Dec. 11, 2011; New York, NY, USA; New York Rangers right wing Brandon Prust (8) and Dallas Stars center Jake Dowell (11) fight during the second period against the Dallas Stars at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Debby Wong-US PRESSWIRE

Brandon Prust, or the curious case of the Habs' New Sherriff

With the lockout in force, hockey fans reach for every bit of news they can grasp on to slake their puck addiction. Declarations are dissected, hypothetical lineups are drawn up and picked apart, and the offseasons of every team comes under repeated scrutiny, especially its newcomers. Your writers at A Winning Habit are no different; this article is a fair bit less analytical than the last few I’ve written; it pertains to the curious case Brandon Prust, so far Bergevin’s signature UFA signing, and certain interesting quotes surrounding him. These quotes are from an interesting pair of articles on the Canadiens’ prize UFA signing and “new sheriff in town”, Brandon Prust, written by Dave Stubbs, of Hockey Inside Out and the Gazette.

I normally wouldn’t use the term “prize UFA signing” for a player like Prust, but it seems that the Canadiens organization disagrees. As Stubbs’ article reveals, the Habs were so keen on Prust that not only did they come to him with a lucrative four-year, ten-million-dollar contract offer… they sent their head coach and director of player personnel to meet him at his home:

But the Canadiens — specifically head coach Michel Therrien and player personnel director Scott Mellanby — literally rang the Thorndale, Ont., doorbell of Prust’s parents, Kevin and Theresa.

The significance of that is obvious: Montreal targeted Brandon Prust right from the start of UFA season, and made him a high priority. Now of course, Montreal’s massive revenues enable the team brass to fly people out to meet UFAs as much as they please, more so than most other teams in the league. The Habs would be remiss not to use this advantage when targeting free agents, even those of lesser stature that less well-heeled would never consider courting in-person; travel expenses, after all, don’t count against the salary cap! So I’m glad their exercising their financial muscle. But targeting Prust with their head coach and highest-ranking director does mean that they were after him specifically, and did not target another player during that time.

And in the end, they did pay him lots of money for a bottom-six player with five goals and seventeen points. Of course, Prust is not paid so much for his hockey skills: he led the league in fighting majors. This would seem to indicate that Bergevin is of the school of thought that the Habs needed to make a priority of acquiring, well, a sheriff; that they were being intimidated and were in need of toughness as much as, if not more than, skill. This would explain why the Habs targeted him instead of, say, the top-6 left wing they sorely needed or even a top-4 defenseman.

Then again, perhaps they think they got that top-6 winger. From Mr. Stubb’s article again:

“Michel said he likes a guy like me on every line, that he likes a couple of skilled guys on a line and a guy who’s going to get the puck to them,” Prust said. “I don’t want anybody to tell me I’m going to play first line because that’s not going to happen.

“(Therrien) said I’m more a third-line guy, but I’ll get chances on the second line and power play. I won’t be first-wave power play, but I’ll get my opportunities here. If I do what I know I can do, I’ll earn my ice time.”

“Michel said he likes a guy like me on every line, that he likes a couple of skilled guys on a line and a guy who’s going to get the puck to them,” Prust said. “I don’t want anybody to tell me I’m going to play first line because that’s not going to happen.

“(Therrien) said I’m more a third-line guy, but I’ll get chances on the second line and power play. I won’t be first-wave power play, but I’ll get my opportunities here. If I do what I know I can do, I’ll earn my ice time.”

Those are interesting insights on the coach’s planned strategy; the reader could be forgiven for thinking back to Carbonneau and his sometimes-odd personnel deployments. Without suggesting that Therrien would go to that level of strangeness, it still points to some odd choices.

Assuming that Therrien sees the Pacioretty-Desharnais-Cole line as the first line, this would mean Prust would “get his chances” by slotting on Plekanec’s wing at even-strength. That would mean much tougher minutes than Prust has ever faced. Of course, Prust is no stranger to the defensive zone, having had zone start ratios of 42.3% and 33.7% over the last two seasons. But he has never been used regularly against opposing top lines, and in truth, it is a task that Moen is perhaps better suited for.

