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An inventory of the Habs: the fowards

Fianlly, after 113 days of toil, the NHL lockout is now over! The Habs, along with all the other NHL clubs, will soon be beginning their abbreviated training camps in order to prepare for a shortened season.

Let’s take a step back and take a systematic inventory of the players available to the Habs for the upcoming, shortened season. It’s a team that has a lot more talent that they’re often given credit for (best-illustrated by their early 5-on-5 performance last year) but has a number of glaring holes that will certainly keep them out of the list of the NHL’s top team and may prevent them from taking best advantadge of the talent they do have. On the other hand, they play in a very weak conference and so, even with its warts and gaps, the Habs’ roster is strong enough that competing for a playoff spot is a realistic goal. Of course, in a shortened season, good and bad luck matters more than it otherwise would, and a middling team like the Habs could even more easily find themselves in the cellar once again; or they might make a 2007-2008-style, percentage-fuelled rise at the top of the standings.

Montreal’s holes went pretty much entirely unfilled during an offseason that saw Bergevin heavily pursue and overpay Brandon Prust, spend 1.5 million dollars on a defenseman who may not be good enough to crack the lineup, and take a one-million flyer on a onetime high-end third-liner. On the RFA side, Pacioretty’s unbelievably team-friendly deal was undeniably a major coup and easily the best feather in Bergevin’s cap, PK Subban, the team’s best defenseman if not its best player outright, remains unsigned. I’ve no doubt, however, that Subban will be under contract before the season start, though perhaps not on the long-term, cap-friendly deal that the team ought to be pursuing.

It’s also interesting to note that Therrien’s tendencies are very different than Martin’s, at least while he was with the Penguins. While Martin would use two-way, power-on-power lines (exemplified by his usage of Tomas Plekanec), Therrien uses the classic, but nowadays rarer approach of using a checking line against opposing top scorers and trying to give his better players more offensive opportunities (his usage of Jordan Staal best exemplifies this approach). As such, it may be that two lines that look superficially the same find themselves with very different roles under the two coaches.

Without further ado, though, let’s take a step-by-step look at the Habs depth chart for next year; we’ll start with the forwards, and will examine the defensemen and goalies in a later post.

Top-6 forwards

This is an area the Habs are weak in — it was their biggest area of need this offseason, but Bergevin elected not to pursue any of the available candidates, citing lack of “fit”, even though there were quality options at the high end (Alexander Semin), the lower end (such as Andrei Kostitsyn), flyers on players coming back from injury (for example Guillaume Latendresse) and intriguing gambles (as Jaromir Jagr would’ve been). As a result, the Habs find themselves short in forward talent.

The good news is that they do have five players who are either established top-6 forwards and a sixth who can probably fill the role. The bad news is that this leaves them vulnerable to injury. Further complicating matters, the position spread is not ideal.

Centers

Tomas Plekanec: Remains the team’s best center; he’s an excellent two-way player and one of the best penalty-killing forwards in hockey. Therrien’s tendencies to split his lines in offensive and defensive roles rather than go power-on-power may mean a change of role for #14, who may be spared the extremely tough minutes he’s seen over the last few years. More to the point, there’s hope that he will be given real top-6 linemates if he’s asked to do real top-6 work. A solid, dependable center for either of the Habs’ top-6 lines.

David Desharnais: The diminutive center is one-dimensional, but he does what he does extremely well. He’s perhaps given a bit too much credit for his wingers’ scoring performance, but he’s fully capable of centering an offensive-oriented line and may well flourish if Therrien follows his Pittsburgh pattern and gives the tougher minutes to specific defensive lines, allowing Desharnais to keep being offered time with strong wingers in the offensive zone, where he excels so well. It’s likely that he will start the season centering Pacioretty and Cole, but that may not be the best spot for him, and I think exploring moving him at wing (to make room for Eller and Galchenyuk, who are both significantly younger, longer-term players) would be useful; other combination of wingers would also be interesting to look at, especially if Plekanec is once again asked to take on tough opposition where a winger of Pacioretty’s talents could prove especially useful.

