On October 1, just a pinch over one month from now, the Montreal Canadiens will lace up their skates and take to the Bell Centre ice to take on the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 2013-14 season opener.
Regular season: It was a big shock to see the Montreal Canadiens make one of the bigger jumps in the NHL last year, finishing 2nd in the East with a record of 29-14-5. Prior to last season the Canadiens finished dead last in the East, landing them the 3rd overall pick in that year’s entry draft where they selected centre Alex Galchenyuk.
Playoffs: The season was the bright, beautiful day. The playoffs became the downpour as the night fell upon us. The Canadiens got bounced by the Ottawa Senators in five games in the first round, in a completely one-sided affair.
Out: F Michael Ryder, F Jeff Halpern, D Tomas Kaberle
While he did put up big numbers during the regular season, Michael Ryder‘s lackluster playoff performance was his ticket out of Montreal. Ryder would later sign with the New Jersey Devils, a two year-$7 million dollar contract. Jeff Halpern proved once again to be a serviceable bottom six player for the Canadiens but was inevitably pushed out by the over-populated bottom six that has come to be. Halpern is still an unrestricted free agent. Tomas Kaberle was the second compliance buy-out of the Canadiens, playing just ten games and putting up only three assists. While he also remains a UFA, reports are coming up that Kaberle is close to signing with the Dynamo Minsk of the KHL.
In: F Danny Briere, F George Parros, D Douglas Murray
Danny Briere once turned down the Canadiens in favor of the Philadelphia Flyers, but this time the scoring winger decided to come to Montreal having signed a two year-$8 million dollar contract. While he doesn’t add much size to the Habs top six with his 5’10 frame, Briere brings scoring and tenacity in front of the net and on the powerplay. When the playoffs roll around, should the Habs qualify, Briere is a big time factor. In 108 playoff games, Briere has 109 points, scoring 50 goals. George Parros won’t play most games during the season but he will be inserted into the line-up when the time comes to protect his teammates from the goons of the NHL. It’s safe to say we won’t be seeing another Colton Orr destroying the likes of Brian Gionta and Rene Bourque. Douglas Murray was acquired by the Pittsburgh Penguins last season while they were on the hunt to win another Stanley Cup. The cost was expensive, as Penguins general manager Ray Shero sent two second round picks for the big rugged defenseman. Marc Bergevin simply left his assets alone and acquired Murray late into the off-season, signing him to a one year-$1.5 million dollar contract. The contract is short and sweet and adds size and stability to the Canadiens defensive core.
After drafting big 6’5″ forward Michael McCarron in the first round of the 2013 Entry Draft, the Canadiens failed to add size to their team’s top six. By letting go of Michael Ryder, that spot was quickly plugged by undersized Danny Briere who is fresh off his compliance buyout with the Philadelphia Flyers. The Canadiens top six will still harbor small forwards such as Tomas Plekanec, David Desharnais, Brian Gionta and now Danny Briere. If four of your six players playing on the first two lines are undersized, chances are you’ll have a hard time competing against much bigger teams, which seems to be most teams these days. The bottom six is a tad over-crowded. While the likes of Brendan Gallagher, Alex Galchenyuk and Lars Eller could complete a top nine and compliment the first two lines nicely, the fourth line has four players who will fight for a spot in the line-up every night. George Parros won’t play as many games so he’ll likely be swapped in favor of Ryan White, who will play along the sides of Brandon Prust and Travis Moen.
Leading the pack with his shiny Norris Trophy in hand, P.K. Subban returns to finish off the second year of his two-year bridge contract that he signed a little late into last year’s campaign. Andrei Markov hopes to stay healthy over the course of a full season while Josh Gorges hopes to return to the form he held two years ago. Alexei Emelin will not be starting the season due to his knee injury he suffered last season after colliding with Boston Bruins’ forward Milan Lucic and he will likely miss up to a month into the season. Look for defensemen Raphael Diaz, Francis Bouillon, Davis Drewiske and Douglas Murray to fill the final three spots, while youngsters Jarred Tinordi and Nathan Beaulieu should be left alone and given the proper time to develop in Hamilton with the Bulldogs. Once Emelin returns, the Canadiens will have a surplus of defensemen and will have the luxury of acquiring assets if the pesky injury bug does not plague the team.
Look no further than starter Carey Price to take on the work load once again. Last season, Price started 38 games, winning 21 of them while posting a 2.52 goals against and a .905 save percentage. In the 10 games that back-up Peter Budaj started in, he won 8 of them, posting a 2.29 goals against and a .908 save percentage. The Price-Budaj tandem was very effective in the Habs season but can they do the same over an 82 game season? Price will likely see a total of 65-70 games while Budaj, who is no push-over as indicated by his strong play of last season, will come in relief when Price has played a long string of games close together or in the occurrence of the three games in four nights situation.
