How the Montreal Canadiens Should Fix Every Hole on the Roster
While the Montreal Canadiens displayed impressive depth over the course of an incredibly successful regular season, there are nonetheless some holes that will need to be filled by the time 2013-14 rolls around.
Of course, unrestricted free agent Michael Ryder won’t be back, leaving one roster spot open, potentially one as high as on the second line. Also, defenseman Alexei Emelin isn’t projected to be back until two months into next season, leaving a gaping vacancy on the blue line.
However, there are other, less obvious needs that free agency or the upcoming NHL entry draft won’t necessarily cure. Here are the top five:
All salaries taken from CapGeek.com.
5. 4th-Line Center
During the regular season, the fourth line was centered by a combination of three main players: Gabriel Dumont, Ryan White and Jeff Halpern, each of whom could stand to bring more size to the lineup.
However, that’s only part of the reason why each may not be back in a regular role next year.
Halpern is a reliable faceoff specialist, but at 37 years old, he’s definitely getting up there, has little else to contribute aside from decent if not soft defensive play and will also be an unrestricted free agent.
White, while a hard worker, has proven unable to keep his emotions in check and to be an overall liability time and again when on the ice. Dumont, conversely, probably has the best chance at taking over the fourth-line role in question.
Dismissing the fact that Dumont still has a lot to prove, he does work hard like White, actually led the Habs with a 63 percent success rate in the faceoff circle—albeit in only 46 attempts—and is a Quebec native. That last bit shouldn’t matter all that much, but it nonetheless plays to his favor, playing in Montreal.
However, he is also the smallest of the bunch at 5’9”, 170 pounds (White is 6’0”, 194 lbs; Halpern is 6’0”, 190 lbs). Ideally, the fourth-line center should also be physically intimidating. That doesn’t necessarily mean they should be a legitimate enforcer, but it certainly would be a plus.
So, does this hypothetical Francophone center, who’s at least 6' tall and 200 pounds with a good work ethic and belligerent yet controlled playing style even exist? Not in storybooks, I mean?
Under the assumption they do, the need is immediate, meaning drafting one such player is likely out of the question. As such, the Habs should look into signing or trading for one.
The closest the Habs could get would be free-agent Washington Capital Matt Hendricks, who is 6’0” and 211 pounds and has been known to drop his gloves from time to time. As an added bonus, he can play all three forward positions, with an impressive 56.8 percent faceoff success rate last year as a center (259 attempts).
Former Hab Maxim Lapierre is also available.
At 6’2”, 207 pounds, he does bring the prerequisite size to the position. He’s also a familiar face who always brings it on the ice, but one would think he should get the whole standing-up-for-your-own-actions thing down before he’s able to successfully stand up for teammates.
With just a 50.6 percent faceoff success rate, he also isn’t what one would call a specialist, even if many opponents likely do consider him quite “special.”
Via trade, the 6’0”, 213-pound Zenon Konopka will become an unrestricted free agent next season and could conceivably be available for the right price or on the cheap at next year’s trade deadline if the Minnesota Wild are out of it.
Having earned a 60.7 percent success rate taking faceoffs (267 attempts) last year, he’s also far from incompetent as a hockey player. Plus, he’s Polish, has a Greek first name and is from Ontario, so it’s at least possible he knows some French, right?
Taking another approach, recently re-signed left-winger Patrick Bordeleau of the Colorado Avalanche is a bad, bad man who stands 6’6”, 225 pounds. If Montreal doesn’t re-sign Colby Armstrong, that would open up a spot for Bordeleau and give Dumont a shot to prove himself as a legitimate NHLer.
This would also address the ironic elephant in the room in regard to the team’s lack-of-size issue.
All faceoff stats taken from NHL.com.
4. 2nd-Line Winger
The good news is Montreal doesn’t necessarily need to replace Michael Ryder when he becomes an unrestricted free agent. Excluding Ryder, the Habs currently have a total of nine players capable of contributing on one of the top two lines.
Granted, that includes Brandon Prust, who is best suited to a bottom-six role, and David Desharnais, who suffered through a horrible season on the team’s top line.
However, the point still stands that, when healthy, Montreal is capable of scoring a lot of goals, with or without Ryder.
