Off-Season Forward Rankings: The Best Of The Rest
Last week, we started a five-part series, ranking, rating, and analyzing the members of the Montreal Canadiens. From the forwards, to the defense, to the goaltending and management, we’re going to look at it all before the start of training camp. We started with the top six forwards, and while some didn’t agree with some of my thoughts or rankings, that’s the nature of the beast, and exactly why the reason why we started TCL nearly two years ago.
Today, we move on to the “bottom six”, or as I like to call them, “the best of the rest”. Instead of rating all the forwards together, I thought it more relevant to split it up into two posts, as the top six obviously garner different expectations from fans and management thanks to their offensive backgrounds. This year, the Canadiens are in an interesting position, with an overflow of offensive-minded forwards and what’s likely to turn into three separate scoring lines. You may have noticed that, along with the incoming Erik Cole, there were actually seven forwards that made it onto that list. Conversely, only five are on this second list, and three of them have shown the ability to contribute offensively. With more possibilities for Jacques Martin to play around with his forward lines this season, and the potential of full starting assignments from the likes of David Desharnais and Ryan White, the dynamic of the Canadiens’ forward corps could be very interesting.
With that said, here are our rankings/ratings of the five remaining holdovers on offense to go with the seven in our first post, as well as our ratings for three outgoing players, and finally, a discussion of who might see some time with the Canadiens out of Hamilton! Don’t forget to check out last year’s post as a reference point.
Change: +30GP - +7G - +9A – +16PTS - +5
In 2009-10, Mathieu Darche only played 29 games with the Montreal Canadiens, but he was good enough in those games to put up 16 points as a 4th liner with minimal ice time, as well as earn himself a full time spot in the Canadiens’ bottom six for the upcoming season. Darche’s original signing with the team in July 1st, 2009, was hidden among some big changes to the team made by then-GM Bob Gainey, but despite the Cammalleris, Giontas and Gills, Darche would prove to be one of the most consistent players on the Canadiens over the next two years.
After splitting his first season in the Canadiens organization between Hamilton and Montreal, Darche found himself a permanent member of the main team at the start of this season, but his role was far from defined. Darche would find himself playing considerable time with nearly ever center on the team, including Eller, Desharnais, Halpern, and Gomez, and even spent some time on Tomas Plekanec’s wing. As a matter of fact, you’d be hard pressed to find a forward on the Canadiens who didn’t call Mathieu Darche his linemate for at least a portion of the season. The one familiar name throughout most of his line combos actually seemed to be Benoit Pouliot. And while Darche wasn’t enough to get Pouliot’s time with the Habs out of the gutter, it definitely didn’t bring the Montrealer and former McGill player down.
2010-11 Grade: A
2011-12 Expectations: Simply put, Darche needs to keep doing what he’s doing. Other than the surprising lack of PK time he had last year, there really isn’t much more you can ask of from the 34-year-old. Expect him to continue backing up almost every other forward on the team, as he seems to have chemistry with just about everyone, and expect him to be a good compliment to the offense.
- Otherwise, keep doing what you’re doing.
2010-11: 43GP - 8G - 14A - 22PTS - -3
Change: +37P - +8G - +13A - +21PTS – (-2)
We didn’t give David Desharnais a rating for his 6 game performance in 2009-10, but we expected him to break into the line-up with some of the first injuries on the team the next year. That he did, after being recalled permanently on New Year’s Eve. 43 games later, Desharnais had amassed his first eight career NHL goals, as well as 14 assists on his way to a great freshman year in the NHL. He had tremendous size issues working against him, but that didn’t stop him from being a fan and coach favorite during the second half of the year.
2010-11 Grade: B+
2011-12 Expectations: Desharnais’ in an odd position this season. The top two center spots are presumably set in stone with Plekanec and Gomez, but the young forward will have plenty of competition breathing down his neck for the center role he’s being pegged for. Lars Eller is an offensive forward who will only have more responsibilities with the team this upcoming season, and it’s anyone’s guess when Louis Leblanc will make it to town. Both players have the ability to play Desharnais’ position, so DD will have to make sure keep doing what he’s doing to hold on to that third line role.
- Give Scott Gomez a run for his money by centering the team’s third scoring line.
Change: +11GP - +2G - +1A – +3PTS - +9
2010-11 Grade: C+
2011-12 Expectations: We haven’t seen what Ryan White can do over an 82 game schedule, so it’ll be interesting to see what he can do in that span. That said, I have a feeling he’ll still have to actually earn his spot with the team, with lots of fringe players in Hamilton, so a strong training camp, a strong start with lots of energy and a few points in October will be key for him. If he keeps his pace from the last couple of seasons, he could very well be in the 200+ hit range, which would put him in the top 20 of the league. 150-175 is a little more modest, but at least five goals and 15-20 points probably wouldn’t be impossible for White, with the right linemates on that 4th line.
Change: (-2GP) – (-2G) - (-1A) – (-3PTS) - (-2)
We loved Travis Moen in his first year with the Canadiens. He was the team’s iron man, he contributed offensively, he found chemistry with no matter who he played with, and he hit. A lot. Despite his lack of speed, he fit perfectly into the Canadiens system. To Jacques Martin, and to all of us, he was the little engine that could. But something was missing in this past season. Something seemed off. His production dropped off, especially in the hit department. Simply put, he was just kind of there. He didn’t really seem fit on any line, and just kind of floated between his shorthanded ice time (second among forwards only to Tomas Plekanec).
