Like so many times in the past several months, Montreal’s hockey community sits idly, waiting with bated breath. Now that official proposals have once again been exchanged, it appears as if we are finally staring down the barrel of hockey’s last stand. Most experts agree that a 48-game schedule is the absolute minimum in terms of what would constitute an acceptable NHL season, and the consensus seems to be that a deal would need to be reached by no later than January 10th in order for that to occur.
For months, fans have been force-fed editorial opinions, updates on legal proceedings, and prospect profiles in place of genuine National Hockey League coverage. The nuts and bolts of actually operating a team have become little more than a misty memory in the minds of many fans… but should the announcement be made that hockey will, in fact, be played at the NHL level this year, you can bet the house that debates and discussions will burst forth and fill the blogosphere like a bag of microwave popcorn hitting the ninety-second mark.
So rather than sit back and wait, I thought I might pre-empt the trend a little. Although off-season acquisitions, re-signings, and even the 2012 draft now feel like part of the distant past, Canadiens fans will have a lot of new names and faces to sort out when the NHL returns, particularly among the forward ranks.
Here’s how I would break down the Habs’ offensive lines for the coming season:
They say ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’… and this line may well have been the least broken part of the Canadiens’ 2011-2012 season. Grit along the boards, ability to finish, and the brilliant playmaking abilities of Desharnais were the trademarks of the Habs’ most productive offensive unit last season. Truthfully, I expect to see Tomas Plekanec displace Desharnais on the top line by season’s end, as he is probably the Canadiens’ most talented forward, but it is difficult to argue with results. Until Desharnais loses his grip on the top centre position, or Turtleneck Plek is able to wrestle it from him, look for last season’s top forward line to remain intact.
Admittedly, this line is held together by assumptions and wishful thinking. As I mentioned, I firmly believe that Plekanec will centering the top line by season’s end, but after putting up 52 points while skating with 25 different line combinations last season, and having seen him play the wing for the Czech national team, I firmly believe that it is within Plekanec’s skill set to be an effective player regardless of where he is lined up.
We have also seen recent flashes of brilliance from Lars Eller, who finally appeared to be growing into his 6’2 frame when we saw him last. As long as he has been holding his end of the deal during off-season workouts, there is no reason to believe that Eller has wavered from his path towards becoming a legitimate top-six forward. With reliable captain Brian Gionta healthy for the first time in recent memory, Habs fans could be looking at the deepest pool of forward talent since Koivu and Kovalev left town.
Let’s talk about the elephant in the room, shall we? A year ago, despite an abysmal previous campaign, Scott Gomez was on fire during the pre-season, and by all reports was in the best shape of his career. He then fell victim to an unfortunately positioned ice divot during practice and spent the rest of the season looking like a guy with one good leg and zero confidence. Skating alongside big bodies who aren’t afraid to crash the net would go a long way toward helping a struggling centre whose signature is neutral zone speed and solid first passes.
Critics may look at a line like this and see little more than the island of misfit toys; three castaways who don’t really fit anywhere else. I see a line with something to prove; a 33 year old Stanley Cup champion with nearly 700 career points centering the consummate blue-collar grinder on one side and a three-time twenty goal scorer on the other. As far as third lines go, it’s actually a pretty decent lot.
The goal of the fourth line is to roll in occasionally, bringing a high energy level and making life as unpleasant as possible for the opposing team…and if I were to cross the Canadiens’ blue line as an opposing forward, I can’t think of three players who would be more unpleasant to encounter than Travis Moen, Ryan White, and Brandon Prust. Averaging 6’1 and 208lbs, there isn’t a straight nose or complete set of teeth among them, meaning that teams expecting to physically dominate the diminutive Canadiens of old will be in for a rather rude awakening if and when the puck drops on the 2013 season.
That leaves Finnish forward Petteri Nokelainen as the thirteenth man. A solid all-around player who can be relied upon in nearly any forward role, Nokelainen is the perfect complement to a fairly well balanced roster. He brings a strong ability to forecheck, as well as reliable defensive play in his own end.
*With Alex Galchenyuk lighting up the junior ranks this year, there has been much speculation as to whether or not the young American will warrant a crack at the big leagues for the 2013 season. In just his first year back following a season-ending knee injury in 2011, it would most likely be in the best interest of both he and the team if he were to finish the year in Sarnia. Although Galchenyuk clearly possesses NHL-calibre talent (putting up 61 points in just 33 OHL games so far), his inconsistency at the World Juniors leads me to believe that a little more seasoning is in order. Particularly for a kid who is in the midst of a rejuvenating comeback season, the pressures of being a top pick in a hockey-mad (and hockey-deprived) city could easily become overwhelming. When he does arrive, he has the ability to dominate, but for the time being, it would be wiser to rely upon the deep stable of current centres. With names like Desharnais, Plekanec, and Eller ahead of him on the depth chart, Galchenyuk’s development would be better served in his current home.