Habs Can be a Powerhouse in the East
1) The adage is that your best players have to be your best players, and that always proves true. The Canadiens are going to go as far as Max Pacioretty, P.K. Subban and Carey Price are going to take them, but the depth and the balance on this team is going to carry them through the rigors 82 games incite.
I don't think anyone in my business loves the prediction game, but I'd categorize this as the deepest edition of the Canadiens in the eight years I've been covering them.
They have four centres that can play on the top two lines in Plekanec, Desharnais, Eller and Galchenyuk. Any one of them can play down the lineup too, and add in Malholtra and Prust, and that's a lot of depth to work with.
They have talented players in Jiri Sekac, Sven Andrighetto and Jacob De La Rose, one of whom is going to get a chance to play with the Canadiens straight out of camp, and the other two are likely to get some NHL games under their belts.
On the blue line, the Habs have three NHL-ready defensemen competing for one spot. There's balance to the duos with Emelin moving to his natural side--currently on the left of P.K. Subban, which is likely to bring out something much better in him. Tom Gilbert has been complimenting Andrei Markov thus far, and they're finding chemistry. And Mike Weaver will stabilize the game for any one of Nathan Beaulieu, Jarred Tinordi or Greg Pateryn.
I don't know how serious Marc Bergevin was about carrying three goalies into the regular season, but right now, there's obvious depth at that position. It's a good problem to have. We'll see who wins out between Dustin Tokarski and Peter Budaj, and we'll see what comes back to Montreal should they decide to package one of these two with the excess they have up front.
2) The fourth line. It's the best one they've had in the last 20+ years. Prust on the left of Malholtra and Weise (the latter two being linemates not too long ago in Vancouver), and they've had excellent showings in all the scrimmages so far. Prust, in particular, seems to have regained his stride and his energy. And there's no question this is a line that can handle more than 10:00 of ice per game. Michael Bournival is pushing with all his might to ensure he can find his place in the lineup, and when all is said and done, he might just be competing with Sekac, De La Rose and Andrighetto, because it's hard to imagine Therrien going for a different look on his fourth line. It should be noted that Bournival has looked very good so far too.
3) It's nearly impossible to find Travis Moen a place on this team. From a speed perspective, you just can't see a line that he fits on, and from a depth perspective, he's way down the chart considering how the lines are shaking out here. And the Canadiens have too much respect to string him along, scratching him until injuries hit.
Moen is all about the team and there's no discounting his leadership in the room, but it's hard to be a leader when you're not playing. If the Canadiens get through preseason relatively unscathed on the bottom end of their forward group, look for Moen to move before the season gets underway.
4) It's crucial that the Canadiens give Alex Galchenyuk as much time at centre as they possible can before the season starts, but in my humble opinion (if that means anything), he'll be playing left wing when the roster is healthy.
Here's the thing, the more Galchenyuk can prove himself at the position right now, the better off this team is this year. Two reasons why: If Plekanec, Desharnais or Eller get hurt, there won't be any doubt that Galchenyuk can handle a role up the middle. If Eller or Desharnais slump, Galchenyuk provides the healthy competition every good team needs.
As for moving a centre to make room for him, don't expect that to happen before the season. It would be surprising if it happened at all this season. The luxury of depth isn't one to be squandered to fast-track the development of a 20-year old player; especially not on a team this good. Galchenyuk will get more looks up the middle this year, this much is a guarantee, and his development in general will depend on his desire to prove he can produce no matter what they ask of him. He'll have tests to pass, and if he prevails--as we expect he will--he'll force Bergevin to make the move everyone's waiting for. But it's time to just chill on the whole "stunted development" theory.
5) Lars Eller has made it abundantly clear that he doesn't want to play the wing. He's earned himself a healthy paycheck, and his work in last year's playoffs was a reminder that he can be much closer to the player that started last year on a tear than the player who slumped terribly for more than 20 games.
Eller's got a lot to prove. The Canadiens are looking for consistency, and Eller knows that he'll need to provide exactly that. He's going to have better linemates to do it. Whether it's Bourque and Sekac, or Bournival and Bourque, or Galchenyuk and Gallagher, Eller's got to be a driving force in this lineup. As noted, he'll be under pressure to stave off Galchenyuk's claim to his position.
This should be a breakout season for Lars Eller.
6) How much better are the Canadiens, if Rene Bourque can bear any resemblance to the guy who carried them in the playoffs?
Perhaps there isn't a tangible answer to that, but it could be the difference between bottom 15 in 5-on-5 scoring and top 15. If Bourque can complete Eller or Plekanec's line with some finish, this team becomes a much stronger force at even strength--where they struggled mightily until Thomas Vanek's arrival.
7) Here's the wildcard: P.A. Parenteau looks great on a line with David Desharnais and Max Pacioretty. Not good, great. This too should have a dramatic effect on 5-on-5 scoring. It'll have a nice look on the powerplay as well. Parenteau was asked to report to camp in the best shape of his career, and by all accounts--the coach's being the most relevant--he's done exactly that. He's a player that truly excels with talented players, and he's proven that everywhere he's been. Therrien has guaranteed him a good opportunity to succeed, and it seems clear that he's earning the best one.
8) It's likely to be Jiri Sekac who wins the open spot at forward. A focal point of camp--moving forward--will be to see if he can develop chemistry with Plekanec. It's not going to be Andrighetto completing that trio, so we'll keep a sharp eye on how these two look together when Bourque or Galchenyuk join their line.
Sekac has impressed with his skating, his hockey sense, and his general skillset. His line with Plekanec and Adrighetto has run up against Pacioretty-Desharnais-Parenteau throughout the scrimmages, and that's made for some tough sledding in the defensive zone, but he's handled it pretty well, and there's no doubt he's being tested in that capacity as well, even if he's billed as a scoring forward.
Can't help but wonder what Sekac might look like with Eller and Bourque. One would think Gallagher's more suited for the tough minutes Plekanec has to play, and Galchenyuk can provide the offensive kick you expect to see from a second line.
9) Say Parenteau, Bourque and Sekac don't do all that much to account for the 5-on-5 gap Vanek left, the Habs may be able to make it all up on the powerplay.
Can you believe that a team that was bottom tier for most of last season at 5-on-5; a team that finished with the 19th best powerplay in the league, finished with 100 points?
Gorges and Bouillon manning the second unit, or Gilbert and Beaulieu? That is a monstrous difference.
10) Speaking with Danny Briere a couple of weeks ago, he couldn't have praised Budaj more for the way he handled being stepped over in the playoffs; for his attitude; for his willingness to be the best teammate for everyone. Briere said it's real hard to find a backup goalie who'll embrace the position as willingly as Budaj did for the Canadiens. He praised Budaj's work ethic and his dedication to staying on the ice after every practice to let the guys get extra reps and shots in.
There's no discounting the relationship Budaj's cultivated with Price. They are close friends, and he's been an excellent support for Price throughout his time in Montreal.
That's why trading Budaj is going to be a hockey decision, plain and simple. That's why he's going to hold certain value in any trade too. There's no doubt that as a backup, when Price is healthy, Budaj has proven that he can win games. But if Price goes down--and he's had his bumps and bruises in each of the last three seasons--Tokarski offers the team a better chance to win as a starter.
Assuming Price is healthy, it goes with out saying that he makes the Canadiens the *ahem* powerhouse they're going to be. He's the driving force, he's their biggest leader, and he's now officially in his prime.
Get excited for this edition of the Montreal Canadiens. They're not perfect, but they're good enough to do some serious damage in the East this year, and their experience can bring them to higher ground come playoff time. Bergevin has space to maneuver when the time calls for it, and a good team will be made better.