Would the Montreal Canadiens’ Number One Line Please Stand Up

After finishing dead last in the Eastern Conference two seasons ago, the Canadiens bounced back in spectacular fashion claiming top spot last year in the now defunct Northeast Division. Along with a Norris-winning performance from PK Subban, the Habs owed much of their success to a balanced offense and three lines that could be counted on to chip in on the score sheet when called upon.

The scoring was so balanced that at times it was tough to tell just which of the three lines was the team’s true number one.

You could point to the combination of Max Pacioretty and David Desharnais as Montreal’s top threat. After all the duo, along with Erik Cole, were unquestionably the top line in the disastrous 2011-2012 campaign. And last year, for a second straight season, Pacioretty led the Canadiens in scoring.

But maybe the top line was the one anchored by Tomas Plekanec, Montreal’s most dependable center and the one that led the team in even-strength ice time. Plekanec often lined up with team captain Brian Gionta on one wing and veteran Rene Bourque on the other. Providing the Habs with veteran dependability throughout the year.

There were even times when youngsters Lars Eller, Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher looked like the Habs’ most potent threat, and indeed the trio certainly has the most potential going forward. Coach Michel Therrien resisted the temptation to turn the youngsters loose, keeping their minutes and responsibilities in check through most of the year, but the three made the most of the ice they saw making important contributions throughout the year.

If spotting Montreal’s most potent threats was difficult last season, this year it might be downright impossible. With the top three lines starting to take form here’s a closer look at what to expect from each combination.

Line 1A: Daniel Briere – David Desharnais – Max Pacioretty

Daniel Briere
Can Daniel Briere still be an impact forward at 36? (Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports)

Can Daniel Briere still be an impact forward at 36?

The trio of Briere, Desharnais and Pacioretty represents Montreal’s default top-line. Pacioretty is still the team’s best pure goal scorer and Desharnais has proven chemistry with the Connecticut native. Throw in the veteran presence of Daniel Briere, who has four 30-goal seasons under his belt, and you get a line that will be counted on to provide the bulk of the Habs’ scoring at 5-on-5.

On the flipside, a lack of size has been an issue for the Habs in recent years and this line won’t be expected to bulldoze their way to the front of the net. At 5’7”, Desharnais is one of the five smallest players in the league and the 5’9” Briere won’t be able to do much to insulate the diminutive center. Briere will turn 36 at the start of the season as well, and his production has started to dip in the last couple of seasons. While this trio may be the top-line going into the year, they’ll need to battle to keep that spot.

Line 1B: Brendan Gallagher – Lars Eller – Alex Galchenyuk

This combo was mainly used as a third line for most of last season, but they should see a bit more ice this year, both in even strength and power play situations. The trio could very well be a top line sooner rather than later, but they still need to prove themselves first.

Gallagher and Galchenyuk both had great rookie campaigns. Gallagher earned a Calder nomination for his efforts and Galchenyuk was constantly improving throughout the year, ending the season with points in 11 of his final 13 games. Lars Eller had a career year as well, picking up 8 goals and 30 points in 46 games to beat his previous high of 28 points the year before.

But Gallagher and Galchenyuk had the element of surprise on their side last year, teams will be better prepared to face the two youngsters this season. There are question marks surrounding Eller as well. The Danish center’s playoffs came crashing to a halt last year when Ottawa’s Eric Gryba leveled him with a blindside hit. While Eller has fully recovered from his concussion, it remains to be seen whether his confidence to go digging in the dirty areas recovered as well.

Watch: Eller converts a pass from Galchenyuk

Line 1C: Rene Bourque – Tomas Plekanec – Brian Gionta

Perhaps Montreal’s true number one line from last season, this trio features three proven veterans in team captain Brian Gionta, career Hab Tomas Plekanec, and Rene Bourque. Gionta led all Habs forwards in even strength ice time last season and the trio was usually called upon to handle the most difficult assignments.

But this coming season, look for the trio to be used in more of a shut down role. Plekanec has long been the team’s best two-way forward and is often depended upon to eat up minutes on the penalty. That doesn’t mean the three won’t produce their fair share of offense as well, but they’ll also be matched up against opposing teams’ top lines and see plenty of defensive zone faceoffs during the 2013-2014 campaign.

Watch: Plekanec scores with the Habs killing a 5-on-3

Call it a case of good news, bad news for coach Therrien. The bad news is, his team doesn’t have a clearly defined top-line for the coming season. The good news is, he does have three scoring lines, each capable on stepping up on any given night.