Never was that more apparent than over the final nine games of the regular season when the team scored 28 goals, without a single one coming from the mercurial winger.
As a result, the Habs don’t necessarily need to fill the open spot via free agency or trade.
They could theoretically look to within the organization and try out different players to see if they fit in with some combination of center Tomas Plekanec and wingers Rene Bourque and Brian Gionta (with keeping that entire line from the start of last season intact another option).
However, looking at this year’s free-agency class, there are several viable options available that could theoretically be had for relatively cheap.
Jaromir Jagr, assuming he doesn’t retire at the end of this season, has shown a tremendous amount of chemistry playing with Plekanec in the past in the Czech Republic. He also has shown a desire to play in Montreal as recently as last summer when the Habs turned down an opportunity to sign him.
At 41, Jagr’s days are clearly numbered. However, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
He is still capable of contributing offense and leadership and serves as perhaps the ideal short-term solution that would bridge the gap between the future and the present of a young team that should look to compete for the Northeast Division next year.
Most importantly, though, the Habs could likely get him for relatively cheap, certainly cheaper than his current $4.55 million salary. Current New York Ranger Ryane Clowe represents another presumably cheap alternative, after managing to score just three goals last year.
Despite the small projected price tags, both bring size (Clowe is 6’2”, 225 lbs, while Jagr is 6’3”, 240 lbs) and either physicality (Clowe) or Hall of Fame-worthy skill (Jagr)—three things Ryder never did or will.
If Ryder was good enough to take over for either Gionta or Bourque on the team’s second line, it stands to reason either Clowe or Jagr would serve as worthwhile upgrades in turn.
3. Alexei Emelin’s Spot on the Blue Line
No one player better epitomizes Montreal’s lack of size and physicality than Alexei Emelin. He still led the team with 110 hits despite missing 10 games due to a knee injury that will keep him out for two months next season.
It seems unlikely that the Habs would want to go the trade route and give up an asset or two in order to replace Emelin for just the two months he will be out. Seeing as the need is also immediate, the draft is out as well.
Assuming the waiver wire won’t be dangling anyone worthwhile, that leaves free agency or from within, with Jarred Tinordi or Nathan Beaulieu the most likely candidates to get a chance to prove themselves.
At 6’6”, 205 pounds, Tinordi is the most likely of the two to be able to replace Emelin’s physicality at stay-at-home effectiveness (although Emelin was also able to provide some offense every now and then last season).
In any case, both Tinordi (14 hits in eight games) and Beaulieu (three hits in six games) were given shots to replace Emelin this past April, and little seemed to help the team as a whole. After going 4-6 the rest of the season, the Habs may opt to sign someone instead.
Several presumably cheap options include former Hab Ryan O’Byrne (6’5”, 234 lbs; $2 million salary last year), Edmonton Oiler Mark Fistric (6’3”, 234 lbs; $1.475 million) and Florida Panther Tyson Strachan (6’2”, 215 lbs; $600,000).
Strachan is perhaps the weakest of the three and is arguably not even a legitimate NHL defenseman.
O’Byrne, meanwhile, is the most expensive and may be a hard sell to Montreal’s fanbase considering he’s limited offensively, with his most notable goal scored as a Canadien being into his own net (seriously). There’s also the fact that he was arrested for stealing a woman’s purse the last time he was a Hab (again, seriously).
That leaves Fistric.
He may not be the most complete defenseman out there, but his 88 hits in 25 games are nothing to scoff at, especially seeing as Emelin had accumulated 110 in 38 games before getting injured.
For what the Habs require, Fistric filling in for a few months before potentially being relegated to the press box (if he doesn’t instead prove himself as a capable third-pairing defenseman or better) is a good option.
2. 1st-Line Center
Saying David Desharnais had his worst season ever as a professional hockey player last season (10 goals, 18 assists in 48 games) is both accurate and irrelevant at the same time.
While he was a shadow of himself from the previous season (16 goals, 44 assists in 81 games), during which he and Max Pacioretty (and linemate Erik Cole) displayed incredible chemistry, he really only has been an NHLer for the two full seasons.