Line combinations are always subjective and subject to change. As fans, we all have our own opinions. For some, they can change every week. In no way are my proposals at all reflective of what head coach Michel Therrien could be thinking. They are my own thoughts and what I think could be possible matches that could lead the Montreal Canadiens on the right path to victory.
1st line (If it ain’t broke…):
Rene Bourque-Tomas Plekanec-Brian Gionta*
Up until Rene Bourque’s concussion mid-way into the shortened season, this line was the top line of the team and scoring consistently what seemed to be every game. When the team needed a goal, which was quite rare at times since they were the aggressors and took the lead first more often than not, this line would come up big. Bourque was leaps and bounds better than he was the year before, although the locker room problems were a cancer to the entire team. Tomas Plekanec looked rejuvenated at the centre position while the veteran Brian Gionta looked like his young self again. If Bourque can come back to his 100% self from the start of the season, this line could be a thorn in the opposition’s side.
2nd line(Size mixed with speed and skill):
Max Pacioretty-David Desharnais-Danny Briere
A bit of a surprise to see David Desharnais back in the top six picture again but I’m a believer of giving people a second chance — which is what I believe Desharnais deserves. The combination of Desharnais and his buddy Max Pacioretty should be left untouched, as they both feed well off each other. The newest addition on Briere will add another solid scoring threat to the line. If Therrien can pick his spots and find the Desharnais line on the ice with weaker opposition out there, this line could be lethal. Desharnais would be the set-up man, Pacioretty would make some room with his large frame and Briere could station himself near the net to tap in pucks.
3rd line (The kids are alright):
Alex Galchenyuk-Lars Eller-Brendan Gallagher*
The kid line. After breaking into the NHL at the age of 18, Alex Galchenyuk learned a lot while playing sheltered minutes under the coaching style of Therrien. The result was 27 point campaign that saw him lead the team in +/- with 14. The more the season went on, the more comfortable Galchenyuk became. Paired up with fellow rookie Brendan Gallagher, the excitement these two drew from both their team and the crowd was fun to watch. They fed off of each other so well and could continue that this season. Stuck in the middle of them is Danish centre Lars Eller, who continues to play a very consistent two-way game. Eller has the skill to put up points and the defensive work ethic to help shut-down opposition. All he needs is two capable wingers to help him out. Gallagher and Galchenyuk are both defensively aware, playing a similar feisty style and both are well aware of how to put the puck in back of the net. The only problem Eller would be left with is: who do I feed the puck to?
Brandon Prust-Ryan White-Travis Moen
This is one of those fourth lines where you find yourself saying, “Wait, he’s on the BOTTOM line!?” If your Moens and Prusts are playing on the fourth line, you know you’re in a real good spot. Last season, Prust had the responsibility of helping rookies Gallagher and Galchenyuk get comfortable in the line-up and not feel afraid to play their style. This year with the Gallys on a potential third line with Eller, Prust would be given the chance to play on an energy line where he can crash and bang all he wants. Travis Moen had a down year and will look to redeem himself. Redemption will also be on the mind of youngster Ryan White, who saw his fair share of the press box after repeated discipline problems on the ice, specifically his unprovoked fight against Steve Ott of the Buffalo Sabres which led to a loss in which they were leading late in the game. All three of these players have played in roles where they had the opportunity to score goals. Moen himself played top six duties at one point in his career. With the responsibility of scoring of even secondary scoring out of the way, these three can concentrate on what they do best: demolish.
George Parros – Don’t expect him to play many games. If he plays anything north of 40 games, I’ll be shocked. His role is simple: get your five minutes of ice time and drop the gloves with the guy who is eyeballing our top line players. That’s pretty much it. The risk/reward of an enforcer is quite low but one has to wonder how much will Parros accomplish by beating up a guy that has already run down a player on the Habs top six? The damage will have already been done, unless Parros can somehow tell the future and prevent it from happening.
*- Brian Gionta and Brendan Gallagher could be interchangeable at any given point in the season. Gallagher has made the jump into the top line when they need scoring and he provided them with it. Gionta is still defensively aware at this stage and could contribute to a third line.
1st defensive pairing:
P.K. Subban-Josh Gorges
The yin and the yang of the defensive core of the Montreal Canadiens. P.K. Subban definitely picked up the defensive side of his game and under the coaching staff, he learned to pick his spots for big hits more appropriately and had progressed at working hard in corners and using his size and strength to muscle pucks away from opposition. Josh Gorges on the other hand is the defensive-minded guy. He won’t score goals like P.K. and won’t dazzle the crowd like P.K. but he will cover any mistakes left behind by Subban, allowing P.K. to be the offensive dazzler that Habs fans love. The two compliment each other well and can feed off their strengths and weaknesses quite admirably.
