Analysis: Canadiens center deployment a problem moving forward


By making it to the Eastern Conference finals this season the Montreal Canadiens made great strides as an organization. To Marc Bergevin’s delight a large part of their success came from the teams roster depth. The depth that Bergevin and co. have brought in has been a wonderful sight for Habs fans as it has been more than a few years since we have witnessed such a successful roster. But in this bloggers opinion, it is that very depth that is the reason this Habs team will not win the Stanley Cup.

During the playoffs the Canadiens regularly dressed their C’s as 1) David Desharnais 2) Tomas Plekanec 3) Lars Eller and 4) Danny Briere. If I were given this roster come playoff time I would have done the same. Desharnais has un-duplicated chemistry with top winger Max Pacioretty, Plekanec has been the Habs most reliable center for years, Eller has capabilities at both ends of the ice and Briere can succeed against lower competition. But going into next season, this lineup will not bring the team further success.

I suggest that the Canadiens find a way to trade Desharnais, Plekanec, or both, and allow Alex Galchenyuk and Eller to take the reigns as 1-2 C next season.

May 17, 2014; Montreal, Quebec, CAN; Montreal Canadiens center Lars Eller (81) misses a chance to score a goal against New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist (30) during the second period in game one of the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Bell Centre. Mandatory Credit: Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

I know what you are thinking, “Woah! This guy needs to slow down!”

At the end of year press-conference Marc Bergevin told reporters that this current team is not yet to be considered a perennial playoff team. I concur. Most Habs fans will point there fingers at the depth on wing or in-balance on defense as the teams biggest issues and well, that I also agree with. However, the use of these centers is also not going to help push this team to the next step.

Plekanec and Desharnais are both excellent at what they do. Plekanec is annually one of the most underrated defensive forwards in the game who has the ability to frustrate the leagues premier players. Desharnais is a slick-skating, hard-working, perseverance story who has some of the best offensive vision on this team. Unfortunately, that is the limit to both of these players.

Think of it this way fellow Habs fans; Plekanec excels at playing a shut-down energy role in which his offense is created from intercept and straight-line breakout. Current Habs wingers who can best do that with him are Michael Bournival and Brian Gionta. Desharnais excels at cycling the puck in the offensive zone and finding an open player with space. Wingers that do that with him are Pacioretty and Vanek (or Gallagher if he needs a net-front body).

A top six of Paci-DD-Vanek/ Bourni-Pleky-Gio looks pretty good. Now switch them. Paci-Pleky-Vanek(Gally) / Bourni-DD-Gio. This team has suddenly got a lot less deadly.

As center is the position that determines where the line will take the faceoff you suddenly have Paci and Vanek taking defensive zone face-offs and relying their offense on a intercept and breakout style — and Vanek was pretty much run out of town because of it. On the same hand Desharnais’ new wingers cannot play a style in which DD will be able to score.

So then don’t switch them, you say?

Fine, but in the Canadiens case the wingers are dictating the success of the centers on this team where it should always be the other way around. Top teams LA,  Boston and Chicago you see centers like Kopitar, Carter, Bergeron, Krejci and Toews who, although are usually dictated to one zone, control the way his wingers play and are capable at playing both styles of offense.

Montreal has capped out on their success with these top two centers. They are both above average and can be on a winning team but neither are versatile enough that when they are shut-down or figured out by their opponents they can switch styles or change line mates and continue to succeed.

If only Montreal had two young, versatile centers that could play both offensive styles and succeed in the defensive zone if need be. *cough*

I want to be a top-six forward, and hopefully a center,” – Eller, during his final media day of the season

There is no player on this team I feel worse for than twenty-five year old Lars Eller. Taken 13th overall in the 2007 draft (Before Pacioretty + Subban) Eller was projected to be a top 6 center who uses his big body with both offensive and defensive ability. Today Eller is a forward with offensive and defensive ability who, when confident, uses his big body.

So .. he just didn’t pan out as a top 6 forward?

You can say he doesn’t get the minutes because his offensive stats are not the greatest (103 points in 286 career games) or, possibly, because he is the teams second best defensive forward and therefor should not play as much minutes as top D forward Plekanec who is shutting down higher-competition. I say that is all bologna.

Lars Eller — AKA the Great Dane —  is stuck playing with the teams “lesser wingers” because the coaching staff is too scared to lower Plekanec’s role and Desharnais on any other line would render the line useless.

Eller is a great defensive forward and has shown the ability to lead a PK and shut-down opponents (second best lines). Because of this gift he is not given the offensive wingers or zone minutes that will allow him to succeed offensively. He instead is strapped to Rene Bourque, Travis Moen and Brandon Prust who have the ability to take defensive-zone draws and shut-down opponents with him. Plus, like previously stated, throw Desharnais in with aforementioned wingers and the line suddenly becomes useless.

Though, unlike Pleky or DD, Eller has also shown the versatility to play at the other end of the ice.

At the beginning of this season Eller was among league leaders in points while playing with offensively-capable wingers Galchenyuk and Gallagher. They were split-up due to an injury and Eller’s play dropped off a bit. His confidence wasn’t fully gone until he was placed with Pacioretty for one game and then immediately taken off that line the next. He was given no consistent chance to prove himself and once-again was forced to play with lesser-wingers in a bottom six role.

Eller has, however, shown able to explode offensively with some of these lesser-wingers. He scored 4 goals in a game where Travis Moen looked a step above his career. He played well with Galchy and Gally at the beginning of the season. He lead this team in forward points this offseason (13P/17GP) because Gionta and Bourque were able to keep up with him for the first few games. The problem is these wingers cannot play a consistent enough role at both ends of the ice for Eller to always be contributing offensively.

Now we contrast the test we used before!

Play Bourni-Eller-Gio and you have a line that can shut-down opponents and play a intercept and breakout style of offense. Play Paci-Eller-Gally(Vanek) and you have a line that can create space for each other, play the cycle game and suddenly becomes much better in the defensive zone. In both cases Eller, the center, makes his wingers better.

Eller has played years in the bottom six learning “the right way to play” and “the system” and that has ultimately shrunk his years of prime production. If the Canadiens want a real two-way 2C who will be able to make large contributions to a Stanley Cup for the next 7-8 years they will give Eller the proper wingers ( I’d suggest Galchenyuk and Vanek/Equivilant if team isn’t willing to trade DD or Plek) and minutes. Allow him to make mistakes while learning and growing confidence in his game as a top 6C who can play both ends of the ice.

PART 2 about Alex Galchenyuk being used as the 1C next season will be up tomorrow!

Thank you for reading my first blog as a FanSided contributor.