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Let’s Experiment in EHM: Nothing But Veterans in Montreal

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After seeing a super roster of players aged 22 or under run the NHL in last week’s experiment, this week’s Eastside Hockey Manager Experiment is going in the opposite direction. How would a roster of players aged 32 or older do as Montreal? Read on to find out.

Alexander Ovechkin showed up for this team in a big way.  The rest, uh...
Alexander Ovechkin showed up for this team in a big way. The rest, uh...

Last week’s experiment featured an all under-22 super-team of the best in the NHL. They went 71-8-3 with a 32-game winning streak in the regular season. They won the Cup. They took home a lot of individual hardware. It was glorious. This week’s experiment will do the opposite. As EliasStillRocks suggested in response to the original suggestion of a young guns team:

Or the opposite…. an old geezers team…. No one under the age of 32, but that’ll definitely be tougher to do as older players generally have bigger paychecks. But it would be an interesting challenge.

This week’s experiment is to make a team with nothing but veteran presence.

The Experiment

Construct a 23-man roster of players of 32 years and older and play through the 2019-20 season.

The Approach & The Team

When I asked alslammerz which team should be used for the youngster squad, there was also a suggestion for the older team. As this is a New Jersey Devils blog, I have primarily used the Devils for these experiments. But it was asked to use other teams to mix things up. Per the suggestion, I have chose the Montreal Canadiens. One of the oldest and most storied franchises in North American sports. As for the GM name, I returned to Hollywood. As he starred in Grumpy Old Men and Grumpier Old Men and had an incredibly long and successful career in acting, I chose one of the stars of the two movies: Walther Mattheau. Sorry, Jack Lemmon fans. This cosmetic decision was easy. Putting the roster together was not.

As EliasStillRocks alluded to, a lot of the older players that could and should play significant roles on a team make a lot of money. There were few players at age 32 or older that were both cheap and play significantly enough to warrant a regular roster spot. With a salary cap of $81.5 million and a temptation to put some names together, the cap space went real fast. Plus, since I had Montreal, I had to make an executive decision on Karl Alzner, who was too young for this roster. I decided to dump him and stupid contract on Ottawa since EHM did not seem to bury it appropriately in Laval.

Goalies (2): Anton Khudobin, Cam Talbot

Defensemen (7): Kris Letang, Duncan Keith, Jay Bouwmeester, Justin Braun, Andrej Sekera, Nick Holden, Deryk Engelland

Wingers (8): Alex Ovechkin, Zach Parise, Ilya Kovalchuk, T.J. Oshie, Blake Comeau, Corey Perry, Justin Williams, Patrick Marleau

Centers (6): Evgeni Malkin, Eric Staal, Nick Foligno, Jason Spezza, Brian Boyle, Nate Thompson

This is a very top-heavy roster. The first line of Parise, Malkin, and Ovechkin was going to carry a lot of weight. However, there were more questions in depth than I let on. Due to the cap, I had to go bargain hunting. Some worked out like Kovalchuk. Others like Thompson, Spezza, Boyle and Comeau, did not. I wanted to pick players who actually played in 2019-20 and a number of those would fall short of my expectations.

The same applied to the defense, although the money was a bit more evenly placed. Engelland was my cheap #7 and I had to reorganize this so I could have at least one solid first pairing. Say what you want about Keith in real life, but this is EHM and he still has the goods. As does Letang. In order to fit all of these names under the cap, I had to go more economical. Instead of just using Dallas’ goaltending tandem in real life of Ben Bishop and Khudobin, I swapped Bishop out for Talbot.

In real life, teams with top-heavy rosters tend to be bubble teams. The top six and first pairing are enough to hang with anyone in the NHL. But in hockey, they do not play the entire game and, as such, opponents pick on the depth. Would this happen to the veteran-loaded Montreal Canadiens? Let us find out.

The Limitations

Per the rules of the experiment, this is meant to be a 32 and over roster. The youngest player on the roster was Foligno, who turned 32 at the beginning of the season. I felt this met the spirit of the rule, so I allowed it instead of needing to reconstruct the roster another time for cap purposes.

I wanted to set a similar rule for call-ups. However, the oldest player on the Laval Rocket in this game was emoji-inclined goaltender Keith Kinkaid. He was 30. So I could not really use this rule for call-ups. Fortunately, I did not have to invoke it. Despite my concern with a roster 32+ year old players, there was no rash of injuries in the season.