Lars Eller: A strong two-way player. His scoring touch is underrated; he received rather limited power play time, which means that most of his production has been achieved at even-strength, and despite the Habs’ well-established dearth of healthy quality wingers past the Desharnais line. We may, however, see him filling in at left wing, especially on an hypothetical power-on-power line with Plekanec. This has been tried briefly last season and had strong, intriguing results in a small sample. With the Habs’ lack of quality top-6 LWs, their excess of centers, the likelihood of seeing Desharnais sticking at center, and Galchenyuk waiting in the wings, I would not be surprised to see the Habs experiment with converting Eller to LW. However, Lars Eller is easily the closest thing to Jordan Staal the Habs have, and Therrien may elect to make him the centerpiece of his checking line. He’s certainly very capable of doing that, but that would leave the Habs short a top-6 player.

Right Wingers

Erik Cole: He’s due for some regression scoring-wise, but Gauthier’s banner UFA signing remains a horse at  even-strength and easily capable of fulfilling a top-6 RW role. He’s done so for years and while he’s getting on his years a bit, he shouldn’t suddenly fall off a cliff. But if he ends up with 25 goals rather than 35, don’t go wondering how his game needs to be “fixed” — plain regression alone should see this happen, even if Cole plays as well as ever. Still, if he can keep scoring on the PP (something which had never been a strength with Carolina), he could still outdo several of his Hurricane seasons scoring-wise.

Brian Gionta: When healthy the captain remains a strong two-way player and quality goal-scorer. This is a guy who’s scored 29 and 28 goals in the seasons before last, after all, and that mostly with Scott Gomez. Let’s hope he’s more lucky with injuries this year, though at his age one shouldn’t bet overmuch on it. He’s a complete player and can fill a top-6 power-on-power RW role easily. All in all, between Gionta and Cole, the Habs’ right wing in good shape, with two quality, two-way players who are both genuine, if low-end first-line players.

Left Wingers

Max Pacioretty: Far and away the Habs’ best left-winger and arguably its best forward (with Plekanec). Basically, whichever line he is on instantly becomes the top line because the gap between him and the next-best LW is much greater than any two of the Habs’ C or especially RWs. Pacioretty was outright elite in 5-on-5 goal-scoring last season (being outdone only by Stamkos and Malkin!) and while some regression on that count is to be expected, we can hope to see it compensated by an increase power play scoring where his shooting percentage was abysmal. All in all, MaxPac is at worst a top-line winger, and it’s outrageous that the Habs managed to sign him for so little for so long. His last two seasons suggest he could even be one of the league’s elite LWs at the high end!

Bottom-6 forwards:

As the converse to their thin top-6-quality guys, the Habs are overloaded in this category. It’s also the area Bergevin added most to this summer.

Rene Bourque: Bourque is not a top-6 player; he doesn’t have the defensive chops, and in fact was an outright boat anchor in that regard for the Habs last season, a trend that unfortunately was merely a continuation of his Flames days. A two-time 27 goal-scorer, but unfortunately quantitative analysis suggests that his high shot rates have been achieved by depressing his linemates’; in other words, he’s a puck hog, and his ability to generate overall offense may well be overstated by his shot and goal totals. Nevertheless, Bourque may provide value as the trigger man on a sheltered offensive line. He’s coming back from a debilitating long-term injury, which certainly won’t help. His long contract, high pricetag, and lack of effectiveness make him perhaps the Habs’ foremost candidate for an amnesty buyout (as Kaberle and Gomez will only have one year apiece left on their contracts).

Travis Moen: A strong defensive player; his offense has always been negligible, but his ability to slow top players’ offense to a crawl was a real factor in Anaheim’s Cup win and was the reason he was often used to replace Plekanec’s wingers when they were injured. There’s been a notion that his role was to provide Brandon Prust-style “toughness” to the team, but that’s never been the point of Moen. He’s a low-event defensive player capable of slowing down top opposition. As such, he’s a natural fit for a defensive third line in Therrien’s scheme.

