Although the Montreal Canadiens continue to hang out at the top of their division, there’s still a situation that remains unresolved as they get ready to face some pretty tough opponents in December. I’m talking about the glaring hole that’s still evident on the second line, which head coach Jacques Martin has thus far taken to filling with third and fourth-line grinders.
While Scott Gomez’s play as the line’s centerman has left a lot to be desired, he is not entirely to blame for this line’s current ineffectiveness. Without a legitimate second winger, this line is very easy for opposing defenders to shut down.
Gomez is primarily a playmaker, and does not tally goals like first-line pivot, Tomas Plekanec. With only one finisher available on his line to make plays, opposing teams need only pressure Gomez, cover the winger and all but ignore the line’s grinder, who is hardly a scoring threat.
To their credit, the Habs have jumped off to a strong start this season despite what I perceive to be a noticeable disadvantage. However I’d like it fixed sooner than later, so here’s my usual attempt at playing armchair GM.
In making my own choice, I’d like to go over the options I see available to Pierre Gauthier and assess them independently.
Acquired in exchange for Guillaume Latendresse, Pouliot got off to a great start on a line with Gomez and Brian Gionta. He’s still young though, and with a coach like Martin his defensive play left a lot to be desired. He also seemed to lack consistent focus and effort as well, which directly hindered his production.
This season Martin has him playing wing on the third line instead, largely with Mathieu Darche and either Lars Eller or Jeff Halpern as the centerman. I’ve taken the Habs head coach to task over his handling of young players in the past, but this move has done nothing but benefit Pouliot.
Pouliot still has moments where he’s not as engaged or defensive as he should be, but they are more the exception than the rule now. Playing with two solid and determined veterans has rubbed off on Pouliot in a good way, and though he’s been playing a lot with Eller now as well, I’d still choose to leave Pouliot where he is unless I had no other choice.
Along with Eller, Pouliot also brings an added scoring threat to the Habs third line. Since this team usually has trouble scoring outside of the top two lines, I think that’s a strong bonus as well.
Initially I wanted Eller on the second wing to start the year. It would have meant more minutes for the rookie, who has at times spent a lot of the game watching from the bench. Like Pouliot, he has the necessary skill set to be a second-line winger. However it is hard to ignore Eller’s recent growth as a centerman.
He continues to flourish and gain confidence every game, to the point where he has managed to pilfer Halpern’s wingers. I like the idea of Eller on the second line, but for now I’d leave him anchoring the third line just like Jacques Martin has chosen to do.
I’m not a big believer in tinkering with things that aren’t broken, and currently the third line isn’t broken.
After playing 21 games with the Hamilton Bulldogs, Pacioretty currently has 11 goals and 14 assists for a sizzling 25 points. Of all the prospects the Habs currently have in their system, he is the call-up I would choose. But he would still be my second choice to fill the slot.
Regardless of whether or not it was overblown in the press, Pacioretty did state that he would prefer to play the season in Hamilton rather than be relegated to third or fourth-line ice time in Montreal. And with a cautious and defense-first coach like Jacques Martin, I just don’t see him getting this slot.
I think the only way this kid gets called up is if Yannick Weber is sent back down, Pouliot is elevated to the second line and Pacioretty becomes the third line’s new winger. And I really only expect that to happen if Andrei Markov is not gone for the season, and the Habs remain tight against the cap.
This is really only going to happen if Andrei Markov is out for the rest of the year and his salary comes off of the cap. It would mean about $6 million with which Pierre Gauthier could not only shop for a much-needed winger, but also a defenseman to help shore up the blue line.
I do think that in assessing which forward is possible, it’s important to point out that I believe precedence will be given to acquiring a defenseman, and for this I’ve heard names like Tomas Kaberle or Kevin Bieksa thrown around. While I’m not adverse to either suggestion, they both represent a large chunk of the available cap space.
That would naturally limit which forward Gauthier could realistically trade prospects or picks for, and still afford. It’s hard for me to drop a name regardless. We’re nowhere near close to the trade deadline, and there’s no telling how much money Gauthier will choose to spend on a forward.
Still, I do think this is the option I would choose to pursue, rather than break apart the first or third lines again or continue to use a third or fourth-liner. I’d probably trade for a defender who can routinely relieve Roman Hamrlik or Jaroslav Spacek, and then spend what I have left on a legitimate winger.
I could go on and on about which forward I would choose and why, but really it would just be a guess based on internet gossip and personal preference. Absolutely essential on my shopping list though are size, speed, skill and net presence.
So which option would you choose? Would you choose to use Pouliot or Eller? Would you call up Pacioretty or a different prospect to plug the hole? Or would you choose to make a trade also?