The Montreal Canadiens are sporting a very tidy 7-1-2 record over their last ten games. As wins over Pittsburgh and Toronto in their last two contests have demonstrated, you don’t always look good coming out on top. Both games were sloppy, error-filled affairs, but the Canadiens picked up the ever important two points in both games. As far as fanbases of teams currently sitting in playoff positions go, only the Toronto Maple Leafs rival the Canadiens in terms of dissonance towards its head coach. You’re not alone if you think the Canadiens are succeeding in spite of Michel Therrien’s coaching schemes. In fact, you’re probably part of the majority.
In a pre-Olympics piece for Sportsnet, Chris Boyle looked at some of the causes for the Canadiens’ struggle through the month of January. In short, the Canadiens were giving up a lot more high-quality scoring chances than they had through the season’s first few months. Boyle chalks it up to Therrien’s coaching schemes. It’s an interesting look at some shot quality data, and it speaks to large problem on the Canadiens backend. It’s a 6-foot-3, 245 pound defenseman named Douglas Murray. The Canadiens success the rest of this season and in the postseason, if they reach it, will depend on building more support around Carey Price and Peter Budaj, and jettisoning Murray for the scrap heap.
As much as disgruntled fans would like to stick it to Therrien for continuing to lean on Murray for over 14 minutes of ice-time per night, general manager Marc Bergevin deserves to shoulder as much of the blame. Being an NHL general manager is a lot more difficult than the average hockey fan will ever know. Still, presenting your head coach with Douglas Murray as a playable option, while bouncing more mobile alternatives like Raphael Diaz in favor of toughness, is organizational negligence.
Murray doesn’t get around the ice like he used to, which is to say that Murray doesn’t get around the ice very well at all because he never really did. His 14:18 minutes a night marks the first time since his second season in the league where Murray has averaged less than 16 minutes per game. It’s still too much. Nothing about Murray’s usage makes a lick of sense. He’s forever been labeled as a big bruising defeseman who will sacrifice his body to hit and block shots. He’s middle of the pack in both of those categories. Therrien is currently lining Murray up for 54 percent of draws in the offensive zone. Murray has lined up for the majority of draws in defensive zone for his entire career. Yet here’s Therrien plopping him in the offensive zone because, presumably, he can’t make it all the way down there from his own zone in a single shift at this point in his career.
By any metric or test of the eyeballs, Murray has been a disaster this season. He’s rocking an awful 41 percent Corsi for %, among defensemen who have appeared in at least 31 games, despite drawing relatively easy competition on a nightly basis. His fancy stat totals are equally appalling across the board. You might not find a worse defender in 5v5 situations. Murray doesn’t walk away with the title of the league’s worst defenseman unanimously because he’s somewhat saved, at least statistically, by elite goaltending behind him.
Murray got creamed in 15 playoff games last spring with Penguins. He’s practically an invitation for the opposition to fire away and a one-way door to scoring chances. The Canadiens are not quite elite in the lesser Eastern Conference, but they have some elite pieces in Price and P.K. Subban. Montreal’s ability to finish the season strong and challenge the likes of Boston and Pittsburgh in the postseason could hinge on tightening up its top six on defense. Douglas Murray seems like a good guy to share a few pints with or to have your back in fight, but he’s best left on the outside looking in on a contending hockey team. All that’s left is for Bergevin and Therrien to recognize this.