Thursday, March 22, 2012


Over the past few seasons, it seemed the Montreal Canadiens offensive depth had evolved to a point where the team could - with some degree of success - roll three scoring-oriented offensive units. This represented a transition from the traditional model of two scoring lines, a defensive line, and an energy trio. It seemed that after the dark era of the early 2000s, the Habs now had sufficient skill to threaten opposing teams with a diversified attack.

Having players who otherwise perhaps could have been in a top 6, like Sergei Kostitsyn, Andrei Kostitsyn, Robert Lang, Guillaume Latendresse, or Matt D'Agostini, provide additional offensive support from a third line helped to alleviate the problems the team's "stars" over the years have seemed to encounter with scoring slumps.

Of course, injuries have a sizeable part in it, but flash forward to the Canadiens third line last night against the Buffalo Sabres:

Louis Leblanc - Ryan White - Mike Blunden

No offense intended to any of these three players, all of whom could help a National Hockey League team win games, but they are far from the type who "should otherwise be in a top 6" on any given team. Some would argue that both Blunden and White might be scratches on any other team, while Leblanc may someday have top 6 potential but is still at an early point in his career.

Again, yes injuries have something to do with it: add back Brian Gionta and Travis Moen to the line-up, and you might be looking at a line of

Travis Moen - Lars Eller - Louis Leblanc

Better, but still seemingly lacking. I love Moen, but in a normal year, he isn't a goal-scoring threat. And Eller is still developing, but if his finish can't be improved, he's stuck in a no man's land of not quite a defensive player and not quite offensive enough either.

Realistically, it's a problem the team needs to address. The above line means you're playing Rene Bourque in the top 6. Bourque is a guy who has shown few signs of offensive life in Montreal, and should be considered a downgrade (though for less money as well) on Andrei Kostitsyn. Kostitsyn is a player who started the year on that third unit with Eller, so it is evident the caliber of the team has slipped in the wrong direction.

This may be normal in a year of tanking/selling, even though the team wasn't successful in finding buyers for too much of its yard sale scrap. The issue is that many hope/expect this to be simply an off-year and for the Canadiens to bounce back next season, which means problems in the roster need to be addressed pronto. So where is the help going to come from?

The Habs don't lack in the third line department. The problem is much the opposite: too many players who are no more than third liners on an ideal team, and not enough who should be playing above that. David Desharnais has had an unbelievable year, but there is no guarantee he will continue to produce at a top 6 level. Bourque and Eller's inconsistencies mean they aren't dependable top 6 contributors. Was Brian Gionta's season an outlier, or has his production declined below that of a first or second line winger? It doesn't seem like any of Brendan Gallagher, Michael Bournival, Danny Kristo, Louis Leblanc, or Aaron Palushaj would be able to immediately jump into a starring role, though any of the first four may someday be top 6-able. And what of Scott Gomez (if he returns)? Is he even a third liner? Travis Moen, Ryan White, and Mike Blunden are likely ideal fourth liners on a stacked team, even if Moen is an acceptable player to slot higher.

So lots of third liners to battle it out for just three spots, no problem there. And even if there weren't, these third line types are quite often available at the expense of a draft pick or as a free agent signing. This article may be misleading in that sense; the problem isn't improving the third line by bringing in "better" third liners. The goal needs to be to improve the third line by bringing in better first and second line talent to have other first and second line caliber players dropped down to the third line. That is how you improve a hockey team, and something that hasn't been done often in Montreal, apart from the great signing of Erik Cole last summer to allow Andrei Kostitsyn to slide down. This quality depth is critical in case of injury, slump, or simply to allow for chemistry experiments.

The availability of such players is where the problem lies. The Canadiens dealt away two top 6 players this season in Mike Cammalleri and Kostitsyn while not receiving any back. Yes, the team's 5 second round draft picks over the next two Junes will help, but it won't help in 2012-13. The UFA market doesn't hold many answers. Teemu Selanne and Ryan Smyth are unlikely to leave their current homes. Even if only for political reasons, the odds of Shane Doan joining the Canadiens are nil. At their current career development stages, none of Alexander Semin, Dustin Penner, Brad Boyes, Jarret Stoll, Oli Jokinen, or Jiri Hudler cry, "Play me in your top 6!" That leaves buyers with few options, and thus players like Zach Parise and Pierre-Alexandre Parenteau are sure to be able to pick from top dollar offers from many possible suitors. For this summer, the supply isn't there.

This shows how critical finishing the year on a "low note" is. The Habs desperately need a player with star potential in June, and even if there is no guarantee a Mikhail Grigorenko or Alex Galchenyuk would have an instant impact (or even immediately make the NHL roster), they would fall in line with a strategy of adding to the top rather than stuffing the bottom of the line-up. The solution is letting talent trickle down through the forward ranks rather than supplementing average forwards with more Radek Bonks, Bryan Smonlinskis, Glen Metropolits, and Dominic Moores. As much as shedding the deals of Tomas Kaberle and Scott Gomez would be nice, it isn't even about cap space at this point. Free dollars don't automatically equate to top notch talent, and there is no abundance of first liners available to be had.

So what's the move, Habs fans? We can only hope that the Canadiens ownership trust understands a new direction is necessary, and thus the Pierre Gauthier regime comes to a close. Pick a new GM - one who will see that the present situation calls for aggressive moves to be resolved; not simply incremental third line upgrades. Let him choose a coach with whom he agrees on a vision for the future, and staff the team accordingly. It's going to take sacrifice; if the team wants to turn it around quickly by bringing in top players, given the barren UFA market, the Canadiens will have to give to get. They may not end up holding on to all 5 of those second round selections, and a Danny Kristo or Michael Bournival might be moved before his prime, but to shake up the culture of the Habs organization quickly, something drastic will need to happen. If we want to avoid another painful season like this one, it will soon be time for serious action.

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