I also decided to not make any transactions with the picked roster, same as with last week’s experiment. I was tempted at times, but I was so close to the cap with this roster that I could not even pick up Joe Thornton or Zdeno Chara off waivers. Alas.

The Experiment Results

The Montreal board expected a playoff appearance.

The expectations for the Veterans in Montreal.
The expectations for the Veterans in Montreal.

What they got was a rollercoaster of results. The preseason did not have much of note except that management scheduled a series of exhibition games in Bulgaria. Needless to say, the Montreal veterans wiped the floor with Neman Grodno (10-0), Yunost Minsk (4-1), and Shakhter Soligorsk (17-0). The regular season started off well enough with several solid wins to get things going. 4-1 over Toronto, 6-3 over St. Louis, 4-2 over Tampa Bay, and 5-3 over Vegas. However, there were some missteps. Toronto would get revenge with a 4-7 loss and St. Louis too in a 3-5 loss. The season opener against Carolina was a 2-3 loss through a shootout.

This would be a harbinger of things to come. As the season went on, Montreal would regularly get to shootouts - and lose them. In the 2019 portion of the season, they went 1-5 in the shootout. It was not until March 2020 where Montreal would win more than one shootout in a month. However, going to the shootout at all presented a problem. Even in the times where Montreal won it, the opponent received a point. A lot of those shootouts were against Eastern Conference teams. So the Canadiens either handed a direct opponent to the playoff picture an extra point through losing the shootout, or gave them one to at all.

Further, it was becoming clear in November that Khudobin and Talbot were not all that and a bag of chips. They were both rocking save percentages below 90%. While a team can still succeed with that, Khudobin’s performances took a nose dive in December and January. So much so that Talbot became the #1 goalie and I would rarely use Khudobin. This also contributed to games going beyond regulation that otherwise would have been wins, or games that should have been close being bigger losses.

And after that first month, it was also apparent that the team’s depth at forward was a real sore spot. Sekera and Holden would have some off nights, but they were not common and Engelland rarely had a good game in relief. Sekera was a lot better than I would have given credit for normally. But it was common for one or two (or more) of Boyle, Spezza, Williams, Comeau, Perry, Marleau, and Thompson to have a bad-to-below mediocre game. Switching them in and out did not yield any consistent results. Throw in some bad times here and there for the top forwards and there were some rough nights. For whatever reason, the game regarded Foligno more of a winger than a center (he can play either position). When I made that change, my center depth went Malkin, Staal, and two of Boyle, Spezza, Marleau, and Thompson. That was not helpful at all.

Still, when things clicked for this team, they clicked amazingly well. Two to four power play goal nights were not uncommon. Ovechkin and Malkin racked up stars of games and points. Parise, Oshie, and Kovalchuk (really) did very well. Letang was one of the best defenders in the league, too. Khudobin was good for about two and a half months and Talbot did not lose his spot when he earned it. For an example of where everything worked out, here’s the box score of the 6-3 win over a very good St. Louis team:

A night where it all clicked together.
A night where it all clicked together.

Unfortunately, it did not click together. Throughout November, Montreal stayed in a fairly stable spot in 6th in the conference. Tampa Bay and Boston struggled and the Veteran-Canadiens were able to keep getting results to stay ahead of them. There were some concerns in December with a five-game winless streak, but Montreal rebounded by going 4-0-1 in their next five. So far so good. And after the holiday roster freeze, Montreal smacked down Tampa Bay 5-1, who subsequently fired their head coach. They were not dominant, but they were meeting expectations by being in a playoff spot. Ovechkin was putting up tons of points and the rest of the team was doing enough. Then things fell apart right after that 5-1 win.

Montreal followed up their win in Tampa Bay by losing 2-4 to Florida. OK, no big deal on its own, right? On New Year’s Eve, they lost in Carolina 2-4. OK, that was not ideal but it is just two games. I had a feeling this was more than just a bump in the road on January 2, 2020 when they hosted Tampa Bay and got wrecked 1-7. Those three games were followed by six more winless endavors: 3-5 to Pittsburgh at home, 2-3 in OT to Winnipeg at home, 4-6 in Detroit, 2-3 in OT to Edmonton at home, 5-7 in Ottawa, and 6-8 at home to Calgary. Khudobin turned into a shooter tutor. The defense crumpled. Even when the offense showed up, there was enough of it to stave off the opposition. Montreal went from being ahead of the playoff bubble by being sixth in the East to falling behind it in eleventh in the East. They finally broke the streak with a 3-2 shootout win (!!) in Chicago. But this streak set back Montreal to a spot where they would not recover.

