April 5, 2012; Raleigh, NC, USA; Montreal Canadiens center Tomas Plekanec (14) in the face off circle against the Carolina Hurricanes at the PNC center. The Hurricanes defeated the Canadiens 2-1 in the shoot out. Mandatory Credit: James Guillory-US PRESSWIRE

4 Men Deep: The Montreal Canadiens’ Conundrum at Center.


The selection of Alex Galchenyuk 3rd overall in the 2012 entry draft combined with emerging pefromances from recent AHL graduates David Desharnais and Lars Eller as legit top nine centermen suddenly gives the Montreal a potentially good problem to have. More good centermen then regular minutes spots in the lineup. With franchise cornerstone Tomas Plekanec also in the fold there are 4 players that should probably be playing top nine forward minutes for the NHL club within a years time.

What can be done with this relative good fortune?

One obvious solution is to use the windfall to trade for a positional need. This neatly resolves the issue, with one of the veterans moving for whatever the best return versus value of retention is. But trades are very difficult to predict ahead of time, the trading market is constantly in flux based on what the other 29 teams in the league are willing to do.

If we disregard trading and look to see what can be done internally with these four in the lineup the solution is obvious. Someone moves to the left side.  After Max Pacioretty, arguably the teams top offensive threat, the organization is very weak there, both in the NHL and in prospects close to the NHL. Natural RW in Palushaj and Bourque are fairly likely to be tapped to play there next season. Meanwhile RW is the strongest spot in the prospect chart for Montreal and two quality veterans in Cole and Gionta make the position solid for the NHL team.

If a center must be moved to the left side, the question becomes who.

1. Plekanec. He’s an ideal 1A/1B centerman and the team’s best two-way center. He was a LW earlier in his career but seems to be a natural for center work. I would consider what Plekanec brings to the position too value to tamper with.

2. Eller. As the third center on the depth chart he would seem to be the natural player to shift. But that experiment has been tried and generally met with failure in the NHL. Plus Eller’s greatest strengths are based around defensive zone play and puck control. Somewhat like Gomez, his skillset is best maximised down the middle. He’s also probably the best player to anchor a defensive or two-way focused third line.

3. Desharnais. As probably the team’s best offensive zone playmaker Desharnais seems to be a natural fit at center. But at very important center jobs of puck control and transition and deep defensive zone play, Desharnais is weak compared to his peers. Plus there is nothing to indicate that playmakers must be centermen, look at St. Louis or Hemsky for great examples. Desharnais has not played much LW in the NHL, but when called upon in 2010-11 he was reasonably effective.

4. Galchenyuk. Long term the club should want him to be the team’s number one center. However long-term for a 18 year-old can be 5 years away. In my opinion Tyler Seguin is the best recent comparable player from to Galchenyuk and he has been very succesful playing winger in Boston, allowed to break into the NHL at a less demanding position. Galchenyuk has a balance natural offensive skill set and strong hockey smarts as well as does not seem to play a game that depends on the center ice positon. Short-term he could be very well suited for LW, in the NHL.

While any solution on paper is subject to the test of real life, this would be my proposed strategy, absent a really attractive trade solution.  A platoon of Desharnais and Galchenyuk as C and LW, likely on the same line. Going into the next couple seasons the center usage seems to be this:

Plekanec anchoring the team’s all purpose two way line, one experted to play against tough opposition and score. Gionta would likely be his most common linemate.

Eller centering a defensively focused third line, carrying depth forwards and defensive specialists like Moen, Prust, and Armstrong. Perhaps a more offensive depth line strategy can be built around prospect graduates like Leblanc or Gallagher, but they will not be ready for high level offensive play or truely tough minutes like that of a Plekanec line, so Eller is again a likely center for them.

An offensively focused line, including players like Desharnais, Pacioretty and Cole (although that particular line might be broken up). Considering his relative strengths compared to Eller and Plekanec, this is where Desharnais should play. It could also morph into a depth scoring line if Eller takes a big step forward and graduating offesnive forward prospects need Desharnais with them in a depth scoring line.

Young Galchenyuk could come in here to play LW, displacing the declining Bourque in the depth chart. Probably combining with Desharnais on the offensive line, where number 94 can be a strong, fast, skilled winger with some defensive skill whose ability to score goals would complementing number 51′s playmaking skills.