2nd defensive pairing:
Andrei Markov-Francis Bouillon*
Andrei Markov is getting up there in age and paired with the various injuries he’s faced, Markov is relegated to the second pairing where he will play less minutes and suffer less wear and tear. Markov can still be defensively sound and moves the puck very well but his skating and foot speed are not what they used to be, so don’t hold your breath for end-to-end rushes. On his other side, Francis Bouillon will bring that physical element to the pairing. For a little guy, Bouillon sure doesn’t play that way. Bouillon is very aggressive in corners and along the boards which can allow Markov to be more passive, covering his man and making sure the front of the net is tended to.
Douglas Murray-Raphael Diaz
The bottom pairing features the combination of aggressive, hard-hitting action mixed with defensive awareness and puck movement. Douglas Murray may have slowed down due to injuries but he can still drop a shoulder into the biggest of men when it comes time. Highlight packages of Murray’s hits can be found anywhere and with his good work ethic of clearing the net, Murray will be a key to the bottom pairing unit. Raphael Diaz will bring the fluid defensive game full circle as he covers the slow foot speed of Murray with his smooth skating and great first pass to start the break-out.
Davis Drewiske – Drewiske came in a trade from the Los Angeles Kings last year and while he doesn’t excel at any one part of the game, he is good enough defensively to fill the bottom pairing in case of an injury or someone needing a game to rest up.
Alexei Emelin(IR) – Emelin will not start the season, due to a knee injury he is recovering from.
*-Once Alexei Emelin returns from injury, look for him to fill in this spot. Francis Bouillon would then become either the second healthy defensive scratch or would bump Diaz out of the line-up.
Gabriel Dumont – He looked good during the post-season last year and did not seem out of place. He worked very hard every shift and was quite feisty against the Ottawa Senators. He wouldn’t fill anything more than a bottom six role.
Louis Leblanc – Regressed last year in Hamilton but he still has the tools to turn into something. He’ll have a shot to redeem himself with the Bulldogs this season and if he can improve drastically, he could get a phone call to join the big club.
Christian Thomas – Coming over in a trade from the New York Rangers that saw forward Danny Kristo going the other way, there are big expectations already placed on Thomas, based off the word that Kristo is NHL ready and could be in the Rangers line-up this upcoming season.
Mike Blunden – The 13th/14th forward that always seems to get his cup of coffee with the Canadiens. He doesn’t do much for the Habs bottom six but he doesn’t hurt either. Sort of like a seat filler at the Oscars.
Jarred Tinordi – Looked very good last season but still needs some seasoning in Hamilton. A little bit of weight along with confidence will go a long way for the big man, but he can fill in on the Habs defensive line-up as early as this season.
Nathan Beaulieu – The offensive defenseman that could replace Andrei Markov in the future. Beaulieu still has some work to be done on the defensive side of things and much like Tinordi, he could benefit from playing the full season in Hamilton.
Greg Pateryn – Remind you of Frédéric St-Denis? He’s the defensive, bottom pairing guy that the Habs can always lean on should the Canadiens face the injury plague.
Dustin Tokarski – Cross your fingers but should an injury occur to one of Budaj or Price, I could see Dustin Tokarski getting a look. Young, talented but untested, Tokarski would be a big gamble. At this point though, so would Robert Mayer, Peter Delmas and even the young Zachary Fucale. It would be a crap-shoot, whoever would get called up.
I think the Montreal Canadiens actually have a solid line-up that can compete in the Atlantic Division (going to be tough getting used to saying that instead of the Northeast Division). They’re top six and even top nine is so flexible, Therrien could mix and match a player or two, create new and fresh lines and throw them out there to confuse the other coaching staffs and opposition. There is so much skill but due to the lack of size, it’s hard to tell just how well they will do over the course of an entire season. Defensively, the Habs top four is one injury away from catastrophe. Any one of Andrei Markov, P.K. Subban or Josh Gorges goes down, the entire defensive side of the team could crumble. Goaltending should not be a problem unless a freak injury occurs, so unless Price stinks it up bad there shouldn’t be much to worry about.
With pre-season starting on the 11th of September, there is little time from now until the start of the regular season for Marc Bergevin, Michel Therrien and company to figure out what they want to do with the team. Who knows, a trade could be on the horizon. Maybe another minor signing? Only time will tell.
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