Up the Gut: The Canadiens Logjam at Centre
For years centre has been an elusive position for the Montreal Canadiens. They have been unable to build a squad with enough talent up the middle to make them truly elite. That is why the Canadiens current centre situation is not only positive sign for the future but has translated into success in the present. The Canadiens have four highly skilled centres, a phenomenon that has already caused rookie Alex Galchenyuk to be forced into playing the wing. This has created a lot of questions about the future of the Canadiens centre position.
Early in the season it seemed like David Desharnais was the odd man out. Last season, he along with Max Pacioretty and Erik Cole had formed one of the most dangerous trios in the NHL. But despite showing his clear talents for one of the worst teams in the league Desharnais had his doubters. Many people believed he was too small, a soft point for the Canadiens who had been hurt by their height in the past. Others believed that it was in fact Cole and Pacioretty, both of whom scored impressive goal totals, who were driving the line and sheltering Desharnais. Claims that Desharnais was overrated were thrown around quite a bit among the fanbase and media alike.
That is why when Desharnias started the 2012-2013 campaign poorly many people were quick to voice their displeasure. He and Cole took the brunt of the negativity when the line did not reignite with the quality play of the season prior. That and Desharnais really stuck out on a Canadiens team who were rapidly climbing to the top of the Eastern Conference standings. Everyone else seemed to be playing well, and the Canadiens top line soon turned into its least effective.
However, Desharnais would quickly turn it around. As per usual, it all sprouted from his connection with Max Pacioretty. Desharnais and Pacioretty seem to have a sort of natural chemistry that has made them such a dangerous combination. Since Pacioretty scored his first goal on the season Desharnais’s play has improved exponentially. Canadiens GM Mark Bergevin took notice and took the opportunity to sign the centre to a 4 year, $14 million deal. The deal is good value, as was written on this site earlier this week. However, it also opened up the door to a number of other questions.
Namely, where does this put the Canadiens in terms of talent up the middle? The Canadiens now have 4 highly talented centres, all of whom deserve to play at least top 3 minutes. Ryan White is by definition a fourth line centre, and since his benching post altercation with Steve Ott which lost his team a game to Buffalo he has played his role exceptionally. Earlier this season, when Galchenyuk was playing centre, Lars Eller held White’s position. While it is clear that Eller is by far a better player then White, a role on the fourth line was a waste of his talents.
Once Galchenyuk gains experience in the NHL, he will soon return to the centre position, a spot in which he played his best hockey this season. The talented youngster is a future top line centre and with his skill set will eventually be centring one of the Canadiens top two lines. This maturation could possibly come as soon as next year. With Tomas Plekanec in the mix, and continuing to provide his reliable two way play on the Habs second line, this makes 4 centres with only 3 roster spots to fill. A large part of the Canadiens success this season has been the fact that they essentially have three scoring lines, something that they will look to continue. Plekanec is signed through the end of the 2015-16 season, and Lars Eller will merely be a restricted free agent when his contract expires following the 2013-14 campaign, meaning that the Canadiens have these players under the teams control fairly longterm.
So what do the Canadiens do now? Well they certainly don’t need to take action this season. A wealth of centres will not bother them under their current system, nor can it ever. But the Canadiens have needs in other areas that can be addressed longterm by the moving of one of these assets. They are all too talented to be wasted playing fourth line minutes. The course of action? Look to the future.
It will pain many Canadiens fans to say this, but a trade which includes Tomas Plekanec may be the answer to the centre situation. He is after all the oldest of the group and is still playing at a very high level. He has been the Canadiens best centre for some time now, and has done plenty of good for the club. However, the emergence of Lars Eller may ultimately be the reason as to why he has to move on. For a long time now it has been stated that Eller is Plekanec’s eventual replacement. His form this season has indicated that he is very close.
The Habs could get a solid return for the Czech forward, a player who would be a top 2 option on almost any team in the league, and a welcome addition to all forms of special teams. With it he brings leadership, something that can never be underrated in the NHL. If the Canadiens dealt him quickly, his peak value would probably be this summer or trade deadline, they would also have ample opportunity to try to attract one of the premier free agents because of cap space. Granted of course that the assets received had less of a cap hit.
The other option would be to move one of the current centres out of his natural position and play him on the wing. Eller has been tried in this spot at various times over the last three seasons, but he just has not looked as comfortable as he does in his natural centre position. Galchenyuk is currently playing wing, but as stated, his long term future, and the best spot to maximize the skills of the 2012 3rd overall pick is again an eventual move back to the middle of the ice. Plekanec’s two-way ability is also best seen at centre, and he has taken very few shifts (if any) outside that position in his NHL career. So that leaves us with Desharnais. Desharnais played LW on a line with Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta in the 2011 playoffs, and looked very effective before an injury sidelined him in game 5 of the series vs the Boston Bruins.
The ability to shift Desharnais to wing would solve the Canadiens’ log jam at the position, but it remains to be seen if he can adapt to the position and be effective as a winger. There is also a question if Max Pacioretty would have the same chemistry with one of the Canadiens’ other centres. I believe that Desharnais biggest assets are his tremendous hockey sense, and his work ethic, so a move to the wing could work. I also believe that Pacioretty is the type of player who would be successful with any of the Habs three other centres as his goal scoring talents would work on any line where he is paired with talented players. The move would have the added bonus of relieving Desharnais of some of his defensive responsibilities, an area where he can struggle due to his lack of size. This is particularly evident when he is asked to help the Canadiens’ defence and contain one of the opposing teams’ forwards down low in his own end. However this is one experiment that would need to be tried before we see the results, and it is unlikely to happen before next season.
It will be intriguing to see what Mark Bergevin and Michel Therrien decides to do with this issue as time goes on. But longterm the Canadiens overpopulation at centre will need to be addressed.
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