The Habs' Biggest Need Is At Their Deepest Position
If you've noticed that the Montreal Canadiens coverage here at The Checking Line has been sort of lacking these last few weeks, first of all, we apologize. But it really shouldn't be that surprising. It's kind of hard to write for a team when they're down on their luck, a team that finds themselves at the bottom of the standings with no hope of seeing higher ground. But it's even worse when it happens to a team that really shouldn't be as bad as their record indicates. And despite what you might see on the ice, in the box scores after the game and what you hear the pundits spewing, the Montreal Canadiens are not as bad as their record shows, even at 28-32-13 through 73 games, as of this writing.
You'd probably expect an article from the great George Prax after a brief hiatus to focus on as much negativity as possible, especially considering the way things have been going for this team, but what's the point? There's really no way to know whether the things we hate about this team -- the general manager, the focus on small, speedy players, etc -- will be remedied, and we won't know until the summer. Whether he gets fired or not, Pierre Gauthier has definitely left his mark on the Habs in the last few months, and that's either an indication of how things will develop going into next season, or an estimate for the size of the mess his incumbent will inevitably have to clean up. So there's really no point in dwelling on it until we get ownership's final decision after the season.
Instead, it's time to focus on a problem that might be positive for this team -- the surprising depth the Canadiens have up the middle, and what the team has to do with it this upcoming summer.
Maybe in spite of Gauthier and his path of destruction, the Canadiens have given us a decent amount of things to be hopeful for heading out of this season of doom. We all know about the wonderful success of the Habs' top line, consisting of Max Pacioretty, David Desharnais and Erik Cole. The former two have already shattered the best numbers of their young careers, and Cole has surprisingly exceeded the expectations of the admittedly big contract Gauthier gave him in the summer. The three have fed off each other in a spectacular way, but they've also proven capable of producing on their own. All three of these players deserve to have bright lights shined on them, but the focus here will be on Desharnais.
I don't doubt that Pacioretty and the seasoned veteran in Cole would produce no matter who the coach paired them up with, but can the same be said about Desharnais? The 25-year-old's heart and determination might only be surpassed by Pacioretty's (apparently, Desharnais was the runner-up for the Masterton nomination that went to Max), but there are some evident physical limitations that simply need to be addressed. Desharnais is 5'6" on tippy toes, 170lbs soaking wet, and regardless of what he or any other small player has proven, anointing a player of his diminutive stature as your number one center is a risk no matter how good of a season he's had.
For years, the problem with this team has been the lack of size down the middle. We're finally starting to see some bigger players on the wings and on defense, but the team is still lacking that sure-fire top two center that's big and can do some damage. And quite frankly, looking down the long list of quality centers the Canadiens are starting to accumulate, they still need a player who can be the number one center. Not number 1-A, not the guy who can step up if needed. They need a center well over six feet tall and two hundred pounds, who can throw his body around and put up at least a point per game on a regular basis.
As good as he's proven to be with Pacioretty and Cole, Desharnais shouldn't be anything more than a 1-B center. Tomas Plekanec is too good in defensive situations to be used primarily as a scoring forward, so there's another 1-B. Lars Eller, Blake Geoffrion and Louis Leblanc are all talented players who can step up to a second line role if required, but all three are probably best served playing on a third line, and none of them crack 200lbs unless they've had a few too many cheesburgers in a given week. Ryan White is of course best used in a checking role, and let's not even pretend as if Scott Gomez will be on this team next year. And the only center this team has to look forward to in the system is Gabriel Dumont, who comes in at a whopping 5'9" and 170lbs, and his professional career in Hamilton so far hasn't exactly been spectacular.
But beyond the size issue, dropping all of these names raises another significant problem. There's a serious logjam at the center position for the Habs. And none of these players fit the persistent need of the Canadiens to finally get some size and consistency down the middle.
If we were to take the most recent prospect rankings as scripture, the best chance the Canadiens have at filling this need via their inevitably high draft pick this June would be in 6'2" 205-pounder Brendan Gaunce, currently playing with P.K. Subban's brothers Jordan and Malcolm in Belleville and putting up a point-per-game in his sophomore year. Otherwise, it looks as if the Canadiens will be drafting a winger in the first round.
That leaves one option: Trade. Speculating who the Canadiens might be able to target in the summer to fill this gaping need would be a fruitless exercise, for no reason bigger than the fact that we don't even know who the GM will be come June, yet alone the types of players he might fancy (and I'm going to try and refrain from saying Ryan Getzlaf). But here's the thing. I don't think the Habs are going to bottom out again next year. But if they're going to be any better than a middle-of-the-pack team anytime soon, they're going to need to make some moves, and it all starts with that first line center.
This team has two power forwards anchoring their first line, their choice of centers for the second and third line, and a defense that should arguably be better next season if Andrei Markov can stay healthy and when P.K. Subban rebounds from his sophomore slump (anchored by the improving Alexei Emelin and the ever-consistent Josh Gorges). In terms of prospects, Jarred Tinordi will be with the Bulldogs, waiting for his shot, as will Michael Bournival and potentially Danny Kristo and Patrick Holland. Brendan Gallagher should theoretically make the team on the wing, and you have another defenseman on the way in Nathan Beaulieu, considered to be this team's top prospect at the moment.
While things may look pretty bad right now, the Canadiens are in better shape than you might think. The only problem is that they're in good shape at every position... except when it comes to that pesky big forward that this team simply can't find. It would be ridiculous to blame this organization's problems on one unfilled void, but think about it. A big, offensive center would mean that Tomas Plekanec wouldn't have to face the pressure of scoring every other night. It would mean that the Desharnais line wouldn't be the only line capable of producing, and that you could better distribute your talent among three scoring lines.
It's easier said than done. But based on what I've seen, through the good and the bad of this forgettable season, the goal of the General Manager this summer, who ever he might end up being, should be crystal clear. Find that elusive big center, and don't be afraid to use your newfound depth to acquire him.