The 2021-22 season will prove to be an interesting one for the Montreal Canadiens. Since their run to the Stanley Cup Final in the summer, the team has undergone a partial roster makeover with the free agency departures of dependable forwards such as Tomas Tatar, Phillip Danault, and Corey Perry, among others. In addition to the forwards, stalwart defenseman and team captain Shea Weber is expected to miss the entire upcoming season and maybe more.
General manager Marc Bergevin has, of course, addressed the subtractions, adding forwards Mike Hoffman, Cedric Paquette, Matthieu Perrault, and defenseman David Savard. At this point, this is all old news and the big question emerging from this roster turnover has predictably and fairly been, is the team better now than they were in 2020-21? For now, it is too early to say how and where each new player will fit and if the team has improved.
In the meantime, there are other questions we can ask: do the departures and new additions alter or change the role or standing of any incumbent players? The answer is certainly yes, but to varying degrees. Nick Suzuki, for example, will have to perform as the team’s clear No. 1 center, a position that comes with added offensive and defensive responsibilities. The case that strikes me as most interesting, though, is the role of Brendan Gallagher in this new team mix. His role, as large as it already is, looks primed to grow even more in 2021-22 on and off the ice.
Gallagher’s New Linemates?
For the last three seasons, Gallagher has played a large majority of his minutes alongside Danault and Tatar, forming one of the most underrated but statistically impressive lines in the NHL during that span. What made the line special was their ability to dominate games on both sides of the puck at 5-on-5, scoring timely goals and shutting down the opposition’s best offensive players. With the latter two players signing in Los Angeles and New Jersey, Gallagher will need new linemates. Detailed and astute predictions made by a colleague have suggested that he should slot in on the third line with Tyler Toffoli and Ryan Poehling for next season as a means of sheltering Poehling along as he becomes a full-time player in the NHL. The idea makes sense but there is one thing that is difficult to reconcile.
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Gallagher is a two-time 30-goal scorer who should be playing with a definite top-six centreman, especially with his new $6.5 million contract kicking in next season. With Suzuki’s apparent chemistry with Cole Caufield, Toffoli, and in the past, Jonathan Drouin (who is expected to return), it should be expected two of these three will be on the wings of the top line. The only other potential top-six center the Canadiens currently have is Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who will also need defensive help and finishing prowess on his line. The logic for playing Gallagher with Poehling can be similarly applied to Kotkaniemi, who will likely face much tougher competition.
With the lack of experienced depth at the center position, one thing is clear regarding Gallagher’s role. He will have to exceed his prior effectiveness on the defensive end of the puck while maintaining his scoring touch with a less experienced centreman. The burden will be heavy defensively in an offensively stacked Atlantic Division. As the “heart and soul” of the team, Gallagher will rightly or wrongly have to take the brunt of this on-ice responsibility.
Added Leadership Role
In addition, with the indefinite loss of Weber and the temporary loss of Paul Byron to injuries, the Canadiens leadership has taken a hit. There is no doubt that the team has a plethora of players capable of taking on larger leadership roles in the wake of these injuries, but Gallagher is the clear favorite to emerge as the de facto leader. As a leader in the room already, this change may only have some minor impact.
Still, with as many as four or five new faces in the dressing room, it will partially fall on the veteran to help cultivate a welcoming atmosphere. As they say, the good teams always have tight dressing rooms. From an outside perspective, it seems clear that Gallagher is fully capable of taking on any sort of added off-ice responsibility. The key hypothetical is if any sort of added off-ice responsibility will weigh mentally on a player who plays such a demanding and focused style on the ice. Time will tell, but no Canadiens player appears more poised to take on a larger role in 2021-22.
Hello there, folks! My name is Stephen Michaud. Like so many in Canada, I grew up playing the game of hockey from a young age. My passion for playing spawned a yearning for following the NHL and other leagues around the world. Here at The Hockey Writers I have been tasked with covering the Montreal Canadiens, which I hope to do in a detailed and honest fashion.