The Montreal Canadiens appear to be back on track.
After starting the season at 5-2, the Habs went through a mini 1-3 slump. That in part prompted several lineup changes; including the much-anticipated call-up of 2009 first-round pick Louis Leblanc and the insertion of injured defenseman Douglas Murray back into the lineup.
While neither has particularly impressed in their two games with the Habs (Leblanc has zero points, while Murray has two interference penalties…and zero points), the team as a whole has seemingly turned it around with consecutive victories, on back-to-back nights no less.
Nonetheless, there is room for improvement, as the Habs find themselves in only third place in the Atlantic Division heading into Wednesday night’s action. Here are five lineup changes the Habs should consider moving forward to help move themselves up in time for the playoffs:
Former Columbus Blue Jackets forward Vaclav Prospal.
The bad news is Vaclav Prospal is 38 years old and, if the Habs were to sign the Czech forward, he would instantly become the team’s oldest player.
For a team trying to build around its youth moving forward, it might not make the most sense. However, Prospal would also instantly inject a healthy body capable of putting points on the board into the lineup.
The bottom line is everywhere he’s gone, Prospal has scored. He even scored more points and the same amount of goals as teammate Marian Gaborik last season. Granted, that is a way around saying Gaborik only scored 12 goals last year. However, when Max Pacioretty and Brendan Gallagher led the Habs with just 15 goals in 2013, it puts things in the proper perspective.
What also does is the fact that Pacioretty is injured, albeit for just a few weeks, and both he and Prospal play on the left side. Prospal would make for a decent temporary replacement.
Coincidentally, Prospal also plays center. So does David Desharnais. Just putting that little tidbit out there.
Obviously, were the Habs to sign Prospal, he wouldn’t necessarily be given the same 16 minutes of ice time per game he was last season (although it’s pretty much what Desharnais was getting with the Habs).
While many might consider Simon Gagne to be a more suitable free-agent option for a team based in a French-speaking city, the Habs already signed one unrestricted free agent Francophone on the downswing with a history of concussions for the season (and next year too). Last time anyone checked, it wasn’t working out so hot.
In sharp contrast, Prospal has been able to remain consistent well into the twilight of his career. Unless Francophone fans are still hung up on a slur Prospal uttered to Patrice Brisebois over a decade ago, there shouldn’t be an issue. These are the same fans that booed Brisebois incessantly when he was a Hab, keep in mind.
Really, the only question, other than why people insist on calling a guy with a first name “Vaclav” “Vinny”, is how would the Habs be able to sign him and still stay under the salary cap.
…And the award for the most obvious solution to the Habs’ woes goes to?
Now, there is clearly a reason that Desharnais is still a Montreal Canadien despite him becoming the hockey equivalent of a student so inept he can’t even score points for writing out his name correctly on the SATs.
That reason has a lot to do with a combination of things.
Firstly, he’s one of just four Francophones on the team and one of them is currently concussed (it’s not Desharnais, in case his on-ice performance was hinting at the contrary). As a result, trading him away, unless you’re getting a French-Canadian player back, wouldn’t go over so hot in the media.
Secondly, even if language weren’t an issue in Quebec (a province with actual, real-life language police, by the way) what could the Habs conceivably get in return for a struggling 5’7”, 170-pound player with an ironically large $3.5 million cap hit?
Finally, Desharnais admittedly hasn’t been completely useless this year.
He currently leads the team in faceoff percentage with a very impressive 55.4 percent. He is also getting his fair share of scoring chances. It just seems to be a matter of time before the points start racking up—probably about three weeks or so when Max Pacioretty returns, though.
And there’s the rub. Desharnais has only proven to make an impact when he’s playing with Pacioretty, and even then it’s not guaranteed as last year proved in spades.
So, if trading him isn’t an option, and the Habs can’t really get away with giving him loads of ice time in the offensive zone anymore without him actually producing, the only other alternative (aside from shooting him out one of those T-shirt cannons at intermission) is to save him for critical faceoffs, much like Jeff Halpern was utilized last year.
Of course, Halpern wasn’t a mess defensively and is currently making just one-sixth of Desharnais’ current salary…and has more goals, but that’s neither here nor there.
So, what else is there? Maybe trade Desharnais for a 37-year-old defensive specialist who’s been rendered ineffective in all other game situations?
Maybe if the Habs throw in a mid-round draft pick, anyway…
Montreal Canadiens goalie Peter Budaj with Habs forward Michael Bournival and New York Rangers forward Derick Brassard.
This isn’t to suggest that Peter Budaj is a better goalie than Carey Price. However, Budaj proved to be, at the very least, competent in net last season during the regular season (not so much during his one and only playoff appearance, unfortunately).
There’s just little logic in overworking Price and only waiting to play the backup when you have two games in two nights. Budaj did earn an 8-1-1 record during last year’s lockout-shortened season in 13 games. Inexplicably though, with just two games so far this season (and two wins, including one shutout), he is on pace for the same amount of appearances.
Even if they only won those eight games last year due to clamping down defensively because he’s, I don’t know, capable of letting in a 30-foot floater in a critical overtime game, what’s so bad about that, really? I mean, other than the part about him being able to let in a 30-foot floater in a critical overtime game.
