Sorry Jacques, the Kitchen Sink Wasn't Available

After five games to star the season, the Montreal Canadiens sit comfortably in 6th place in the Eastern Conference. Their 3-1-1 record means they have accumulated 7 out of a possible 10 points, and that they have only lost one game in regulation - the season opener against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Through five games, there has been the good, the bad, and the forgettable. Among the good things we have seen Carey Price FINALLY regaining his confidence and taking charge between the pipes, as well as the Tomas Plekanec line picking up right where they left off last season. The bad? The Canadiens' defense, for the most part, fits easily into this category. From Spacek to O'Byrne to even PK Subban, they really haven't been all that great, and have the two entries into "the good" to thank for saving their asses in most of the first five games of the season.

Unfortunately for two of the Canadiens highest paid players, the "forgettable" involves what is supposed to be one of the Canadiens top two lines. In five games, Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta have but a goal and an assist each, which really isn't much to worried about this early in the season, but definitely a nagging concern for Habs fans heading into the next few weeks of games, were the schedule gets more populated and the competition a tad more intense.

Gomez and Gionta haven't exactly been "bad", but the Canadiens have been relying too heavily on Cammalleri, Kostitsyn and Plekanec for offense, and it's bound to catch up with the team. The Canadiens' major off-season acquisitions of 2009 are going to have to step it up in order to reduce some of the pressure on the shoulders of what's emerged as the Canadiens' top line.

While he's by no means a scorer, Gomez has had trouble getting the puck on net, with only 8 shots. This is sort of offset by the 18 Brian Gionta shots that lead the team, but considering only one of those has gone in, Gomez has to work on getting that puck to the net so Gionta and who ever else is lining up with the two former Devils can have a better chance of burying rebounds. Both players are so important to the team, and so much more than just scorers, and they have no trouble showing that. Gionta has been a good captain so far, and the effort is clearly there in the way he plays. Gomez does everything on the ice, from carrying the puck up the ice from the Canadiens' zone to playing defense and setting up plays. But points are the main stat that people look at when assessing players, especially ones that make between $5 and $7.5 million. And while the real fans will know to look beyond those stats, that does not excuse any lack of production.

The Canadiens have received some good secondary scoring from the likes of Jeff Halpern, Josh Gorges, and Maxim Lapierre, but there's a reason players are categorized as "top six forwards" and teams have "top two lines" and spend so much money bringing in name players such as Gomez and Gionta, and if the Canadiens stand any chance of keeping that 6th place spot or improving on it, they will have to be just as good as Cammalleri and Plekanec, if not better.

We could argue all day and all night about what is to be attributed to the "2nd line's" slow start, but the most glaring problem is the revolving door that has been left wing spot next to Gomez. Last season, the player who found himself most consistently on the line was Benoit Pouliot, after he was acquired from the Minnesota Wild. Most pegged Pouliot to retain that spot heading into the season, but on a short leash. While from the perspective of many, Pouliot has been fairly decent to start the year, it hasn't been good enough for coach Jacques Martin, as Pouliot has since been demoted to bottom line duty.

The next "experiment" on the Gomez-Gionta line was Travis Moen. While Moen is by no means a top-six offensive player, he does have some underrated scoring touch and, at times, can be fairly clutch, as he knows where he needs to be when playing with good players.He proved this last season, to a certain extent, scoring 8 goals in the regular season and two in the playoffs. Moreover, his promotion to the top line in the playoffs led to the awakening of Gomez and Gionta. Martin was hoping he could catch lightning in a bottle a second time over this past weekend, but needless to say, it didn't really work.

Finally, if you paid real close attention to this weekend's game, there were actually a couple of sequences where Michael Cammalleri would take Gomez's wing on a couple of o-zone faceoffs. It didn't really last, as you don't want to mess with the obvious chemistry Cammy has with Plekanec and Kostitsyn. At some point, Martin and the coaching staff might feel hard pressed to break up the Canadiens true first line and try and spread out some of that Chemistry, as Cammalleri has generally played well with the other two of the "Little Three", and Kostitsyn could potentially fit on that line as well if he continues to play as he does.

But for now, Cammalleri and Kostitsyn aside, Jacques Martin was faced with a difficult decision. Even after back-to-back wins, something had to be done about the Gomez and Gionta line, as the Canadiens won't be winning much longer if that line isn't performing.

