A lot of talk surrounding the Montreal Canadiens this offseason has been centered around the fact that they allowed several veteran leaders to leave the team. With Brian Gionta and Josh Gorges heading to the Buffalo Sabres, the Habs are in need of naming a new team captain as well as an assistant.
Perhaps more importantly than finding new leadership to take over the team, the Habs lost two of their top penalty killers when the pair of veterans left town for the Sabres. Montreal was one of the top shorthanded teams in the league last season, successfully killing off 85.1% of their penalties which ranked fourth in the NHL.
With Gionta and Gorges gone, can they sustain such a high pace?
Gorges led the team in shorthanded ice time in the regular season, and trailed only Mike Weaver, who he was partnered with, in postseason PK ice time. Gorges is one of the best shot blockers in the league, ranking 5th in the regular season in the stat, even though he missed 16 games.
The Canadiens with the most shorthanded ice time in the regular season were Tomas Plekanec who will surely play a huge role there again, followed by Gorges, Andrei Markov who is 35, Travis Moen who is not likely to play every game, Doug Murray who is gone, Gionta, then Raphael Diaz who is also gone, Lars Eller and Alexei Emelin followed by Ryan White who left, and then Brandon Prust.
That is a lot of turnover in one summer for a shorthanded unit.
So who is left to play on the penalty kill? Well, Plekanec is sure to see lots of ice time again and will likely be partnered with Brandon Prust as the top forward tandem. You would have to think newcomer Manny Malhotra, with all of his face-off domination, will take over some of the minutes from Plekanec, as well as not overworking Eller on the penalty kill. Moen would likely join him when he is in the lineup, but how often the veteran will actually dress remains a mystery.
Michael Bournival is another option, as his speed and smarts make him a perfect fit on the PK, but he is also in a fight to get in the lineup at all. I doubt if Malhotra would be paired with Eller as the two are centers, and Eller could center the third duo. Yes, NHL teams use more than two shorthanded units, even if the NHL video game’s would have you believe otherwise.
Brendan Gallagher seems like he would be a good fit, but he averaged 4 seconds of penalty killing time per game last season, so I doubt if the coach will suddenly trust him with the minutes. Max Pacioretty actually averaged over a minute per game last year in the regular season on the PK, and though he is known mostly for his goal scoring, he could find himself playing a prominent role while down a man as well this season.
Dale Weise was used sparingly as a penalty killer after arriving in Montreal, but may see himself getting more time there next season out of necessity. He is a very quick and defensive minded player, so it is not a reach to think he could excel alongside Malhotra or Eller while a man down.
If it were up to me, I would certainly be using Plekanec and Prust as the top penalty killing pair of forwards. Looking at the Habs depth chart, David Desharnais is the only center who I would not trust with shorthanded minutes, so that means Malhotra and Eller also get PK time.
On the wing, it is doubtful that all of Prust, Moen and Bournival will be in the lineup in the same game, but they would be my top three PK wingers. Since they aren’t all going to play in the same game, I would rotate them and then use Weise and Pacioretty on a third pairing with Eller.
Plekanec – Prust/Bournival
Malhotra – Bournival/Moen
Eller – Weise/Pacioretty
I can see Bournival making himself a regular and even bumping Prust from the lineup on occasion when the team is fully healthy. That would put Bournival on the top unit with Plekanec, while Weise would move up to play with Malhotra and the Eller-Pacioretty combo would remain.
On defence, things are not quite as easy to choose. With a pair of rookies looking for regular playing time, and some of the Habs most used penalty killers gone, it will be interesting to see who eats these tough minutes next season.
Markov was used a lot in these situations, and though it seemed to wear him down towards the end of the year, how could he not be used there again with Gorges and Murray gone.
Tom Gilbert arrives from the Florida Panthers, and though he is a solid puck mover, he averaged less than a minute per game on the worst penalty killing team in the league last season. That ranking is not entirely his fault, but it is also not encouraging that he was not trusted to play on the 30th best PK in the league.
Nathan Beaulieu cracked the lineup in the postseason, but was not used at all as a penalty killer, nor should he have been. Beaulieu brings all kinds of fantastic skills to the Canadiens lineup, but shot blocking defensive shutdown guy does not describe the smooth skater and great passer.
Mike Weaver was great on the Canadiens PK last season, and will reprise that role for a full season now. He will likely be used with Alexei Emelin on the top shorthanded pairing, as the Russian has been counted on in these situations in the past, and is likely the Habs best option on the left side.
Since we have all but ruled out Beaulieu and Gilbert on the PK, that forces Markov and P.K. Subban to be counted on as the second shorthanded pairing. Markov has played that role in the past, but it seems to wear on him throughout a long season. Subban has not played the role often in his career, but will certainly be able to handle it.
Subban gets all kinds of praise for his offensive instincts, skating, shot and playmaking abilities, while doubters still believe he is a risk in his own end. This sentiment could not be further from the truth.
Subban has grown leaps and bounds as a defensive defenseman, and showed in the postseason, especially against the Boston Bruins, that he was more than capable of playing big minutes against extremely difficult competition.
I would not be surprised if the Canadiens penalty kill is even better next season, simply because Subban will finally play a role on it. He averaged just 40 seconds of shorthanded ice time per game last season, and will likely tack a minute onto that average this coming season.
So to sum up, my defense pairings would be:
Emelin – Weaver
Markov – Subban
The wildcard in this is Jarred Tinordi. When he is placed in the lineup, it will likely be at the expense of Beaulieu as NHL coaches, especially the Canadiens bench boss, are terrified of using too many young players. Tinordi is enormous, can skate well, is sound positionally and an all around solid defensive defender.
When Tinordi is in the lineup, I would use him on the second pairing with Subban, to give the elder Markov a break. I can’t imagine that Michel Therrien shares my ideas, but I think it would be in the best interest of the team to keep Markov fresh as long as you can.
There has been a lot of change on the Habs PK unit, but one thing remains constant, and that is the presence of fantastic goaltending. Carey Price was the biggest reason the team had such a splendid PK a year ago, and he will be there once again to bail his team when he needs to do so.
The Habs set the bar pretty high last season with as 85.1% efficiency on the penalty kill. However, with minimal contributions from Subban last season, next year’s PK club could be even better than the one we saw last season.