Rabid Habs

Piecing Together a Line-up

Habs' Michel Therrien

I’ve always enjoyed puzzles. There are multiple ways in which to realize the desired outcome; fitting the pieces together in a timely manner.  Puzzles are challenging and require precision, poise and patience. Working your way through an advanced puzzle takes time as you attempt to match pieces within smaller sections with the overall goal of completing the entire picture. Although there are significant differences between building a hockey line-up and completing an advanced puzzle, there are some similarities.

Firstly, a hockey team requires cornerstone pieces augmented by complimentary players. I would argue that the Montreal Canadiens have as strong a cornerstone group as any in the league. Additionally, the faces of the franchise – Price, Pacioretty, Subban, Gallagher and Galchenyuk are young, with the exception of Galchenyuk are all under long term contract, have size, skill and the demeanor required to excel in a hockey fishbowl unlike any other. Although General Manager Marc Bergevin inherited 4 of these 5 cornerstone players and had the 3rd overall pick with which to draft Galchenyuk, a line-up requires second and third tier components to complete the puzzle.

This season, the Habs have dressed 34 different players, each of whom has had an impact on the outcome of the games in which they have played. To put this number in perspective, it is on par with the Columbus Blue Jackets who lead the league in man-games lost to injury. Montreal, despite having lost the fewest number of players to significant injury for extended periods of time has done a great job of juggling the lineup and introducing youth and skill into the equation. This added depth will help to serve the team should they succumb to injuries over the final 20 games of the season or into the playoffs.

The secondary value of having a competitive lineup is that the Hamilton Bulldogs become the beneficiaries of NHL lineup casualties, players like Pateryn, Tinordi, Thomas, Bournival and Andrighetto who have spent time in Montreal and have acquitted themselves favorably. The Habs iced a lineup two weeks ago with an average age of 24.55 years. Again, to add perspective, this lineup, on average, was over a year younger than the average age of the Ottawa Senators. As players like Gonchar and Parenteau return from injury, the average age rises, however the fact remains that the organization has depth at nearly every position, a luxury that only a few short years ago was more a dream than reality.

Turning our attention once more to the composition of the lineup, there are both certainties and uncertainties going forward. Goaltending merits no further discussion. Carey Price is the starter. Case, like the net he is protecting, is closed. Where the real topic for conversation and further debate originates is on defence. Markov and Subban have solidified the top pairing and make this exercise somewhat easier. Beaulieu has grabbed hold of the third spot and has proven to be successful and quickly adaptable with any partner. Additionally, he offers the flexibility of being able to play on the right or left side, a luxury that coach Therien may use in the future. For now though, he best serves the needs of the organization on the left side of the 3/4 pairing.

Now, here is where the fun starts. Assuming that all parties are fully healthy, the Habs have Gonchar, Gilbert, Emelin, Petry and Weaver to squeeze into 3 roster spots. Weaver has been the odd man out for much of the second half of the season, so he can be removed from the equation. However, the team must now decide on the final three positions. Personally, I don’t believe the team traded what could amount to a 2nd and 3rd round pick for a depth defencemen. As a result, I believe that Petry slots onto the 3/4 pairing with Beaulieu. I think the opponent might determine who plays on the 5/6 pairing. In the interim, as Emelin continues to regain his health, Gonchar and Gilbert will manage the defensive assignment together. In the event the Habs play the Bruins, Emelin could play a more prominent role. Going into the playoffs though, the opponent may negate the need to have him in the lineup as Therien leans heavily on the old guard, specifically Gonchar who MT coached in Pittsburgh. All this is to say that the organization has depth and multiple options, qualities that could help bear fruit in the postseason.