Logically speaking, if the Habs learn to play defensively responsible hockey more often and don’t get used to taking their goaltending for granted as they can with Price, everyone stands to benefit.
Obviously, Price is the No. 1 goalie and a very good No. 1 at that, but if history has taught us anything, other than how it’s written by the victors, it’s that Price can stand to be just a tad more well rested come the playoffs.
The Habs just aren’t writing a lot of history these days with the one single playoff series victory to his name, is all.
This suggested move is admittedly a bit of a moot point, with defenseman Nathan Beaulieu being sent down to the Hamilton Bulldogs on the weekend.
However, considering he has already been recalled from Hamilton four times this season, he’s likely to return, even if only due to injury. He should be given more of a chance, though, perhaps at Francis Bouillon’s expense.
Both are left-handed shots (although Bouillon rarely uses his with seven total shots in 13 games so far this season) and Beaulieu simply has more upside, especially at their respective stages of their careers. The latter is 20 years old, while Bouillon is 38 and quite possibly playing out his last season in the NHL.
Bouillon deserves props for his rough-and-tumble style of play and his ability and willingness to stand up for teammates despite being just 5’8”. All signs indicate that he is a respected leader in the dressing room, but he has been rendered somewhat obsolete with Douglas Murray’s return from injury.
Murray is younger (33), bigger (6’3”) and hits much harder, to be frank. Bouillon may be the more mobile option, but Beaulieu is more mobile than him.
Right now, the team’s official website shows nine defensemen on the roster. Only three are offensive-minded, and that’s including the injured Davis Drewiske and Alexei Emelin.
That means a guy like Bouillon, who has one power-play goal in the last five seasons (and one power-play assist in the last three), is forced to get significant ice time with the man advantage. There just has to be a better way.
Beaulieu may not be able to step right in to the team’s first power-play unit with P.K. Subban (who shoots rights), but he should be given every opportunity to earn such a chance. It’s the type of move that should pay both short-term and long-term dividends, including providing a boost to Beaulieu’s development into a game-breaking defenseman.
Bouillon, meanwhile? He should still stick around as the team’s seventh defenseman, but at someone else’s expense.
From the get-go, re-signing Drewiske seemed like a mistake. Once the Habs inked Murray two months later, it officially became one. Now out with a shoulder injury, Drewiske just doesn’t figure into the team’s future (or present) plans.
Currently, the Habs have nine defensemen listed on the roster, including Drewiske. With Beaulieu playing decently so far and perhaps ready to take the next step in his development, there just isn’t room for Drewiske once he gets back.
Realistically, considering Beaulieu has a higher cap hit ($925,000 versus $650,000) and has a two-way contract, he’s probably destined to stay in the minors this season barring further injuries. Nevertheless, Drewiske should be demoted to the Hamilton Bulldogs.
If Beaulieu was playing good hockey, but wasn’t good enough to stay, what does that say about Drewiske, a player whom, let’s not forget, was benched in favor of rookie Jarred Tinordi during the playoffs. Tinordi, by the way, was recently benched in favor of Beaulieu before being sent down last week.
If only by the transitive property of mathematics, Beaulieu is clearly more deserving of the roster spot. Hell, if only by rudimentary eyesight, Beaulieu is more deserving. So, with Beaulieu getting sent down, logically so should Drewiske.
Even with the colloquially named “Wade Redden Rule” in the new collective bargaining agreement that prevents players with one-way contracts to be buried in the minors, Drewiske’s salary wouldn’t count against the cap. That only applies to salaries above $900,000.
Drewiske was obviously re-signed as little more than a depth defenseman. However, when you don’t trust him enough to play during the playoffs despite a rash of injuries, it brings into question the logic behind his brand-new two-year contract. It also brings into question the trade that brought him here in the first place…even if it was only for a fifth-round pick.
Consider that Brendan Gallagher, for example, was a fifth-round pick.
Montreal Canadiens forwards Tomas Plekanec (left), Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher.
Speaking of Gallagher and linemates Lars Eller and Alex Galchenyuk, the three spark plugs from early in the season have gone cold.
For the record, that dates back to Gallagher’s unassisted tally against the Edmonton Oilers, which was only scored because the Oilers stupidly turned the puck over in their own zone.
While the Michael Bournival, Tomas Plekanec and Brian Gionta line has been the team’s hottest one in recent games, all three are defensively aware forwards with strong two-way games. Replacing Gionta with the offensively minded Gallagher shouldn’t do much harm, if any harm at all.
Meanwhile putting captain Gionta on a line with Eller and Galchenyuk would give the former a good chance to take the two youngsters under his wing.
Gallagher and Gionta, both left-wingers, play similar games in the offensive zone. Both are known to go to the net, although Gallagher obviously is more effective at so doing, being 13 years younger.
As a result, it stands to reason that the move might actually improve the Plekanec line’s chances of scoring. Conversely, it certainly couldn’t hurt Eller or Galchenyuk, the way things have been going for them recently. Big picture, it should benefit the team as a whole.