While the Canadiens did win a couple games after the end of the nine-game winless streak, they were unable to extend it to a streak to make up for what was lost. Every game would be something else. Beat Buffalo (who is good in EHM) 3-2, follow that up with a 0-3 loss to Florida. Beat fellow bubble team Columbus 3-1, follow that up with a 3-4 shootout loss to New Jersey where Connor Carrick ended the shootout. Get a huge 6-2 win over Washington, then lose 2-8 to Ottawa of all teams. For every step forward, there would be a step back. And when the team is mired in tenth or eleventh in the East, the lack of progress is as dooming as falling backwards. Talbot replaced Khudobin as the first-choice goalie. The bottom six was a blender of who had a good game recently over those who did not. Parise, Malkin, and Ovechkin became Ovechkin, Malkin, and Oshie and the points still kept coming from the first line - but some nights, they were not enough. It was painful.

Adding to the pain was that Tampa Bay and Boston figured their seasons out. After their coaching change, Tampa Bay shot up the standings and clawed their way to third in the Atlantic. Boston rebounded from their struggles and surged past Montreal, Columbus, and Carolina to take the second and final wild card spot. Montreal battled until the end. Ovechkin did not stop. Oshie did not stop. Kovalchuk did not stop. Talbot, well, did stop pucks but he tried. But those dropped points in going beyond regulation and losing caught up to the team. The nine-game winless streak kneecapped their season and there was not enough remediation to recover. With each game, a loss was another body blow to the team’s fading playoff chances. They still had a mathematical shot by Game #82. But Boston won their last game and, fittingly for how the season went, Toronto took Montreal to OT with a late third period goal and beat them there.

The end of season standings. The veterans did not make it.
The end of season standings. The veterans did not make it.

The board’s expectations were not met. Montreal finished tenth in the East. There would be no playoff competition for the Montreal 32s-and-Over.

You can see from the 39-26-17 record that they went beyond sixty minutes quite a bit and did not prevail. Plenty of those cases happened against teams in the East, so Montreal provided a lot of extra points that they could have had themselves. The shootout record would right itself by season’s end since the team found more success in March than in the previous five months. Still, had they turned four of those post-regulation losses into wins, then they would have played Toronto in the first round. Alas.

End of season scoring stats for the Montreal 32+’s.
End of season scoring stats for the Montreal 32+’s.

What makes this more irksome was that Montreal arguably had the best player in this season. Ovechkin led the league in goals, points, and average rating with an astonishing 8.55. That is one of the highest average ratings I have seen in any of these EHM experiments over a season. I can tell you that no one in the NHL came even close to that. Ovechkin was just on another level. Unfortunately, having one player perform on an exceptional level above everyone else is not enough to carry a team into the playoffs. If he were a goalie, then that could be a different story. But Ovechkin is not a goalie, he was a machine.

So were Oshie, Malkin, Kovalchuk, and Parise from a production standpoint. Each put up at least 60 points. Oshie played mostly on a line behind Ovechkin before moving him up after the winless streak and he put up 41 goalie. He did his job. Malkin held it down the middle and rarely had a bad night, he nearly bagged 30 goals in the process too. Kovalchuk was the bargain scorer I was hoping for; he absolutely earned the little money he would get with a 29-goal, 67 point season. Parise was not on the primary power play unit and he had moved down a line after the winless streak. He still gave 62 points. Sure, you may not like reading that Parise and Kovalchuk did well, but they truly did.

However, you can see some rather low rates of production from many players down the list. Spezza provided very little. Williams provided very little. Comeau merely chipped in here and there. Thompson was unhappy about his ice time while I was putting him in the active roster for games and racking up ‘5’ and ‘6’ ratings. So much so that he declared he would retire at the end of the season. Related to that, their average ratings reflected their seasons of mehness.

End of the season average ratings for the Montreal 32+’s.
End of the season average ratings for the Montreal 32+’s.

Again, Ovechkin was just head and shoulders above everyone else. I can also tell you that Oshie, Parise, Letang, and Kovalchuk made the top 50 in average rating the entire NHL for the season. And do not discount Malkin, Foligno (moving him to wing did help), and even Sekera. They did very well in their roles over the whole season. But players like Bouwmeester were not as impactful as I expected, Khudobin’s performance fell off a cliff as previously mentioned, and the aforementioned group of Williams, Comeau, Spezza, Boyle, and Thompson dragged things down. Even with limited minutes, they were players opponents enjoyed playing against. Compare this with the Under-22 roster, which had one player finish with an average rating below seven. Jack Hughes would have out performed seven players on this roster.