With Galchenyuk’s maturation he could take his foretold place at the center of the ice. Then Desharnais could move to what I envision could be his long term role on a wining Montreal team, as a winger. While he has been primarily a center during his career, a center shifting to wing once they make the world’s strongest league is not uncommon if it suits his skill set. I believe that Desharnais as a winger may even be too his advantage.

I see Desharnais as a player that provides the kind of playmaking support to his wingers that a very good offensive forward will provide but fairly weak at some other disciplines which limit his overall effectiveness. His puck possession, overall defense and likely his personal goal scoring I think he’s very much weaker than Plekanec and probably Eller too. So he has the specialist role of being very good at some things but with notable deficiencies.

His track record before this league supports that he has at least the natural talent of a 45 point forward, likely better since he’s generally translated well to the NHL. Its the 60 point scoring that has been touted which needs special circumstances. The value of putting him in these circumstances is determined by how much you need mid-level first line scoring from him and how much resources are you prepared to commit to making that happen.

As a top scoring unit forward I see him as the complimentary player or even place holder. The guy that keep up with your best, contribute and provide skills that may be lacking otherwise but not be the driver of results. Analogous to Burrows in Vancouver, Parenteau in NY, Purcell in TB etc. Much like my stance on A Kostitsyn, we shouldn’t despise complimentary players but shouldn’t expect what they can’t deliver either.

Ultimately Desharnais should be looking at a similar role to the one that Cammalleri played in Montreal. I player valued for certain offensive zone skills but not counted on to carry the play, but be the support for those that did (Plekanec). Cammalleri probably had more talent but Desharnais should be re-numerated far less and 13 was a goalscorer and 51 a playmaker.

Wingers on defense do most of their work interdicting passing lanes and attempting puck steals on moving pucks. Something a guy like Gionta excels at and Desharnais has the smarts and hands to do himself. Watch video of Desharnais on the penalty kill and you can see how well he does it.

Defense at center requires playing lower in the defensive zone, guarding the slot and attacking opposing forwards with possession. Stuff guys like Eller and Plekanec are far better equipped to do than Desharnais. He’s not great and holding ground and denying territory but is good at disrupting what the opponent is attempting to do at the opportune moment.

I recall they actually did this a bunch last season with Cole playing the normal center role in the defensive zone and Desharnais playing his spot.

I wouldn’t advocate transitioning him to wing if the team didn’t end up having a surplus in the middle, but his game is the most translatable to the wing of the current 3 and we’re looking at Galchenyuk as the future leader down the middle. I’d bet they’d be better off with Desharnais at center with a rookie Galchenyuk at LW for example. There’s a decent chance roster changes end up making the point moot, but in a world where Galchenyuk is a top center and Plekanec and Eller are still on the team, Desharnais would be the guy I’d first look to shifting to the side. His game seems the most translatable. You lose more efficiency playing Plekanec or Eller on the wing as their strengths in all zones are center strengths, while Desharnais is only really good at doing center things in the offensive zone.

In 2013-14 a forward top nine of:

Pacioretty-Plekanec-Gionta

Galchenyuk-Desharnais-Cole

Moen-Eller-Leblanc

Could be very effective and help lead the team back to the top six of the Eastern Conference. While further down the road we could see

Pacioretty -Plekanec- ?

Desharnais -Galchenyuk- ?

? -Eller- ?

As the core of the team’s forwards.

In any event, the core of a competitive group at forward seems to be in place in Montreal. Success will depend on how well the other holes are filled.

Tags: Alex Galchenyuk David Desharnais Featured Lars Eller Montreal Canadiens Popular Tomas Plekanec

  • Jason

    Great article, I have been a big advocate of moving Desharnais to the wing for these exact reasons. Even if Galchenyuk doesn’t end up on montreal this year, I’d love to give Eller a more offensive role by shifting Pleks up to the first line and Eller to the second. As of right now Gomez is still on the team and though overpaid would be a solid option as a third line center as he does have a defensive side to his game. I’d make the line Pacioretty-Pleks-Gio, Desharnais-Eller-Cole, Moen-Gomez- Bourque. This gives you scoring depth and size on all 3 lines and I could see Bourque and Gomez putting up decent numbers as a third line against weaker opponents and both are still defensively responsible.

    • Stephan Cooper

      Gomez could be useful there but I think there is a pretty good likelihood that he’s a CBA casualty and won’t be there anymore.

      I’d probably use Armstrong-Gomez-Bourque in that scenario though, a pair of high % shooters to go with Gomez’s offensive zone time gaining wizardy. The Prust+Moen form the core of a pure defense line.

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