So, who do you put alongside these two seasoned veterans that seemingly need a kick right between the cheeks to get going? Do you go with a fireball like Dustin Boyd (and no, that's not a Calgary Flames pun) or Maxim Lapierre? Do you go with the experience of Jeff Halpern? Or maybe the young kid in Lars Eller who also needs a kick-start?

Wait, what? They put TOM PYATT on that line? No, really?

That's right. Despite being only five games in, lots of possibilities that can offer energy and secondary scoring from the bottom two lines, and the fact that the guy was a freaking healthy scratch in Saturday's game against Ottawa, after a 2-1 defensive win the night before, Tom Pyatt will likely be skating alongside Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta when the latter two welcome their former team, the New Jersey Devils, to the Bell Centre tomorrow night.

I like Tom Pyatt. He's defensively responsible, plays like a pro and seems like a team player. But I like him on one of the bottom lines, and when he's on the PK. On the second line with Gomez and Gionta? We all know that Jacques Martin has his preferences when it comes to players, and it's not a surprise that Tom Pyatt, with his work ethic and his defensive play would be one of those players, but this decision borders on the ridiculous.

Pyatt, a Thunder Bay native acquired in the Scott Gomez deal, has played 44 NHL games with the Canadiens, putting up 2 goals and 3 assists with a -7 rating. He doesn't really hit, and at 5'11" 185lbs, he won't be doing much standing in front of the net either. He doesn't provide size or grit to an already undersized line, and the odds of him scoring a goal are slim to none.

With the plethora of options available for Jacques Martin this early in the season, this one's just a headscratcher.

As mentioned above, Max Lapierre has been playing really well in his role, notching a goal and an assist in 5 games and playing as annoying as ever. Dustin Boyd has only a goal in five games, but his potential in terms of scoring has been well documented. Lars Eller has yet to produce a point this year, and was glued to the bench for 55 minutes of the game on Saturday after being on for two Ottawa goals, but a promotion to the top line could have given him the confidence he needed to finally start producing.

And, you know, there's always Benoit Pouliot, who had 2 assists in his first two games, a team leading 18 hits in five games, and all this with limited ice time. Pouliot never really got his proper shot, and while most, myself included, were hard on him over the summer, even we were willing to give him a 20 game benchmark to keep his spot.

Hell, as stated, it would even make sense to split up the Plekanec line before putting Tom Pyatt in a spot he has no business being in.

If Jacques Martin is trying to send a message by promoting Pyatt, it's a confusing one of the players who have been busting their tails for ice time, especially to those with more scoring potential. If he's truly playing favorites, then it's gotten past the point of delusion. And after practicing with the top line for two days running, it clearly isn't a joke.

For all we know, Martin might know something we don't, or Pyatt could break out and score a hat trick tomorrow. Knowing the team the Canadiens are playing, and the style Martin forced unto his team, it's more than unlikely. But in any case, we have our first "Jacques Martin WTF" moment of the year.

The Habs welcome the Devils to the Bell Centre tomorrow night, before a short trip to Ottawa on Saturday and a four game schedule next week to close out October. We'll be covering it every step and every line change along the way, so enjoy all the hockey and look out for some live blogs!

Prax
www.twitter.com/GeorgePrax

P.S.: Don't forget to read a good post on the topic by Hey My Name Is Will, as well as Kamal Panesar's Plus/Minus on the goaltending and defense over at Habs Addict.

4 Comments

demez's picture

Subban on the 1st line, it'll work.

Phil T's picture

I don't understand why they don't put Eller on the Gomez line and run with it. Give it 5 games and I guarantee fireworks. Either way Gomez and Gionta always score in stride, they'll pick it up.

George Prax's picture

I agree Phil. He had a bad game Saturday but you're never going to know until you try him in a scoring role. Problem is, he's not a goalscorer so people might be disappointed with what they see, but if he plants his ass in front of the net he's bound to pick up some points. I feel like Pouliot is the better fit on that line and they need to run with him on it.

But I do agree with you, Gomez and Gionta will be fine in the long run. But it would be nice if they finally got a consistent linemate, something that people don't notice that they haven't had yet in Montreal.