Monday, November 29, 2010

He Said: What Should the Habs Do to Fix the Second Line?

by Willey

It is one quarter of the way into the 2010 NHL season and the Montreal Canadiens appear to be building off of their strong playoff run. It was a playoff run that saw them make it all the way to the Eastern Conference Stanley Cup Finals.

The Habs currently to sit atop the Northeast Division and have thus far proved once again to be one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference, along the likes of the Philadelphia Flyers and the Washington Capitals.

As a team, the Habs find themselves among the leaders in goals against, on the penalty kill and for the first time in quite a few years, five-on-five scoring.

Individually, Carey Price is among the top five in the entire NHL in wins, shutouts, save percentage, goals against average and believe it or not points among goaltenders.

Our defensive core, despite losing it's best player in Andrei Markov to what looks like a season ending injury, continue to do a splendid job shutting down the opposition to the point where they are the only team who are yet to give up more than three goals in a game.

Offensively the number one line consisting of Tomas Plekanec, Andrei Kostitsyn and Brian Gionta are firing on all cylinders, propelling us to victory after victory. In addition, both our third and fourth lines have provided timely goal scoring and a defensive presence whenever called upon to do so.

What to do with the "malaise de Scott Gomez!"

Despite the success of the team as a whole, there remains a gaping hole in what is supposed to be our second line; the unit consisting of Mike Cammalleri, Scott Gomez and Travis Moen.

I don’t know about you, but I'm a big fan of Travis Moen. Unfortunately for him and for this team however, he is not a second line player.

Yes he is a big strong Saskatchewan boy who does all the little things right, but Travis has at no point of either his junior or pro career scored more than 11 goals in a season. Moreover, as an NHLer he has a career best of just 21 points in one season.

How can we justify placing our two highest paid players on the same line with a career fourth liner and expect the unit to gel and succeed. Simply put, they cannot.

If this team wants to take themselves from a good team who can play against anyone in this league; to a team that can contend for the Stanley Cup then the second line needs to be addressed and quickly.

The million dollar question, Part I, is how do we fix it?

The way I see it, Pierre Gauthier has three options. Either we continue to shuffle the lines until we find the right combination; we make a call up for a player playing in the AHL or we bring in a person to fill that roll via trade or UFA signing.

Shuffle the Deck

Let me throw out a little question: What do Michael Cammalleri, Benoit Pouliot, Mathieu Darche, Tom Pyatt, Andrei Kostitsyn, Brian Gionta, Travis Moen and Maxim Lapierre all have in common?

This is the list of wingers that in just 24 games have all been paired with Scott Gomez in hopes of trying to get our second line center “going”. To my count, that leaves just Lars Eller and Dustin Boyd as the only two wingers who have not had the opportunity at second line duty this season.

Have we not exhausted every attempt to find Gomez a winger? Is it not time to start looking for a solution down the middle instead of trying to find some answers on the wing?

With the sudden emergence of Lars Eller in all facets of the game perhaps it is time to see what he can do when presented with premiere players with premiere ice time.

So if the solution is going to come from within the dressing room then I am proposing something drastic: Move Gomez from the second line center and place him on the wing.

Allow him to play those top minutes and be let him keep being creative with the puck, but take away the important defensive responsibilities that come with being a center.

Allow Eller—who is bigger and stronger than Gomez, and who has a better faceoff percentage—to be responsible for the draws and the defensive zone coverage down low. Isolate Gomez on the defensive side of the puck and ask him to focus on the offensive side of the game.

I mean we’ve tried everything else, it only seems logical to try this variation.

Call for reinforcements

The second most obvious answer to this ongoing woe is to make the call to Randy Cunneyworth and bring up someone from the farm team.

The short list includes the likes of David Desharnais, Max Pacioretty, Aaron Palushaj, Ryan White and Ben Maxwell all of whom are having a good year playing for Bulldogs.

But who among them can truly help our squad?

As much as I would love to see White on this team, he is not a top-six player in the NHL and would certainly not be able to help our second line. Fourth line duty would be ideal but that is an entirely different debate for another day.

Maxwell is a player who, despite his offensive abilities, has done absolutely nothing at the NHL level, having scored zero points in 20 games. He has had the opportunity in the past but for some reason just does not appear ready.

Desharnais is an incredibly gifted offensive player, but when your entire top line and two thirds of your second line are all less than 6’0, then calling up yet another player in this mold is not the answer. Desharnais is an NHLer just not on the Habs.

The conundrum therefore comes down to ex-Michigan teammates and now Bulldogs line mates: Palushaj and Pacioretty—and I like how both of these guys play the game.

They are each 6’0 or taller, are both scoring at a point per game pace in the AHL and are both proverbial “North-South” players who skate hard down the wing and drive to the net. In short, they are the exact types of players we need.

So the million dollar question Part II is, who should get the call up?

I say why limit this to just one player? Why not call up both? Why not bring them up as a pair and have one play on either side of Gomez or mold the line of the future with the two AHLer’s playing on either side of Eller?

These two kids have played together during their NCAA careers and have thus far proved more than effective playing alongside one another in the AHL.

Let’s give them a shot because as mentioned above, we’ve tried everything else.

New blood

Assuming the injury to Markov is long term and using the Long Term Injury Reserve (LTIR), we will have the ability to play with about $5.75 million in additional cap space. This situation will allow Montreal to replace the salary with any other player in the league as long as Markov remains on LTIR.

In essence we can sign a player or trade for a player and not have to worry about the cap restraints. The ideal situation for a team in need of scoring!

With teams like the NJ Devils, Vancouver Canucks and Boston Bruins currently playing right against the cap maximum, and with players on their rosters set to return to play, they face issues and hard choices. This presents Montreal with the opportunity of acquiring one or two fairly big salaried players without having to give up much in return.

With such names as Blake Wheeler, Jamie Langenbrunner, Travis Zajac, Kevin Bieksa, and Michael Samuelsson apparently all available, acquiring a player with size does not appear to be an issue.

How does acquiring Samuelsson and Bieksa in exchange for relatively little in return sound? Not too fond of that idea? Why not make a pitch to the struggling San Jose Sharks to lure a Ryane Clowe or Devon Setoguchi? The possibilities are endless!

So the million dollar question Part III is, who do you acquire?

The NJ Devils are in the biggest world of hurt having to shed roughly $3.5 million in salary. Furthermore the Devils have a history of making drastic decisions for short term gains. Remember the year they traded a first round pick along with Vladimir Malakhov to the San Jose Sharks for a song? I do.

I say you make a pitch for soon to be UFA forward Jamie Langenbrunner, who apparently has issues with John MacLean, and bring him in to town along with a veteran D-man like Colin White.

If it were up to me I would add to the deal and see if we could get the Devils to throw in a player like Adam Henrique, who again would fill a need that the Habs currently have.

In exchange, we could send Dustin Boyd, who appears destined for the Martin doghouse, along with a decent mid-level prospect like a Yannick Weber or a Ben Maxwell. Heck, it is the season for giving, so I would even include both!

Is this a move the Devils would make? Right now this is impossible to answer but they are going to have to make some very tough decisions, and right now Langenbrunner appears to be the odd man out.

So there you have it folks, three possible outcomes to how this conundrum is going to unfold. Round and round and round this wheel of uncertainty turns, and where it stops absolutely nobody knows.

Until next time.

Read the She Said counter point.

Willey was the shinning light among the wicked growing up as the lone Habs fan in Toronto. Pray to Holy Ghosts of the old forum and all shall be answered I was told, and just like that my family was transferred back to Montreal and away from the damned. Olé Olé Olé.


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