In-Depth Breakdown of Canadiens’ Top Line

In-Depth Breakdown of Canadiens’ Top Line
Sean Tierney

Carey Price should win the Hart Trophy.

Perhaps you’ve read this?

Bruce Arthur wrote it. Greg Wyshynski too. Ryan Kennedy agrees. James Mirtle penned precisely the same thinking.

That’s a lot of big-name blogger power.

The thinking is that Carey Price deserves more than just the Vezina Trophy, awarded to the NHL’s best goaltender. Instead, Price deserves the Hart, awarded to the NHL’s most valuable player, because Price is single-handedly willing the Montreal Canadiens to victories.

Not sniper Max Pacioretty. Not diminutive puck-disher David Desharnais. Not pesky and blossoming Brendan Gallagher. Just Price, carrying les Canadiens on his shoulders.

Bill Beacon put it perfectly for the Montreal Gazette, writing:

The Hart Trophy goes to the player deemed most valuable to his team, and [Price’s] part in Montreal’s rise to the top of overall NHL standings is undeniable. The Canadiens are among the league’s lowest-scoring clubs, but they are first in the 30-team circuit in goals-against at 2.15 per game, thanks largely to Price.

No love for Pacioretty, Gallagher, and Desharnais there either.

But not so fast.

Sure, the Canadiens are 21st in the league in goals per games played. But the NHL isn’t just about plain old goal-scoring anymore. Possession stats like Shot Attempts (formerly Corsi For) and goals, assists, or shots per 60 (efficiency statistics) help fans to better understand the contributions being made by players.

So how does Montreal’s top-line fare analytically? Does Price deserve all the credit for Montreal’s superb season? Or has the first line for the Canadiens’ done its part to propel Montreal’s standings surge?

Let’s take a look.

HERO Charts: A Quick Glance, A Deep Understanding

First, let’s establish who Montreal’s top line is.

Over the past ten games, and throughout much of the season, Max Pacioretty, David Desharnais and Brendan Gallagher have spent the greatest amount of time as the top line. Though Tomas Plekanec, Alex Galchenyuk, or Dale Weise sometimes pop up to replace someone on the first unit, Pacioretty, Desharnais, and Gallagher typically skate together.

So, how best to evaluate their contributions to Montreal’s success?

At OwnThePuck, Domenic Galamini has created super-handy visuals to help put players into perspective.

By comparing a player’s usage-adjusted analytics to totals for all other skaters, Galamini’s visualizations  show whether a given skater is first-, second-, third-, or fourth line material.

Here’s a glance at each members of the Canadiens’ top line:


Max Pacioretty

Montreal Canadiens HERO Pacioretty Gallagher Desharnais


















*link to graph source at OwnThePuck here.


Max Pacioretty has been a dominant first-line player during 5-on-5 play since 2012-2013. His SAT/60 (UA CF60) and SAT% (UA Corsi%) are at the top-end of first-line value, showing that Patches has been a dominant puck possession player. Pacioretty’s goals, points, and shots/60 totals are all among the elite first-line ranks.

As a sniper, his assists/60 rank is somewhat lower (second line value) but this rate is hardly problematic for a goal-scorer.

In terms of fancy stats, including offensive production and puck possession, Max Pacioretty has clearly done his part for the Habs. But how have his linemates fared?


David Desharnais


















*link to graph source at OwnThePuck here.


Though Desharnais is often derided for his size and for not being a “true number one centre,” his production rate compares well with other first-line centres.

Since 2012-13, Desharnais has posted first-line quality possession rates (SATs and SAT%). As a playmaker, Desharnais had maintained a first-line worthy assists/60 rate. His points/60 rank on the cusp between a first- and second-liner.

Like Joe Thornton, Desharnais’ playmaking focus has led to third-line level goals/60 and replacement-level shots/60. As a pass-first centremen usually teamed with Pacioretty (an elite sniper), these analytics aren’t surprising.

Altogether, Desharnais’ work doesn’t blow your fancy stat socks off. He compares well with other first-line NHL centres in possession stats and assists and will never be confused with Phil Kessel – that’s probably good.

When evaluating the quality of the Canadiens’ scoring during Carey Price’s historic season, Desharnais’ play has contributed to the team’s success.


Brendan Gallagher

Montreal Canadiens Gallagher Desharnais Pacioretty


















*link to graph source at OwnThePuck here.


Part Brad Marchand, part Darcy Tucker, part Duke Keats – Brendan Gallagher is the type of pesky, agitating, offensively-productive forward that drives other teams crazy.

But is he contributing to Montreal’s successful season or is he miscast as a first-line winger?

Since 2012-13, Gallagher has been a highly-efficient player. His usage-adjusted SAT60 is elite, right at the top end of the first line skaters. Gallagher’s SAT% doesn’t lag far behind, showing that he has been dominant in puck possession.

Offensively, Gallagher’s goals, assists, and points/60 rates all fall comfortably within the first-line range and his shot attempts verge on elite status.

Gallagher’s time-on-ice has slowly grown over the past couple of seasons, which highlights the usefulness of looking at his per 60 stats. When Gallagher plays, he produces like an excellent first-liner, comparing relatively well with any first-line wingers around the NHL.

The Takeaway

Price has crafted a Vezina-calibre season. His stat-line is fantastic – 37 wins (first in the NHL), .935 save percentage (first), 1.93 goals against average (first), and seven shutouts (second overall). The Hart chatter is understandable.

But the suggestion that he has carried the team on his own doesn’t hold up. Between Max Pacioretty’s goal-scoring, David Desharnais’ playmaking, and Brendan Gallagher’s elite puck possession rates, the first line for les Canadiens has done their share this season as well.

In a year where Montreal has designs to replicate last season’s deep playoff run (you know, the one that ended around the time that Price was injured?) Canadiens fans should take comfort in knowing that Price isn’t carrying this team on his own.


What do you think, Habs fans? Is Carey Price the single, most important force behind the team’s success this season? Or have others like Pacioretty, Desharnais, and Gallagher contributed more to the Canadiens’ success than many realize?

**also, please check out OwnThePuck and give creator Domenic Galamini a follow on Twitter. His HERO charts are available for all forwards/defensemen and are definitely worth a browse.

  • Sean

    Next step is to break down the other lines/d-pairings. Subban is all-around elite but how do the others fare?

Sean Tierney

Sean Tierney writes articles about Atlantic Division teams, working to include analytics whenever possible. He has also written about the Leafs, Habs, Sens, Raptors, and Blue Jays for Fansided, The Hockey Writers, and Bleacher Report. He enjoys long walks on the beach and candle lit dinners and definitely isn’t the tallest guy in the men’s rec basketball league.

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