Montreal Canadiens: Biggest Need at Right Wing or Center?

With the Montreal Canadiens having just signed Jeff Petry (and Nathan Beaulieu inevitably to follow), next year’s defensive corps is looking pretty solid. The focus must now shift to up front, specifically the top-line center and right-wing positions, where sticking with the status quo would be less than ideal.

Whether it’s via free agency or a trade, something must be done.

The line of Max Pacioretty-Tomas Plekanec-and Brendan Gallagher was most used during the playoffs, according to data compiled by the University of New Brunswick faculty of computer science. As a result, that will be assumed to have been Montreal’s top unit, despite it having suffered through several incarnations from the start of the regular season up until the Habs’ elimination at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning this postseason.

Also, seeing as Pacioretty led the team in points (67) during the (fourth straight) regular season and fell one short of the team lead during the playoffs (P.K. Subban; seven vs. eight), it’s kind of beyond debate that the left side is far from the team’s biggest issue as far as creating offense is concerned. What about the other two positions, though?


Top-Line Right Winger: Brendan Gallagher

Montreal Canadiens forward Brendan Gallagher
Montreal Canadiens forward Brendan Gallagher – (Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports)

While one can argue that Brendan Gallagher’s 47 points (24 goals) are well in line with expected production from a first-line right-winger, ideally Montreal would have an elite talent up there, forcing Gallagher onto the second line.

Expecting Gallagher to eat up a lot of top-line minutes will likely end up adversely affecting his longevity, considering the role he has to play, or, more accurately, the role he has taken upon himself to play.

Unfortunately, because Montreal’s right side comprises him, Pierre-Alexandre Parenteau (another top-six talent, probably best suited for a second-line role, if that under head coach Michel Therrien), Dale Weise, and Devante Smith-Pelly, Gallagher is the best offensive option of the bunch… arguably the only option, with Parenteau scoring just 22 points, while limited to 56 games due to injury and being a healthy scratch on numerous occasions.

Gallagher’s not a bad option, per se, especially with Therrien constantly forcing square pegs like Weise and Smith-Pelly into that round hole. At 5’9”, Gallagher doesn’t fit size stereotypes for any specific line, making his contributions—the grit of either grinder combined with greater offensive skill—that much more impressive.

As such, another one of Gallagher’s primary assets is his versatility. He started off his career playing with Alex Galchenyuk and Brandon Prust on the team’s third line… successfully. Due to sheer hard work and results, he was able to move up.

However, when a guy like potentially-available Toronto Maple Leafs forward Phil Kessel is coming off a horrible season (for him), scoring 25 goals and 36 assists—14 full points above Gallagher, who had a career year—it gives one pause for thought. There are even better options out there. It’s just a matter (labor, more accurately) of securing one.


Top-Line Center: Tomas Plekanec

Montreal Canadiens forward Tomas Plekanec and Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Ben Bishop
Montreal Canadiens forward Tomas Plekanec and Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Ben Bishop – (Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports)

At 32 (going on 33), Plekanec isn’t getting any younger. He’s also entering the last year of his current deal, making him maybe more expendable than Gallagher (23) despite notching an impressive 60 points. Oddly enough, though, Plekanec ranks lower among centers in the league (25th) with those 60 points than Gallagher does among right-wingers (24th).

Amid rampant speculation that Plekanec has already been traded, it’s not as if it’s in Montreal’s absolutely best interest to deal the center, who led all Montreal forwards in shorthanded time on ice per game (1:55).

Even though, he largely whiffed during the playoffs, going goalless in his last 11 games of the playoffs (after scoring in Game 1), and contributed to a horrid, 13th-ranked, 2.08-goals-per-game offense, Plekanec still holds a ton of value for a playoff-bound team, which Montreal still appears to be at this stage of the game.

His reputation for disappearing come the playoffs is not entirely deserved. He has 46 points in 81 career playoff games, including one postseason of nine points in 12 games (2007-08). However, it’s gotten to the point that, as reliable as he is to get his fair share of points during the regular season, he can’t be expected to take it to another level at this stage of his career.

With younger centers like David Desharnais (28 going on 29) and Lars Eller (26) available, he in theory shouldn’t necessarily have to. While Desharnais has played a great deal with Pacioretty in the past (~600 even-strength minutes this past season), the results just haven’t been there consistently.

Considering the same data reveals Eller has skated with Pacioretty a total of 46 minutes (total… over his five seasons as a Canadien), it might be well worth it to experiment with the notion of switching one out with the other, i.e., moving Eller to the top line and Plekanec to the third.


A Novel Idea

Montreal Canadiens forward Lars Eller
Montreal Canadiens forward Lars Eller – (Icon SMI)

It’s not that novel of an idea to move Eller to a scoring line, seeing as last playoffs he led all forwards with 13 points in 17 games and he ended the 2013 regular season with 13 in his last 12. He can contribute offensively given the proper opportunity, while Plekanec moving down might serve as a catalyst for more offense from the third line (or the second, enabling the 20-year-old Jacob De La Rose to own the third slot if he’s ready).

With Alex Galchenyuk potentially able to move over to the middle from the left side as well, despite whatever general manager Marc Bergevin had to say at his post-mortem press conference, it’s clear that Montreal doesn’t necessarily need to look far for that ever-elusive big, first-line center. Both he and Eller are over six feet tall, offensively talented, and young.

Looking to the former would even only require Montreal to fill a second-line left-wing slot instead of any on the first unit, which is far easier to do, with Desharnais, top prospect Charles Hudon, and even Eller or Plekanec able to play that position as well. It’s unlikely the Habs would go that route, though. It’s just too logical, making replacing Gallagher on the top line arguably the highest priority.

Montreal has numerous options at center. On the right side? Really just the one for a reliable, consistent effort. Gallagher is great. He can’t do it all himself though.