Up front, the complexities are magnified. Coach Therien has proven to be anything but predictable with his lines and throws the proverbial blender into puree mode every so often. Setting aside the possibility of MT going slap chop on the lineup, let’s start with the certainties. Max is our first line left winger. Plekanec is the second line centre. End of certainties. Seriously though, anything that follows is purely based on speculation. There is an undeniable chemistry between Pacioretty and Desharnais. Save Carey Price being, well, Carey Price, I firmly believe the organization will stumble in its pursuit for a 25th Stanley Cup, the result of the absence of a first line centre.

That said, the options available are somewhat limited. It would appear that the puzzle is missing a number of pieces, while there are an equal number of duplicates. This is where the final draft of a lineup becomes so challenging to put together. So much as I would love to have Galchenyuk lead the team as the number one centre iceman, the reality is we are looking to next year before this transition is complete. In the interim the first line will be centred by Desharnais, flanked by Pacioretty on the left wing. The right wing position becomes a little less certain. I have no issue penciling Gallagher into this role however I also like the chemistry he has with Chucky and Pleks on the second line.

The absence of a top 6 right winger was certainly the missing piece at trade deadline. As Bergevin was unwilling or perhaps unable to meet the asking price, we must work with the options available internally. I would love to see Parenteau grab this top line role, but he has proven to be ineffective and inconsistent. Although other players have become greater focal points, the fact remains that PA has not scored since November. His 6 goals are certainly well below expectations, considering his contract ($4 million dollars) and recent success during the strike shortened season. He has failed to find consistency despite being utilized on the top line earlier this season and having had extended opportunities on the power play (3 of his 6 goals were scored with the man advantage). Although the final order might change, I have to assume that the top six features a combination of the players mentioned thus far.

I have yet to see the Lars Eller wing experiment live. My observations are based on watching the games on television, which don’t always provide an opportunity for advanced scouting. However, based on what I have seen I am not convinced he can excel anywhere but at centre ice. As a result, he is my third line centre. It was at centre ice that Eller played his best hockey, ironically during the playoffs. Perhaps this year, once again, he begins to click in the postseason. This would be a major boost for the secondary scoring, which has been challenged to produce offence throughout the season. Prust and Weise have been used in a number of roles this season. Traditionally both players would be limited to a position on the fourth line, but, in a pinch (or in a stroke of genius or absolute madness depending on who you ask) MT has pushed the role players, who have proven to be serviceable.

That said, my lineup would relegate both players to the fourth line. Given the introduction of Brian Flynn along with Devante Smith-Pelly into the organization, the fight for a position on the right side will be heated, with the loser potentially headed to the press box. The fourth line becomes no less clear. There are three players, all capable of centering the group. Unfortunately, only one will win the roster spot, while the other two will hope to stay ready to serve the team in a depth role. Malhotra is a favorite inside the locker room, but it is impossible to ignore the fact that he, Christian Thomas and Michel Bournival combined for a total of 9 points over a combined 101 games. That lack of offence was the primary driver behind the moves to acquire Flynn and Mitchell from the Sabres, players who each have more points than the three Habs combined. Additionally, both Flynn and Mitchell bring experience on the penalty kill, an area that has suffered over the past few weeks. Further, like any child who receives a new toy, the organization will want to test their new acquisitions in an effort to determine how each might be used going forward.

All this could force Jacob de la Rose to the press box and ultimately Hamilton. The young Swede has proven to be very capable however there is simply not enough room provided all parties are healthy. It would not be the worst thing in the world to have him returned to Hamilton and help lead the Bulldogs as they jockey for a postseason position.

The puzzle pieces might not fit perfectly, however the picture they produce is quite clear. Although the ultimate goal of hoisting the Stanley Cup very likely remains another year or more away, the puzzle is taking shape before our very eyes.


Lineup (assuming all players healthy)

Pacioretty – Desharnais – Parenteau

Galchenyuk – Plekanec – Gallagher

DSP – Eller – Flynn

Prust – Mitchell – Weise

Markov – Subban

Beaulieu – Petry

Emelin – Gonchar

I welcome your feedback. Please share your thoughts with me on Twitter @LWOScjcasselman.