By Bob Trask – Jeff Gorton and Kent Hughes could pull out all the stops and try to turn the Canadiens into a playoff contender next year – not a Stanley Cup contender but a playoff contender. Or they could try to field a relatively competitive team dotted with young prospects and supported by selected veterans as they transition from a team built in the vision of Marc Bergevin to one built in the vision of the new management team and coaching staff.
The playoff contender would have to be successful in landing a couple of high end free agents to fill holes in the lineup. Alternatively they could try to fill these holes with trades. It feels almost like it would be a desperation move and this management group doesn’t seem prone to making moves out of desperation.
The transition lineup could still pursue free agents but not at the same level. Key roles, like power play time would be turned over to some of the skilled youth in the organization.
The goal with this approach would be to allow additional time to evaluate the young talent on the Canadiens, those with the Laval Rocket, those still plying their trade in the amateur ranks and those who will be drafted in July. It is an approach that requires patience from ownership, the management group, the coaching staff and maybe, most of all, the fan base.
Let’s take a look at what a transition lineup could look like with this completely hypothetical roster.
Mix of Talent
Successful teams have always had a balance of skill, grit and veteran savvy. A team in transition also needs that. The skill puts the puck in the net, the grit ensures that the opposition is not taking too many liberties. The veteran presence has experience with the highs and lows a team (and individual players) go through. They can provide the insight and support to the less experienced, helping them.
Going forward who could be the skill players, the gritty players and those who provide the stabilizing veteran presence on the team.
Despite both being veterans and both being paid at the top end of the range for their specific roles (starting goaltender and backup goaltender), Carey Price and Jake Allen provide that combination of skill and veteran presence. It seems like the best option going forward and allows Cayden Primeau to marinate for one more year in the AHL while being readily available for emergency purposes.
Joel Edmundson and David Savard both provide grit and veteran presence. Yes, an upgrade would be nice on the right side but in a transition year they can both play a role. A solid off-season program could benefit both.
Justin Barron, Jordan Harris and Mattias Norlinder appear to have the best puck moving abilities on the team but it is unlikely that all three would suit up for the Habs next year. Pick Justin Barron and one of the other two. At this point Harris would seem to have the inside track but Norlinder’s offensive ceiling might be higher.
Alexander Romanov is a lock to play on the first or second pairing. He has displayed a physical style of play along with improving offense. What he seems to need to work on is his discipline. Sometimes Romy tries to do too much.
So far the list on defense looks like Edmundson, Savard, Romanov, Barron and Harris or Norlinder. That leaves room for a #6 and a #7 defenseman on the 23 man roster. I expect Kaiden Guhle, Arber Xhekaj, Gianni Fairbrother and maybe Josh Brook to start in Laval. It seems like Niku and Lagesson will be cast adrift with the future of Wideman and Schueneman up in the air.
Schueneman seems like a good candidate for the #7 position to start the season. He has played both sides and has shown some offensive flair even if he does get overconfident with the puck once in a while.
Wideman is more of a PP specialist who fills in on 3rd pairing at even strength. For a team in transition looking to develop its young talent, it isn’t unreasonable to expect that a lot of that PP time could be allocated to Barron and Harris/Norlinder. If that is the case, is Wideman the ideal candidate for the #6 d-man? Probably not. A defensive d-man whose strength is penalty killing might be a better fit.
Let’s leave that position open for now.
At center the Canadiens are already in transition mode. They have three young centers in Suzuki, Poehling and Evans along with a veteran in Dvorak. It is not an outstanding group… yet, but the younger players are all trending up. Unless a clear improvement can be made at the right price this group could stay intact as players like Riley Kidney, Jan Mysak and Xavier Simoneau continue to develop.
Finding the right combination for grit, skill and veteran leadership at right wing could be a challenge and some of it depends on whether Cole Caufield plays LW or RW. Since he shoots right, for the purpose of this exercise let’s assume he will play RW.
Caufield and Jesse Ylönen represent two of the more highly skilled puck handlers in the organization and both could be considered under-sized. Ylönen, while tall isn’t a heavy player – he is a will o’ the wisp who is quick and deceptive. For a team in transition, these are two players who should be in the lineup every night. A first line role for Caufield and a 3rd line role for Ylönen seems to be an appropriate starting point.