Lastly, the goaltending was just not as good as it needed to be to carry the roster:

End of the season goaltending stats for the Montreal 32+’s
End of the season goaltending stats for the Montreal 32+’s

A save percentage of 89.7% is not really worth lauding. It is not good on its own. However, it was an improvement of where Talbot was after a few months in the season. Talbot was used sparingly and posted a save percentage in the 88% range. He improved a bit and the average rating (sort of) reflects that. Khudobin started the season in the low 90% and high 89% range and, again, really stunk it up from the winless streak onward. An 87.3% save percentage is terrible in real life and in EHM. So Khudobin went from first-choice to rarely used. Either way, if either put up a 90.5 or a 91%, maybe this Montreal team would have been in the postseason.

If there was any solace out of this season, then it was solely for Ovechkin. He received a number of individual accolades in the NHL Awards ceremony for the season:

  • Art Ross Trophy - 97 points (runner-up was MacKinnon with 92)
  • Rocket Richard Trophy - 46 goals (runner-up was MacKinnon with 45)
  • King Clancy Trophy (runner up was Rantanen)
  • Hart Memorial Trophy (runner-up was MacKinnon)
  • NHL All-Star First Team (others: MacKinnon, Kapanen, Carlson, Pietrangelo, Binnington)

Yes, Ovechkin won the Hart while not being in the postseason. He was that good. Unfortunately, large chunks of the roster were not good enough.

As one final post-script, Marleau and Engelland joined Thompson in announcing their retirement at the end of the season.

Experiment Conclusions

I failed to meet the board’s expectations and I feel like I failed the experiment in general for not making the postseason. The 22-and-under set rampaged through the season. The 32-and-over set just played 82 games and ultimately squandered some great seasons, including a next-level performance from Ovechkin.

The source of the issues the team had goes back to how I constructed the roster. In retrospect, I wish I spent more time trying to fit others in. Could I have tried to cram in Patrice Bergeron in place of Foligno? Or even in place of Malkin, which would have also allowed me more money for goaltenders. Or perhaps I could have made a better choice than to build the blueline around Keith, Letang, and Bouwmeester, as Bouwmeester did not live up to his hefty cap hit.

However, even with tweaks, I doubt the team goes from being a bubble team to being outright contenders provided I hit right on every selection. Look at the list of active players at CapFriendly. The majority of them carry a cap hit over $3 million. And the top tier players that could lead a team in offense, defense, or in the net carry much larger cap hits than $3 million. Ultimately, in order to afford to the top tier players, I would have to roll the dice on the cheaper veterans to hold up. While some did like Kovalchuk, Sekera, and Talbot, others showed why they were not carrying large cap hits to begin with. Despite the disappointing result, I did get fortunate with injuries. They were not a major concern in the season as no one was out for more than two weeks at a time; who is to say that could not have happened in a different run of the season with a different roster? That said, I do think if I did this again and try to re-construct the roster, then maybe the team would have made it. Even so, it would not be dominant like the under-22 team was in last week’s experiment.

One last thought: This experiment also proved that having a Hart-level season from a skater alone is not enough to carry a team to the postseason. You need many others to do their part and also excel. This veteran-filled Montreal line up did have others who did excel but there were not enough of them. Sorry, Ovechkin.

What’s Next & Your Take

Next week’s experiment is a more offbeat idea where I have no expectations as to how the team would do. It is the alphabet roster and the idea comes from kmac6:

Perhaps an alphabet team? Every players last name starts with a different letter of the alphabet

NHL active rosters are limited to 23 players. There are 26 letters. Rather than taking the easy way and remove Q, X, and Z, I asked kmac6 to which three letters should not be used:

Let’s eliminate N, Y, and R for obvious reasons haha(if X proves to be too much of a headache you can eliminate that letter instead)

There were no players whose last name began with an ‘X’ in the NHL in 2019-20. However, this is Eastside Hockey Manager. There are more leagues with players available outside of the NHL. So I will be creative and try to make it work without using players with last names that begin with N, Y, or R. If you have any suggested names, then please leave them in the comments.

If you have any additional suggestions for future EHM experiments, then please leave them in the comments as well. Thank you for reading.