When looking over possible line combinations for the Montreal Canadiens this season, there are several things that are set in stone. Thankfully, Carey Price will be the starting goaltender and P.K. Subban will be on the top defense pairing. Max Pacioretty will be on the top line with his usual center David Desharnais, and Brendan Gallagher will definitely be in the top six.
Every time I scratched out a potential lineup, no matter how creative I was trying to be, these eight player were always in the same spot. For the most part, that is because it just makes sense, but one of these players should not start the year where everyone is penciling him in and that is Desharnais.
Desharnais has a well earned reputation as a player who has overcome the odds to make it big in the NHL, where he is the exclusive center for sniper Max Pacioretty.
Desharnais is a good setup man, has great vision, can make pinpoint passes, and doesn’t let his small stature slow him down.
However, he is not the best player for the job as first line center of the Montreal Canadiens.
There is a commonly held perception about the Montreal Canadiens that Desharnais can’t survive without Pacioretty, and that Pacioretty can’t score without Desharnais.
Andrew Berkshire of habseyesontheprize.com wrote last week that the “chemistry” between Desharnais and Pacioretty is mostly fueled out of ice time, and not some magical ability to find each other on the ice.
So they may have played together often in the past, but that does not mean they are inseparable, like Daniel and Henrik Sedin. Pacioretty and Desharnais were great hockey players and made it to the professional ranks without one another, and can succeed there without each other as well.
If you look at Pacioretty’s Corsi For percentage with specific linemates, you might expect Desharnais to be at the top of the list, but he is far from it. Desharnais is the most frequent linemate of Pacioretty’s, but Brendan Gallagher, Tomas Plekanec, Brian Gionta and Lars Eller have a better Corsi For when on the ice with Pacioretty than Desharnais does.
In fact, of all the centers that have been on the ice with Pacioretty for more than 60 minutes over the past three seasons, Desharnais has the worst CF% with Pacioretty out of them all. This includes, Plekanec, Eller and even Scott Gomez who struggled horribly in his last few seasons with the Habs, but had a sparkling 61.4 CF% in the 60 minutes he was on the ice with Pacioretty.
Sure, the sample sizes are small, especially with Gomez,but what this suggests is not that Desharnais and Pacioretty have a unique chemistry, but that Pacioretty dominates puck possession no matter who is on the ice with him.
When Desharnais is on the ice with Pacioretty, he has a CF% of 54.6, and when he is on the ice and Pacioretty is not, Desharnais’ CF% plummets to 46.1. So Desharnais posts strong possession numbers with Pacioretty, does that mean that the two should always play together?
No. Not in my opinion at least.
The answer to why Desharnais should be moved away from Pacioretty is, the Canadiens drafted Alex Galchenyuk two years ago, and the 20 year old is entering his third NHL season. He has played almost exclusively on the wing, but it makes sense to now give him a chance to be the team’s first line center.
Galchenyuk has shown flashes of his offensive skills, but needs more of an opportunity to really take the next step towards elite status.
Last season, Desharnais played on the top offensive line, and was always on the top power play where Pacioretty’s goal scoring abilities are highlighted, and he also has Brendan Gallagher working the front of the net.
Galchenyuk saw some PP time himself, but not nearly as much as Desharnais. Desharnais played 212:29 with a man advantage last season and scored 15 points, while Galchenyuk was on the ice for 132:20 while up a man and scored ten points.
That gives Desharnais a PP scoring rate of 4.24 points per 60 minutes of PP time, while Galchenyuk scored 4.53 points per 60 on the PP.
So, Galchenyuk scored more frequently, though not at an extremely higher rate, while playing on the second wave of the power play. What makes this look much more impressive for Galchenyuk is, you have to consider when he was on the ice with the man advantage he was often on with the second defense pairing that included Francis Bouillon, Raphael Diaz or Alexei Emelin.
Meanwhile, Desharnais was feeding passes to the point that was being patrolled by two of the best power play defensemen in the entire league, P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov.
What I am trying to say is you can’t compare Galchenyuk directly to Desharnais, because the smaller center had the huge advantage of being on the ice with Pacioretty all the time. I believe that if Galchenyuk were put in the same situation as Desharnais, the 20 year old third overall draft pick would outperform Desharnais.
I am not saying Galchenyuk will be a 100 point player next season if used on the first line and given PP time with Subban, Markov, Gallagher and Pacioretty, but he would come closer to 100 than Desharnais ever has.