Colby Armstrong: An intriguing gamble by Bergevin. In the worst case Armstrong can play a fourth-line role, but he’s been used as a tough-minutes defensive forward with defensive capabilities in the past (his even-strength scoring pre-Leafs was quite respectable). If he can regain his form at least partially, he may find himself a key kog on Therrien’s primary defensive line, or serve as the first player to be moved up as a stopgap should an injury to the top-6 occur.

Brandon Prust: A deluxe, defensively-oriented fourth-liner who can fill in on the third line. If the Habs were serious about giving him second-line and power play time, the team is in trouble. Otherwise he’s not a bad player to have at all, though the Habs are giving him too much money. Prust will no doubt indulge in fisticuffs repeatedly over the year, which will raise his profile, entertain fans, and do little to help the team win.

Ryan White: His energy is appreciated by fans and no doubt by coaches, but he’s a largely unremarkable fourth-liner. Still, the Habs look like they will be capable of putting out a reasonably capable fourth line out, one that may not need as much sheltering as last year’s unit, giving Therrien more options with the icetime of his better players.

Michael Blunden: Despite Randy Cunneyworth’s high regard for his energy and gritty grinding play, he’s an AHL-quality player and should at most be used as a 13th forward.

Petteri Nokelainen: Again, AHL-quality reserves; hopefully he sees very limited NHL time.

Louis Leblanc: Disappointing scoring totals in the AHL, but then again he’s playing the third line and has not seen the PP much. Last year he was a NHL quality player and arguably better than most of the names above on this list, so he’s a candidate to fill a role in a third or fourth line and certainly is the first callup. He’s certainly better than Blunden and Nokelainen!

Wild cards

Scott Gomez: It’s difficult to predict what a healthy Scott Gomez may bring to the club. Is he completely done as a useful NHL player (certainly a common opinion) or can he still bring some usefulness that can, without justifying his ludicrous pricetag, help the Habs be more competitive with him than without? Despite his much-maligned scoring woes, he remains a strong puck-possession driver (albeit in relatively sheltered minutes) and could be very useful on a line designed to push the puck from the defensive zone to the offensive zone. I’ve often wondered why a player like him, who has a special skill for carrying the puck from the defensive to the offensive zone, was not used more on defensive faceoffs. He also remains a capable playmaker; perhaps he might prove a good fit for notorious puck hog René Bourque? In any case, given the amnesty buyouts, this is almost certainly the last we’ll see of Gomez in a Habs jersey. Even if he somehow has an unlikely, miraculous resurrection, the Habs will need the cap space.

Alex Galchenyuk: Should Alex Galchenyuk play with the Habs this season? The decision should hinge on an evaluation of what’s best for Galchenyuk’s development curve versus the cost of burning a year off his entry-level contract. At his age, his potential impact on the club is likely to be relatively low. If Galchenyuk does join the team, he’s unlikely to be capable of fulfilling a power-on-power top-6 role for the Habs, but may do quite well in a more sheltered offensive role, perhaps as a left-winger to Desharnais. Therrien’s line matching approach may suit a single offensive-oriented recruit better than would Martin’s power-on-power scheme. Of course, there’s always the possibility that the Habs luck out and that Galchenyuk imitates Sean Couturier and becomes a two-way force.

Conclusion

All in all, the Habs’ forward corps is thin and full of unslightly gaps, but serviceable enough if healthy. If Therrien is creative, he should be able to put together units to fulfill any role; there are two-way players capable of playing power-on-power, purely offensive players, purely defensive players, and a reasonable amount of talent overall. If the Habs are to be competitive, it will be vitally important for the coaching staff to perform a good, strong, cold-eyed evaluation of the players’ capabilities and how they might be best used, and to not get mired in hype or romantic notions about what the players could be or what some of their short-term statistics might make them look like. But there’s enough variety that the shortcomings of some of these players could be covered by the strengths of others.

Due to the lack of depth and versatile utility players who can fill in other roles, the forward corps is going to be extremely vulnerable to injury. But the Habs’ injury totals is another variable we can hope to see regress to the mean in 2013…

Topics: Depth Chart, Montreal Canadiens

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