Maybe the team asked too much of him? His most consistent linemates were Gionta and Gomez, with whom he showed flashes of brilliance when those two needed the occasional lift. But this definitely wasn’t the right fit. When he wasn’t playing with them, he was playing with the likes of Eller, Kostitsyn, even Cammalleri. Moen is the type of player who should only see the outside of a checking line when it’s absolutely necessary, and it seemed like the opposite was much more prevalent over the course of the year.
2010-11 Grade: C
2011-12 Expectations: Without mincing words, I kind of have the feel that this will be Travis Moen’s last year with the Montreal Canadiens. I doubt he’ll go anywhere over the course of the year, seeing as the coach likes him and he’s relatively consistent, but you gotta think that his days with the team are numbered. That said, if he simplifies his game, keeps himself away from the scoring lines, and hits a lot more often, that could very well change.
- Simplify game.
Change: +70GP - +5G - +10A - +15PTS - (-6) (with STL)
Lars Eller was an odd case last year. Acquired from the St. Louis Blues as the cornerstone of the Jaroslav Halak deal, the 22-year-old Danish forward may have been played in an unfair position by fans. He had big shoes to fill as the guy coming in in exchange for 2009-10’s savior goalie, and many fans – myself included – were upset that the Canadiens couldn’t muster a proven top six forward for someone who was, at the time, anyway, a star goalie. Of course, this wasn’t Eller’s fault, but the pressure was on him to perform.
At the beginning of the season, it seemed as if the team kept Eller on board to prove a point. He didn’t really deliver either, going 20 games before scoring a goal, and an entire two month period before showing that he could actually contribute offensively. Even after an impressive stretch in early December, he would go another 15 games without putting up a single point, and had several more long stretches without contributing. He was not present on special teams, despite the fact that a) he was an offensive prospect and b) he played on the bottom six, and in more games than not, he was just generally invisible.
2010-11 Grade: C-
2011-12 Expectations: Don’t get me wrong here. Eller’s shown flashes of brilliance, and he’s definitely a good prospect and player. And it’s tough to judge him, because it’s not really his fault that he’s in this situation. But he may still be a long ways away from reaching his full potential. There still isn’t a spot for him on the top six, and frankly, I kind of feel as if Darche would be a better fit on the third line, penciled in next to Andrei Kostitsyn and Desharnais. So, what happens? Does he start the season on the 4th line? Does the team finally swallow their pride and have him start in Hamilton? Is he the odd-man out completely this season? I hate to say it, but unless Eller has a dynamite start to the season, I don’t see how he can continue being a member of the Montreal Canadiens.
- Keep working hard to earn more ice time and a bigger role with the team.
Change: +1GP - +2G – +5A – +7PTS – +20 (with LAK/TBL)
2010-11 Grade: A
Change: (-38GP) - (-2G) – (-4A) – (-6PTS) – +7
2010-11 Grade: C
Change: +21GP - 0G – +2A – +2PTS – +4
2010-11 Grade: C
Other/Incoming: Aaron Palushaj, Andreas Engqvist, Louis Leblanc, Alexander Avtsin, Brian Willsie, Gabriel Dumont, Brock Trotter.
While the Canadiens seem to have a solid group of 12 forwards to start the season, plus a pivot in Yannick Weber, there are plenty of options for them in Hamilton, should the need arise for them to make a call-up – and it usually does.
Aaron Palushaj and Andreas Engqvist both had a brief, 3-game taste of NHL action last year, as did Brock Trotter in 2009-10 before playing a year in Russia, and could be interesting 4th line additions. We’ve yet to see what these players are truly capable of in the NHL, so make sure to keep an eye on them at training camp.
Alexander Avtsin is a dynamic young Russian forward who seemingly had trouble adapting to the North American style this past season, but could have a breakout year. Gabriel Dumont, who played his first pro year last season after four years with the Voltigeurs in Drummondville, is in the same boat after a quiet first year down in the Hammer.
One of the two players who could very well see ice time with the Canadiens this season is recent acquisition Brian Willsie. Willsie signed a contract with the Canadiens in July and has nearly 400 games of NHL experience, at 33-years-old. He spent all but one game playing the Capitals’ farm team last year, and hasn’t played a regular shift in the NHL since 2008. However, the London, Ontario native does have some offensive upside, and seems to fit under the Martin system, so he could very well be the next Mathieu Darche-type project for Martin and Pierre Gauthier. Considering his NHL experience, if he doesn’t start the year as the team’s 13th forward, he could very likely be the first call-up.
Then, of course, there’s Louis Leblanc. Leblanc was the Canadiens’ high profile hometown pick in the 2009 draft, and will likely be playing pro this upcoming season. Most agree that he needs time in Hamilton, but a strong start under new Dogs coach Clément Jodoin could mean an eventual promotion for the center/winger this upcoming season. And that would certainly excite fans. The Pointe-Claire native has international experience, US college experience, and a full QMJHL season under his belt. A full AHL season is likely in his future, but you never know what the Canadiens might have up their sleeves. Bold prediction: Leblanc plays at least one regular season game in a Canadiens uniform, similar to PK Subban’s 2-game stint in 2009-10 (Check out this great post by Stephan Cooper over at Habs Eyes on the Prize for more on Leblanc).
Next up, the defense, so check back for the third post in our series around Thursday. Until then, make sure to post your own rankings, ratings and thoughts in the comments below!