So it becomes the same old debate, should Galchenyuk be playing center or not? Well, I have finally joined the majority who think that Galchenyuk should be down the middle.
The reason I did not join the chorus earlier was the gaping hole that would remain on left wing if Galchenyuk were taken out of there. I would love to see Galchenyuk playing center on Pacioretty’s line, but not if it means Rene Bourque plays on the second line.
Then I thought, why can’t Desharnais just move to left wing? He would essentially just switch spots with Galchenyuk, but it would make the team better.
First off, you would have an excellent young first line center, ready to rocket his way up the scoring chart, but you would still have a great second line as well.
Many people like to point out that Desharnais is too small to play the wing, and his playmaking abilities would be hindered. To that I say, small players are far more likely to succeed on the wing than at center, where they will be in the corners less and not down low in their own zone as often. Also, if Desharnais truly is a great setup man, and not simply a beneficiary of playing on a line with Pacioretty, his skills will translate well to the left wing of a second line.
The way I see it, Desharnais would play on Plekanec’s wing, and be joined by Gallagher on the right side to make a great two way line. Desharnais could even take the faceoffs on the line, as his 50.8 faceoff winning percentage was much better than Plekanec’s 48.0%. Then Plekanec could take over the defensive zone responsibilities of a center, something he is much better at handling than Desharnais.
Meanwhile, Gallagher would continue his puck possession domination like he has since joining the NHL at the same time as Galchenyuk. Desharnais would no longer be on a line with someone capable of scoring 40 goals, but he would be on a line with two players who he would help reach 20.
This puts all three of Plekanec, Desharnais and Gallagher in a position to succeed. Plekanec’s biggest weakness is faceoffs and that would be minimized by playing with Desharnais. Desharnais biggest weakness is his defensive zone play, and that would be reduced by allowing Plekanec to do the heavy lifting in the defensive zone.
Gallagher would still be on a line with two offensively capable players, and would be able to continue his strong two way play.
This, of course, takes both Desharnais and usual right winger Gallagher away from Pacioretty, and places him on a line with Galchenyuk and newcomer P.A. Parenteau.
It would be a new challenge for the Habs best forward, but he has shown he is capable of succeeding with centers not named Desharnais in the past. Also, Parenteau has a proven track record of even strength success playing on top lines as John Tavares, Matt Duchene, Matt Moulson, Paul Stastny and Ryan O’Reilly all have netter CF% with Parenteau on the ice, than without him.
This of course does not prove that Parenteau and Pacioretty will definitely make excellent linemates, but it does show that Parenteau has had success with almost everyone else he has been on a line with in the past, and the likelihood of him and Pacioretty being terrible together is minimal.
Parenteau is also a player who has great vision and looks to make a pass first before anything else, which would work extremely well with Pacioretty’s shoot first, then again and then again and ask questions later policy.
Combined with the fact a star in the making would be between them, this trio has the potential to dominate on a nightly basis.
This is a slight change that would have no effect on the bottom six of the lineup at all. Lars Eller would still center the third line between Rene Bourque and whichever rookie wins the last top nine spot out of camp (at least until Bourque becomes a healthy scratch again.)
It just seems to me that Desharnais is not the best option as a first line center, and first line center is not the best spot for Desharnais. Galchenyuk is a budding star, and will soon steal the role away from Desharnais anyway, so he should be given the chance to take it now.
Desharnais is a useful player, just not a dominant first line star. He is more of a secondary scorer who has been overused, but could still score 40 points on a second line. He is being stretched out, and is not an ideal fit for a first line center.
Galchenyuk has all the tools to explode when given the opportunity, and could give the team a much better scoring option than Desharnais on the first line and top power play. He is being underused, and could really break out if given the chance to do so.
I really think giving Galchenyuk a chance to play center and moving Desharnais to left wing is something the Montreal Canadiens have to look at during training camp at least. It would put both players in roles that they are cut out for, and make the team much more balanced offensively.
Status quo has been pretty good for the Montreal Canadiens recently, but what NHL franchise strives to be pretty good? Certainly not the Habs, so why settle for pretty good, when a simple switch could balance out the lines and make them great.
If the Canadiens give this a try during training camp,the worst case scenario is it doesn’t work out and by the time the regular season starts, Desharnais is moved back to Pacioretty’s line and Galchenyuk slides back in alongside Plekanec.
In my opinion,the chances of this maneuver not working out is almost non-existent.