’s SCS is the highest on the team – but he posted those numbers while playing against primarily 3rd and 4th line opponents.
Galchenyuk struggled defensively. While he faced only average forwards, he still had the lowest SCS on the team (-4.3).
The center position didn’t change much this off-season for Montreal and any improvement in 2016/17 will have to come from within. In the case of Alex Galchenyuk, the verdict is still out there as to whether he can pull it all together for next season. That said, it really is easy to understand why the coaching staff struggled to feel comfortable with him at center. In two areas most coaches value (possession driving factor and defensive responsibility), Galchenyuk struggled. While he did show strong offensive ability, he might be better suited as a “finisher” rather than a possession driver who is expected to play a 200 ft game.
In the case of Danault, the Habs appear to have a really solid, young pivot. Only 24, Danault was excellent defensively, strong as a possession driver, adept at elevating the play of his teammates, and even solid offensively. The big question is whether PD can take his game to the next level. He’s sure to attract stronger defensive opposition and whether he can improve production despite that might be tough to do.
Shaw, too, looks solid in a 3rd line role. Plekanec will still bring defensive value.
But a big hole remains in the top 6. Danault would be a strong #2 – but who’s the top center? If Danault plays top line, then Shaw/Plekanec fill out 2/3 and all 3 are, arguably, playing out of place. Giving Galchenyuk one more shot in an offensive, top-6 center role might be the habs best option.
With a strong winger group, the world’s best goaltender, and a sturdy defense corps – expect the Habs to once again be a playoff team in 2017/18. A key to their run will be how they fare down the middle. If Danault continues his rapid ascension and Galchenyuk improves on his 2015/16 form, the Habs could boast a much improved look down the middle. One thing is clear: Danault and Galchenyuk will be two of the most scrutinized Habs’ players next season. And rightfully so.