There’s just no telling which version of himself is a more accurate depiction of what the Habs were getting when general manager Marc Bergevin signed Desharnais to a four-year, $14 million deal last season. Seeing as he’s just 5’7” and 177 pounds, the Habs likely wouldn’t be able to pawn him off on another team even if they wanted.
If he returns to his 2011-12 form, that wouldn’t be so bad, and the deal could prove to be quite the bargain. If not, at least the Habs have centers Alex Galchenyuk and Lars Eller waiting in the wings (meaning drafting someone new to take his position now is pointless).
Ideally, the Habs wouldn’t have to rush Galchenyuk or Eller into top-two-line duty. However, teams aren’t exactly lining up to trade away their capable first-line centers, at least not without getting something incredible in return (like Galchenyuk or Eller).
Meanwhile, “viable” free-agent options include:
- Patrik Elias (who had another good, potentially expensive season last year and will probably re-sign with the New Jersey Devils anyway),
- Stephen Weiss (who’s coming off a serious injury that could hinder his offensive production) and
- Former Habs Mike Ribeiro, Saku Koivu and Scott Gomez (who magically didn’t manage to get tougher, bigger or, well, good, in that order since their last stints in Montreal).
As such, it’s clear the Habs have three choices:
- Promote Plekanec to the top line, giving him even more minutes than he probably should be playing, as a force on the power play and penalty kill already,
- Promote Galchenyuk or Eller to the first line and pray it doesn’t hinder their development or
- Pray instead Desharnais rediscovers his game (and it isn’t somewhere that requires a ladder).
Coincidentally in the five-hole of this list (or No. 1 spot, if you prefer) is Montreal’s goaltending and the team’s undisputed starter Carey Price, who just as undeniably needs to get better.
In mid-June, when former Montreal goaltending coach Roland Melanson said Price has been deteriorating in terms of gameplay since he left in 2009, most fans wisely attributed it to the ramblings of a bitter ex-employee looking to save face.
That’s even after taking into account Price’s subpar seasons this year and last. In 2010-11, well after Melanson left his position, Price went 38-28-6 with an awesome .923 save percentage and a 2.35 goals-against average.
Even if stats don’t tell the whole story, they say enough for non-Habs fans to know Melanson was mistaken at best and had an agenda saying what he did at worst.
However, what is an actual indication of Price’s game not being where it should (if his 3.26 goals-against average and .894 save percentage during the playoffs weren’t enough) is goaltending coach Pierre Groulx not being welcomed back next season. It at least proves that Price’s game is not where Bergevin wants it to be anyway.
To be clear, this isn’t an argument that Price should be traded away—at least not with such limited options on the trade market.
There’s conceivably only Vancouver Canuck Roberto Luongo (and his 12-year contract) or Pittsburgh Penguin Marc-Andre Fleury, who would likely succumb to the pressures of playing in his native Quebec (or just playing in net these days).
Neither should the Habs pursue free agency to bolster their goaltending depth. Looking at the underwhelming results of Pittsburgh’s season-long experiment of signing Tomas Vokoun last summer to push Fleury to be better, that’s clearly not the way to go. If anything, Fleury got worse.
Just Peter Budaj, who’s under contract for next season anyway, and Dustin Tokarski are the only other ones in the organization in a position to start in net. However, neither seems particularly blessed with the same impressive pedigree as Price nor equipped to handle the rigors of starting 50-plus games every year.
As a result, the only logical option is to draft and develop a new goalie, even as purely a preemptive measure.
Barring using a first-round pick on a goalie (as they tend to develop slower than skaters and just-as-good goalies could be available in later rounds), the Habs should do just that this year.
Worthwhile candidates include Tri-City American Eric Comrie, Edmonton Oil King Tristan Jarry and Waterloo Black Hawk Eamon McAdam (top-rated Halifax Moosehead Zachary Fucale could go in the first round).
While the Habs shouldn’t give up on Price yet, planning for the future is just good management. Picking a goalie in the middle rounds of this year’s draft is ideal, as the move would have less of a chance of phasing Price as a sign of the team wanting to go in a different direction.
However, if it does, it could just as easily serve as the push he needs to get his career back on track.
It’s a win-win, in essence.
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