In my last post, I took a look at 5 major questions that face the 2013-2014 edition of the Montreal Canadiens. In this next series of posts, I’m going to look at who I think will breakout and play a key role in the team’s success this season. I’m going to start with the offence, and then move to defence and overall team play. What I’m trying to predict here is more who steps up and plays a key role for the Canadiens this season – whose improved play and presence on the ice can tilt the balance towards success? Last year, in my opinion, that honour could have been shared by 3 key players: Brendan Gallagher, Alex Galchenyuk and Brandon Prust. While many other players made huge contributions to the team, the outstanding and unexpected play of these 3 (especially together on the same line early in the season) gave the Canadiens squad some scoring depth and allowed them to roll out 3 balanced scoring lines. It led the Canadiens to third in the league in goals for with 149, right after Chicago and Pittsburgh.
Going into this year, the makeup of the forward lines is arguably quite similar. The team is on the small side, particularly in the top-six: Daniel Briere, David Desharnais, Brendan Gallagher and Brian Gionta are all very small players (though Gallagher definitely doesn’t play like it). The one notable loss in the top-6 is Michael Ryder, but he was replaced by a similarly offensively-minded and defensively-deficient player in Daniel Briere. The upside is that Briere is a noted playoff performer in ways that Ryder is not, but Briere no longer drives possession and is clearly on the decline.
The Canadiens have one player who currently has the tools to play as a power forward: Max Pacioretty. He’s listed at 6’2 and 219 pounds, skates well and has a scoring touch. He’s shown that he can hit and make plays in the hard areas of the ice as well. After a few call-ups and hiccups in his development, Pacioretty finally made the full time jump to the Canadiens in 2010-2011, where he played the second half of the season (37 games) in Montreal, posting a solid 24 points in 37 games. That season came to a halt courtesy of a potentially career-ending set of injuries, but his complete recovery led him a 33 goal season in 2011-2012 (one of the only bright spots in a disastrous season) and again was a solid contributor in 2012-2013 with 15 goals in 44 games. I don’t think Pacioretty is quite the prototypical power forward quite yet (he would need to go to the tough areas of the ice more often) but I think he’s currently the closest the Canadiens have to that type of player, and that he can grow into that player within the next 2 seasons.
What do I think the Canadiens are missing? Another bigger forward (that uses his body) who can put the puck in the net. Obviously, this is what every single Habs fan wants – as much as I dislike Milan Lucic when he plays the Canadiens, I would take him on the team in a heartbeat. With a team full of smaller, skilled players, a hard-nosed forward that can play on the second line would be a fantastic complement to Pacioretty‘s ability to use his larger frame around the net. With that missing piece, the Canadiens become a significantly harder team to defend against, and it makes the powerplay even more of a threat with someone screening the goalie effectively. Those types of players are even more integral to a team’s success in the playoffs. It doesn’t have to be someone who will fight or make a bone crushing hit on every shift, just a player with a big enough frame to battle through checks and fight in the corners for the puck. These players don’t grow on trees and they aren’t normally available through the trade or free agent market.
While we wait for 2013 draft pick Michael McCarron to hopefully develop into that piece, I think the Canadiens currently have an asset on roster that has the tools and potential to play that style and put points on the board in the process: Rene Bourque. I know, I know – he’s nowhere close to Lucic‘s talent or physicality even on his best days – but I think he has the raw tools to be able to be a difference maker for this team in 2012-2013. His first half season with the Canadiens after his acquisition was something to behold in terms of a player not playing to his size, and it confirmed most of my impressions of Bourque in Calgary. He came with a reputation for showing up when he wants to, not playing with full effort and disappearing for long stretches (not unlike the player he was traded for). Last season, I distinctly remember being impressed with his willingness to drive the net and get tips, dirty goals and fight for loose pucks around the net. He scored a number of goals from crashing the net and potting rebounds. His season was unfortunately cut short thanks to a concussion off a sucker-punch, but he did manage to put up 7 goals in 27 games and was a far better player than the one we saw in the 2012 season. He put up another 3 points in 5 games in the playoffs, and he was one of the very few noticeable players on the Canadiens. His ability to use his large frame (6’s and 213 pounds) to drive the net, his willingness to get into good position in front of the net and his quick hands (he’s pretty good at tips and deflections) gave me the impression that there was more to Bourque‘s play than I had imagined. He’s scored 27 goals twice before in Calgary, and I think that playing with Plekanec and Gionta will allow him to use his skills to crash the net on a regular basis. Both of these players are good passers – having a healthy and focused Bourque using his skills to crash the net and look for tips, deflections and rebounds would be a fantastic addition to the offensive makeup of this squad.
I think a healthy and effective Bourque could be expected to contribute 20 goals, maybe about 45 points for the Canadiens this upcoming season. He gives the Canadiens another front-of-the-net option on the powerplay and has decent chemistry with Plekanec. In terms of his consistency, he’s 31 – what you see is largely what you get, but I think he can put it together to enough of a degree to be a difference-maker for the Canadiens in 2013-2014.