If I can walk down memory lane for a bit, lets look back at the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs. With the Montreal Canadiens down three games to one to the Washington Capitals, injuries had ravaged the Montreal blueline. A young rookie with just two games of NHL experience, and one full season in the AHL was called up. That rookie started out with limited minutes, and didn’t really make a huge impact against the Capitals, but the Canadiens won three in a row, and advanced to the second round.
In the second round of the playoffs, a Matt Cooke hit on Andrei Markov resulted in a torn ACL, and the Canadiens were further hit by the blueline injury bug. That 20-year-old rookie defenceman was forced into a top four role. He excelled and the Canadiens defeated the Penguins. A star was born in Montreal. That defenceman? Pernell Karl (P.K.) Subban.
Fast forward today. Through four games of the Series between the Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins, we have a deadlock. The Bruins overtime win in game four evened the series at two wins a piece.
Through four games a few things have become apparent. These things weren’t that unexpected. The Bruins have had the advantage in terms of zone time and puck possession. However this advantage has decreased as the series has advanced, with the Canadiens getting closer on the possession side of things as the games have gone on.
One reason for this has been the Canadiens speed starting to exploit a slower Boston team. This is particularly apparent in the neutral zone. Now it doesn’t happen with every play in the Habs lineup but with certain players we do see it.
P.K. Subban has been the star skater on the Montreal side of things, with three goals and three assists in the first three games of the series. Now a Norris winner and Olympic Gold Medalist, Subban has developped into one of the best defencemen in the NHL.
Subban had team leading Corsi of over 61% in game four. His ability to skate the puck out of danger, and to make strong passes to forwards has been driving the Bruins crazy. Subban’s speed and offensive ability is apparent when he is on the ice.
On the other side of the spectrum is Douglas Murray who had a Corsi rating of just 16.7% in game 3 and has a Corsi of 22% in two games in this series. But maybe you don’t like advanced stats. In 12 minutes of even-strength time, with Murray on the ice, the Canadiens were outshot by a count of 10 to 1. To put this in perspective it would rate at 50 to 5 over 60 minutes. Basically putting Murray on the ice in game 4 for 12 minutes was the equivalent of giving Boston six extra powerplays in the game.
This is despite getting sheltered minutes playing against the Bruins third and fourth lines.
This is quite simply not acceptable, not for Douglas Murray and not for anyone else in the NHL. It doesn’t matter how many hits a player throws, less than 17% possession for his team with Murray on the ice is just epically bad.
Now Murray’s partner Mike Weaver had the same Corsi rating over two games, but here is the thing, Murray has been a negative Corsi player for the last three plus seasons. While Weaver (like almost all of Murray’s partners) have been worse with Murray than they have been without Murray on the ice. There is a ton of literature out there on how Murray is a terrible (and one of the NHL’s worst) possession defencemen.
Now the game winning overtime goal in game 4 was scored when Murray was on the ice. I know that people will say that it was a bad bounce off the boards and really isn’t anyone’s fault. It was just unlucky.
I agree with the fact that it was a bad bounce, but I don’t agree with the luck argument. You make your own luck in the NHL. And when the Corsi percentage is 17% that means 83% of all shot attempts when Murray is on the ice are directed at Carey Price. Tight games like last night are often won and lost on a bad bounce, but when the puck is always near one net and not the other, the chances that Boston will be the beneficiary of that bad bounce go up exponentially in their favour. A bad bounce can’t elude Tuukka Rask if the puck is never near Tuukka Rask to begin with. And for that reason, continuing to play Murray is inviting the inevitable, and risking that bad bounce happening again.
So what is the solution? Most would say remove Douglas Murray and put Francois Bouillion (who played the Habs first six playoff games) back in the lineup. While Bouillion would be an improvement on Murray, and it would be a good move, I’ve got another suggestion, and I plead with Michel Therrien to take it seriously, and actually really think about it. That solution is to play a rookie on the blueline, that rookie? 2011 Montreal first round draft pick Nathan Beaulieu.
Beaulieu is in a similar situation as what PK Subban was in 2010. In fact some might say he is even ahead. He has two full years of AHL experience, he has 23 games of NHL experience and has put up a Corsi rating of 48.9% in those 23 games over two years. Yes its not great, but its a lot better than what Murray is doing, and still better than what Bouillion has given in this series (36% in game 1 and 27% in game 2).
He also has the added benefit of playing a similar style as PK Subban. This is not to say he is as good as Subban (he’s not, and probably never will be a Norris winner), but Beaulieu wouldn’t be playing against the Bruins top lines like Subban is either. His passing and skating skill could drive the Bruins bottom lines crazy and help take advantage of the speed advantage in the neutral zone that the Canadiens have in this series.
On top of that Beaulieu would be paired with Mike Weaver, who is a veteran who can help Beaulieu along, in much the way that Hal Gill and Josh Gorges have helped Subban in his early years in the league. Weaver in fact plays the game very much like a poor man’s Josh Gorges. A pairing of Beaulieu and Weaver would be similar to Subban and Gorges (although a less talented group). We see that Murray’s even strength minutes are already extremely sheltered, so there is no reason why the coaching staff can’t shelter Beaulieu the same way.
Now there are some who say that Murray’s toughness and hitting is needed in the lineup. And while its true that Beaulieu needs to continue to develop his defensive game, clearing the crease, throwing hits, and dropping the gloves have never been things that Beaulieu is afraid to do. Rather it is his positioning that gets him in trouble at times. Is this such a big deal when he is replacing a player in Murray who is one of the slowest skaters in the NHL? They are both liabilities in this way, Murray because he can’t keep up with his man, and Beaulieu because he occasionally is caught out of position.
The difference though? Beaulieu is fast enough to retrieve loose pucks and retrieve dump ins. He also has much better passing skill than Murray leading to a better transition game and less time spent in the Montreal end of the ice, as well as the ability to skate the puck out of danger, rather than icing it when he gets in trouble as Murray does.
For all these reasons, Nathan Beaulieu is the best choice for the Habs in game five. I just don’t know if Michel Therrien will see things the same way.
Its an unconventional solution, but I think its the right one.