In today’s NHL, coaches move forwards around from position to position without hesitation. Left wingers become right wingers, centres become wingers. However it’s seldom wingers become centres. And with the freewheeling motion of today’s game the old static “wing on wing” system of play that existed until the Soviet influence came into the game in the 1970‘s has evolved into today’s crowd-pleasing free flowing puck-support game.
So for the purposes of breaking down Canadiens talent among forwards, we can only use ‘listed position’ knowing full well that things can change on a coaching tactical-whim.
We’ll start at right wing for no other reason than the Canadiens list the greater number of signed forwards at that position, a total of twelve. At first glance at the list, the first tthought that comes to mind is ‘quantity doesn’t mean quality’.
Erik Cole and Brian Gionta are entrenched on the right side of the number one and number two lines. After that it’s a mashup of underachievers, rookies and role players. The Canadiens need to get some offense from their third line. Right now, with free agency decisions pending, the choices seem to be Rene Bourque, Aaron Palushaj or Louis Leblanc.
Rene Bourque – When the Canadiens traded Michael Cammalleri to Calgary for Bourque it was well known they were getting an Andrei Kostitsyn clone, a player with a desire to compete in one of every three games. In reality, for whatever reason, they got worse than that. Five goals in 38 games and public ridicule directed not only on Bourque but on Pierre Gauthier, who engineered the deal. Bourque is a good skater and has a hard shot but has ‘bad hands’ who’s goalscoring comes mostly when he’s crashing the goalcrease. When he’s in the mood he does have a physical component to his game and he seems to take some responsibility when placed in a penalty killing role. Because he’s got a string of twenty goal seasons in his resume, his contract is probably tradeable, but considering the proven offensive abilities of those behind him on the depth chart, can the Canadiens afford to get rid of him without designating a qualified replacement?
Louis Leblanc is listed as a centre but, considering the current centre ice situation, his short term future is at right wing where he finished the season. Leblanc was forced into the Canadiens lineup before physically ready by injuries. He handled the responsibility well enough to make believers in his NHL future. If Leblanc manages to put on ten to fifteen pounds over the summer, something he couldn’t do last year because of shoulder surgery, Leblanc will be very much in the front line right wing picture.
Aaron Palushaj – Recalled by the Canadiens five times last season. A first line forward in Hamilton, he was forced into some kind checking role in Montreal which was a total disconnect from whatever offensive abilities he might be developing. Had he remained in Hamilton for the year, Palushaj was on track for an 80 point 35 goal season. With the Canadiens in 38 games he had a goal and four assists. One of the best skaters in the Canadiens entire system. Unless his training camp indicates he’s ready to take an offensive role, like Leblanc he would be better off back in Hamilton rather than relegation to another wasted season of limited ice time on a checking line.
Brendan Gallagher – Signed to a three year entry level contract after another outstanding season with the junior WHL Vancouver Giants. Caused a stir at Canadiens training camp last September. Small. Very skilled and smart with a competitive streak that mirrors that of David Desharnais. Not likely to make the jump directly to the Canadiens but after what we witnessed last September, who knows?
Ryan White – At this point we start talking about role players. White heads the class. The “sandpaper” description is now entering the realm of hockey cliché, but if one is really forced to use the word, it describes White. No goals in twenty games, but he looks after his teammates and does his job defensively. Very courageous. Not particularly big.
Michael Blunden – 6’4” 190 lbs. Would like to see him with another fifteen pounds. Still, he’s a hard checker. Coaches liked him. Called up in mid December and remained for the rest of the season, except for a twenty game stretch following a knee arthroscopy. Not a great passer and despite his size needs to find away to improve on his ability to win one-on-one puck battles. Still, with limited games (39) and ice time (9:21 per game) he was still fourth on the team in total recorded hits with 104, second among forwards only to Erik Cole’s 186 who played in twice as many games and registered twice the ice time per game.
Brad Staubitz – Picked up off the waiver wire from Minnesota. Pure fighter with no regard for the weight class of his opponent. Only possible role with the team would be as thirteenth forward with special assignments (Boston? Philadelphia?). Strong enough skater to become a fourth line defensive specialist but so far hasn’t figured how to fill the role. Was a defenseman in junior hockey.
Ian Schultz – 6′ 1″ 200lbs. Forgotten part of the Lars Eller/Jaroslav Halak deal. Became something more than an afterthought after he logged 23 points including six goals in his second pro season while continuing to keep opponents honest by fighting twelve times. Seems to have figured out that a player has to stay in shape to remain in today’s professional hockey. Some are comparing him to Chris Neil at the same development stage. The Canadiens actually called him up in mid February but he didn’t dress. Now a true prospect, but still needs more AHL time.
Patrick Holland – At first glance another apparent trade throw-in. Part of the Cammalleri/Bourque deal. Down the road he may be regarded as the key component. Led the WHL with 88 assists while playing with Tri City. 6’0” – 170 lbs. Good skater, playmaker and two way competitor. Has obvious high upside as a pro. Will spend year in Hamilton.
The Others – Brian Willsie – 32 years old – not a prospect. Alexander Avtsin – 6’3” 200lbs. An enigma. Has all of the athletic tools to be a top six forward in the NHL but has not yet been able to get it together. Probably should have gone to junior hockey when he came over from Russia rather going straight to the AHL as an eighteen year old. Has eleven goals in 121 games at Hamilton over two seasons. Turned 21 last month. Still lots of time.
On The Negotiation List - – Danny Kristo – University of North Dakota. Top prospect. 5’11”. One year left at school. Steve Quailer – Northeastern University – 6’4” – another year in college. Maxim Trunev – 21 year old – 5’11” 189 lbs. Severstal Cherepovats of KHL Showing no sign of wanting to come to North America.
One can only guess what might happen over the summer. The right side of the top two lines is set with Cole and Gionta. After that? Bourque’s game has gaping holes. Palushaj’s speed and minor league offense will get him a good look as the Eller’s right winger. So will Leblanc. Everything is building blocks. Who the Canadiens recruit as Eller’s other winger will also factor into the equation at training camp. After that it’s fourth line stuff. White, Staubitz, Blunden all will figure in that scenario.
Next Up – A look at the Canadiens depth at left wing.