Their dynamic play needs to be complemented by some size, grit and veteran presence. With Ylönen and Caufield on the 1st and 3rd lines, Josh Anderson would seem to fit nicely on the 2nd line.
That leaves an opening for a 4th line winger and it also leaves and undefined role for Brendan Gallagher. As a team in transition, Joel Armia would be a better fit. He brings size that Brendan Gallagher doesn’t and he has been used with varying degrees of effectiveness on the penalty kill. While Armia wouldn’t be considered a long term solution, starting the year with him on the 4th line and re-evaluating him at next year’s trade deadline could be an approach taken by Gorton and Hughes.
While Gallagher is often referred to as the heart and soul of the team, it has been a less than average team over the long run. The Canadiens rank 22nd out of the 30 teams that were in existence since Gallagher broke into the league.
If the Canadiens were to be brutal in their assessments and actions the four right wingers could conceivably be Caufield, Anderson, Ylönen and Armia with Gallagher on the outside looking in. I’m not necessarily advocating that but for a team in transition, it is a possibility.
The situation at left wing is just as muddled as it is at right wing and it is complicated by the fact that the health status of Jonathan Drouin won’t be know until September. That aside, we can apply the same template to left wing as we did to right wing – speed and skill complemented by size, grit and veteran presence.
Suzuki and Caufield could really use a physical presence on their line but someone who can keep up with the play. Ideally he would also be a player who is adept at d-zone breakouts – something this line struggles with at times. The existing group of LWs including Drouin, Mike Hoffman, Paul Byron and Rem Pitlick don’t fit that mould in any way shape or form. Michael Pezzetta is a 4th liner at this point in his career. Let’s leave that position open for now.
Assuming Drouin returns to full health, he is one of those high skilled players that could fit on a 2nd line, complementing a RW like Anderson. As a pass-first player there is the potential for him to fit will with a shoot-first player like Anderson. Depending on who showed the best fit, it could be Dvorak or Poehling at center.
Rem Pitlick and Ylönen could flank Dvorak or Poehling on the 3rd line. With two speedsters on the wings, the heavy lifting from a physical point of view would have to be done by the center. While it lacks all the elements of an ideal line, as a third line it wouldn’t face the toughest matchups on the other team.
In this hypothetical lineup, that leaves a spot open on LW to play with Jake Evans and Joel Armia. The remaining candidates are Hoffman, Byron and Pezzetta. Byron’s speed and veteran presence would complement the size that Armia brings on he wing. He also brings his penalty killing skills to the team, something that Pezzetta and Hoffman don’t.
The 13th and 14th forward are important to any team’s success. They have to be willing and able to watch from the sidelines for extended periods and then jump into the fray on a moment’s notice. They should also be versatile, having the ability to play center or wing. Ideally these roles are filled by players who aren’t trying to refine their talents for a future spot in the top six.
Players who could contend for this position include Laurent Dauphin, Tyler Pitlick and Michael Pezzetta. Pezzetta and Dauphin have both played center and shoot left while Pitlick plays wing and shoots right. At this moment none of the three for next year.
For the sake of argument we will go with Pezzetta and Pitlick with Dauphin possibly targeted for Laval to start the season.
This hypothetical roster is designed to be a transitional roster that would not be expected to challenge for the Stanley Cup and would be a long shot to make the playoffs. And the proposed roster is still not complete, requiring one more defenseman and a winger to play with Suzuki and Caufield.
By the time the trade deadline rolls around next season, more players could/would be changing teams. These players would be considered placeholders until the team’s prospects are ready to make the jump.
What are the possibilities that the starting lineup will look anything like this when October rolls around? Slim to none would be a good guess but as the regular season comes to an end there is not much for Habs fans to do other than watch other teams and have fun speculating a bit on the future.
Goal – Price, Allen
Left Defense – Edmundson, Romanov, Harris
Right Defense – Barron, Savard, ???
Extras Defense – Schueneman
Center – Suzuki, Dvorak, Poehling, Evans
Right Wing – Caufield, Anderson, Ylonen, Armia
Left Wing – Drouin, R. Pitlick, Byron, ???
Extra forwards – Pezzetta, T. Pitllick
Uncertain futures – Samuel Montembeault, Jeff Petry, Mathieu Perreault, Cedric Paquette, Kale Clague, Sami Niku, William Lagesson, Gallagher, Dauphin