More importantly, Prust is a virtual non-factor offensively; he generates less than a shot per game, and his 13-goal, 29-point career high represents a wild outlier in his career path, and his advanced statistics are in the same vein. They also make him an even odder choice for the power play, and Prust’s coaches over the years have seemed to agree: other than that outlying 2010-2011 season where he spent a whopping 17 seconds a game on the power play, Prust’s average power play time has never exceeded seven seconds. He has a grand total of one career NHL power play point (an assist). He wasn’t even a big scorer in junior.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with having Brandon Prust’s on one’s team; he’s a deluxe fourth-liner, has defensive ability, and can kill penalties. Unlike too many of the disappearing breed of enforcers, Prust has real, NHL-quality hockey skills and can take a regular shift without actively hurting his team. They are not, however, the skills of a player who should be signed to a 2.5-million-a-year contract, a prize UFA who warrants personal contact by the head coach and a high-ranking director, and especially not the skills of a player who belongs on a tough-minutes “second” line, let alone any power play in the NHL. Those are very odd decisions.

What’s even more perplexing is that playing grinders on the power play has not really been a Therrien hallmark. Outside of employing Gary Roberts heavily on the man advantage on the rare occasion he was healthy (and the aging Roberts was still a much better offensive player than Prust and a onetime 53-goal scorer!), Therrien has handed power play time to scorers as much as his team’s depth permitted. And his even-strength ice-time distribution was similarly sensible; even though Laraque received a fair bit of icetime, said icetime was strictly fourth-line and heavily sheltered. Prust is a much better player than Laraque, of course, but I would expect Prust’s usage to be similar to that of Kennedy or Ruutu. In other words: Therrien has been a very sensible distributor of icetime, and giving a player like Prust significant icetime or time in the top-6 would not only be questionable coaching, it would also be out of character for the Habs’ coach.

Unless Therrien has decided to change his style and place Prust in a role he’s clearly unsuited for, it’s difficult to imagine Prust would get much of a chance on the second line or on the power play. He might get a few shifts here and there, but it’s unlikely that he would stick there, especially since he would be unlikely to perform well.

Still, the question remains: why target Prust so heavily, and tell him what he’s been told? That the Habs brass value his fisticuffs seems evident, and that may herald a change in that direction for the team (a change that strikes me as being unlikely to lead to more wins). But even then that is a lot of effort and money to put into a player of this type, and the usage he’s been promised seems iffy at best for him. I’m left to wonder what evaluation the team has made of Prust’s hockey (read: non-fighting) skills.

And ultimately, that’s fans can do with the NHL in lockout: wonder, and speculate…

Tags: Brandon Prust Michel Therrien Montreal Canadiens

  • BobbyF

    Why does the idea of playing Pleks with 2 top sixers seem so foreign to this team?

    • Mathieu Roy

      I suspect mostly because they don’t have four top-six wingers anymore and the sacred cow 67-51-72 line can’t be broken up, or at least not so early. So Pleks carries grinders in tough minutes, which is something he can sort of do but it’s not ideal.

      The Habs badly need a LW for Plekanec, and really it was the only major hole in their lineup though there were a number of high wants. But it’s something Bergevin has completely failed to address, and it doesn’t seem like he put as much effort into it as he did targetting Prust.

      Unless they are thinking of converting Eller to LW, which would hopefully not be a long-term solution.

      • BobbyF

        Oh, I understand that depth is an issue and Pleks can generate enough shots himself to carry a grinder. I’m just frustrated that the team has allowed themselves to get into a situation where they’re considering playing the worst forward with the best centre. It’s probably just handwringing on my part, but hearing “second line” and “Brandon Prust” in the same sentence is giving me Cunneyworth era flashbacks.

  • Pingback: An inventory of the Habs: the fowards - A Winning Habit - A Montreal Canadiens Fan Site - News, Blogs, Opinion and More