The Montreal Canadiens are currently built around having franchise players in Carey Price, P.K. Subban and Max Pacioretty leading the way. Price is an exceptional goaltender, which gives the Habs an immediate advantage over almost every team in the league.
Having Subban on the blue line ensures the Canadiens have a true number one defenceman for the foreseeable future, and Pacioretty is locked up for five more season at 4.5 million, and is coming off a 39 goal season at the age of 25.
With Price signed for the next four seasons, and Subban having just signed an eight year extension, the Canadiens have an excellent winger, defenceman and goalie who match up well against the league’s best.
But what about down the middle? How do the Montreal Canadiens stack up when you compare their centers to the rest of the league?
Depth is not an issue, with David Desharnais, Tomas Plekanec, Lars Eller and Alex Galchenyuk all capable of centering one of the top three lines, and Manny Malhotra, Michael Bournival and Brandon Prust ready to center the fourth line when called upon.
The problem is, most of the names I just mentioned are fine second or fourth line centers, but none of them jump out as a great number one center in the league right now.
Desharnais has been handling that workload for the past three seasons, and has developed a chemistry with Pacioretty. Desharnais has scored 140 points in 208 games over the past three seasons, almost exclusively on a line with Pacioretty. The way the Canadiens are built, the line with Pacioretty on it is the top offensive line, and a great place to be if you are a center looking to feed a great goal scoring winger.
Desharnais’ three season average of 0.67 points per game is not bad, and averages out to 55 points in an 82 game schedule, including his 52 points in the 2013-14 season.
Desharnais is penciled in to center the top line once again next season between Pacioretty and either Brandon Gallagher or P.A. Parenteau. One can reasonably expect him to score 55 points if he stays healthy all season, and continues to draw the offensive zone starts and power play time that comes with being Pacioretty’s center.
Again, not bad stats, but is it really good enough for the first line center on a team that just reached the Eastern Conference Final and has reasonable aspirations of going that far once again? I suppose it worked in getting the Habs to the third round last season, but I can’t see this setup getting the Canadiens name on the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1993.
It goes without saying that having a great first line center is paramount to success in the National Hockey League, but looking back at recent Stanley Cup champions shows you may need one of the best in the league centering your top line to win it all.
The past first line centers to win the Stanley Cup are, in order, Anze Kopitar, Jonathan Toews, Kopitar, Patrice Bergeron, Toews, Sidney Corsby, Pavel Datsyuk. Basically just a list of the best two way centers in the entire league.
Though Desharnais is not a top tier first line center in the NHL, he will be used in that role for the Canadiens once again this season. This got me wondering where he ranks among all front line centers who play an offensive role and get the bulk of their team’s first power play.
To compare I used this list of top line centers: Ryan Getzlaf, Antoine Vermette, Patrice Bergeron, Cody Hodgson, Sean Monahan, Eric Staal, Toews, Matt Duchene, Ryan Johansen, Tyler Seguin, Pavel Datsyuk, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Nick Bjugstad, Kopitar, Mikko Koivu, Mike Ribeiro, Travis Zajac, John Tavares, Derek Stepan, Kyle Turris, Claude Giroux, Sidney Crosby, Joe Thornton, Paul Stastny, Steven Stamkos, Tyler Bozak, Daniel Sedin, Nicklas Backstrom and Bryan Little.
We can argue whether certain players on that list will be first line centres next season, but I think it represents most of the first line centres around the league right now.
Of those 29 other centers, Desharnais outscored Vermette, Hodgson, Monahan, Datsyuk, though he played only 45 games, Bjugstad, Ribeiro, Zajac, Stamkos, though he only played 37 games, Bozak, though he only played 58 games and Henrik Sedin, though he only played 70 games. This ranks Desharnais 20th out of 30 in points by first line centers, and would have finished 24th had Datsyuk, Bozak, Sedin and Stamkos not been hurt for much of the season.
This leaves Desharnais outscoring Vermette, Hodgson, Monahan, Bjugstad, Ribeiro and Zajac last season. Monahan and Bjugstad were rookies on awful teams, and could take a giant leap forward as soon as next season. Desharnais may outscore the young centers next season, but no one in the hockey world would trade either Monahan or Bjugstad for the Habs center.
Ribeiro struggled in his first season with the Phoenix Coyotes, but scored over a point per game in 2013, and Hodgson is a young center who led the Buffalo Sabres in scoring last season.
Vermette and Zajac will fall in the same range of points as Desharnais next season, but while the Canadiens center will get about as much shorthanded ice time as the goal judge, both Zajac and Vermette will lead their respective teams forwards in ice time while down a man.
So while Desharnais may outscore a few first line centers around the NHL, they all bring more value in a defensive role and helping the team while shorthanded.
Desharnais is a decent NHL player. He has proven he can score points, when used in a purely offensive role on a line with sniper Max Pacioretty.
I am not saying Desharnais is terrible or useless, I still think he is an average NHL player. I just think he makes a lot more sense as a second or third line center at the NHL level, and that he could very well be the worst first line center in the entire league next season.
The problem isn’t that the Canadiens have Desharnais, it is that they don’t have a legitimate first line center. Alex Galchenyuk looks to have the potential to become a front line center, but it remains to be seen if he can become that type of player, and seems unlikely that he can be that player next season.
Galchenyuk is a big center with plenty of offensive potential, but only scored 31 points in 65 games last season as a second line player. He would surely improve those numbers if used as a first line center, but topping Desharnais’ 52 points from this past season may be a bit much for the 20 year old.
The Canadiens have one of the league’s best goaltenders, and one of the top defencemen in the league, as well as one of the best goal scoring wingers in the NHL. However, with an offensive minded center who can’t keep up with the league’s best centers in the scoring race, the Montreal Canadiens will have one of the worst first line centers in the NHL.