Habs Forward Group Underappreciated
July 29, 2017
By Grant McCagg
We had a subscriber leave a message on Recrutes board where he said this – “The holes in the roster aren’t shallow. we have a team who is going to try desperately to climb out of those holes.”
I really think that overstating the offensive “desperation” with a team coming off of a 103-point season. What was the solution to this supposed crisis….sign more UFA’s? Give a Russian who is 30 and played one successful NHL season in the past eight a 6-year contract at $7M plus? That is usually not a recipe for success.
At some point you have to expect young players that have been drafted to step into roles and not simply try to buy your way into filling holes or making desperation moves in the summer because there may be a position or two that is a concern. That is all there is on this team…two holes. Mind you they are important ones…but that’s why they haven’t been filled yet…teams aren’t going to give away first-line centers and top-pairing defencemen. For now, they will be filled within the organization…and at forward the void is not as desperate as many think as there is quite possibly a solution on the roster.
In terms of the other 18 positions on the team…in my view, the team is quite set….and in fact, has excellent depth and decent quality in those spots. There are at least 15 NHL calibre forwards and nine NHL-level defencemen. In net, there are three netminders that arguably should be playing in the NHL.
Good teams fill holes within the organization, and this club is in the position to do so this season. Many Habs fans seem to think there are no good prospects because not many have cracked the lineup the past two season. Teams often go through those cycles in terms of prospects joining the club..it’s not every year that three or four become regulars.
The fact is…they haven’t needed several to crack the lineup, and it needs to be remembered prospects simply aren’t ready until they are 21-23. When Detroit was making the playoffs every season they were lauded for remaining patient with their prospects and not inserting then in the lineup until they were fully ready. In Montreal, the GM is trashed for that approach.
Players who were late first-round picks, second-round picks or even mid-rounders like Hudon are supposed to be force-fed into the roster because there are always high hopes in the unknown…maybe “this guy” can be a star. We saw what happened with rushing de la Rose…he lost his confidence and it took him a year-and-a-half to regain it. Same thing happened with a young Pacioretty once upon a time…to the point where he even asked to be sent down to regain his scoring confidence. I’m even guilty of wanting the rookies to be auditioned more often…but until they are on waivers…there is nothing wrong with developing them in the minors. No one has ever been ruined by playing in the AHL.
Bergevin in the offseason and in the past year lost none of his top prospects despite there being an expansion draft…but now the likes of Hudon, DLR, and McCarron need to make the big team over the next season or they will most likely be lost on waivers, and in my opinion they will become regulars…and perform half decently.
The other comment the subscriber said that caught my attention was this – that there is an “insane amount of pressure on Drouin to score.”
I don’t believe that is the case. Let’s look at the expected top nine.
Pacioretty had the fifth most goals in the league in the past five years..we don’t need to go into details in what he can bring…that will be goals and solid defence, including on the penalty kill.
Galchenyuk and Gallagher are only now entering their primes, and Galchenyuk scored 56 goals in the past two seasons. I expect Gallagher to bounce back from a scoring slump last season…why? Because at 23 he was producing and one of the most promising young players in the game…he was on the short list for an invite to the last Canadian Olympic team. He had some bad injury problems last season and simply couldn’t shoot or handle the puck like he can with his mangled hand …there is no reason not to expect him to bounce back and hit the 20-goal mark when one year earlier he was on pace for 30 goals, and at 22 years of age scored 24 goals.
Lehkonen is even younger and had a tremendous second half. He could well be a 25-goal scorer this season and already plays a solid all-around game. He has a lethal shot, strong work ethic and little fear to go to the scoring areas.
Danault is just 24 and had a dramatic improvement in his production. No reason not to expect him to get even more points as he enters his prime as he is still improving.
Don’t forget last year was his first full NHL season as he had only played 53 NHL games…he is only going to get more confidence with experience and likely get 45-50 points; good production in today’s NHL for a centerman that also brings, speed, defence and competitiveness. Byron had 22 goals and is going to be playing a third-line role…how many 22-goal scorers are there are NHL third lines? Not many, especially with his speed and excellent penalty killing ability.
Plekanec had his worst season in a decade offensively…no reason to expect him to repeat it as he hasn’t slowed down skating-wise and is not over the hill. It wouldn’t surprise me if he bounced back to score at least 40 points as that is what he had done in nine of his previous ten seasons. If the scoring slump continues…look at Bergevin dealing him at the deadline when his contract is almost up, and he’ll have more value because of it even if he’s on the wane offensively. Even if he does bounce back offensively he could be dealt at the deadline, perhaps, as Brian Wilde suggested in his first “Wildeo” today, for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
I have no doubt there will be teams that would welcome his two-way game, smarts and leadership when there is only a million left on his deal..especially a team looking for a playoff run. You don’t think Edmonton, for example, wouldn’t like to have Plekanec for next year’s playoffs in a third-line role after using Desharnais in that position last playoff? Quite an upgrade.
Andrew Shaw ran into some difficulties in his first season as a Hab playing for a coach who didn’t like his rambunctious style, and then suffered a concussion that took some time to recover from. He is also just entering his prime, however, and Julien likes him and will play him lots. He scored 20 goals in Chicago at the tender age of 22…and there’s no reason not to expect him to get at least 15-20 goals this campaign.
All nine of the forwards slated to start the season in the top nine are fully capable of scoring 15 or more goals, and five have at minimum 25-goal potential – Galchenyuk, Drouin, Pacioretty, Gallagher and Lehkonen…all who should play in the top six, and four of whom are under the age of 26 and only on the rise points-wise.
All that said…yes there will be pressure on Drouin to score…not because of desperation, but because of expectations, given that he was a top four pick who at 22 scored 56 points and is only now scratching the surface of his high-end potential.
You don’t deal your top prospect for a player you don’t expect to score…and he will. He is arguably one of the ten most skilled forwards in the league; I saw that first-hand during three seasons of scouting him in junior, and never saw a more skilled prospect with the puck in the past 9 years.
“Insane pressure”? No…there is talent and scoring potential in this lineup despite what many keep saying….this is an underrated forward group, especially on the wing, and there is depth if any of the top nine underachieve; some young players who are ready for the NHL in de la Rose, Hudon and McCarron, and an insurance policy in Ales Hemsky.
The club does indeed need a first-line center, and it looks like Bergevin won’t be dealing for one before the start of the season, so two players will be in the running for that slot in October – Drouin and Galchenyuk.
I expect Galchenyuk to get the nod at season’s start if he can show in training camp that he can take care of his defensive assignments better than he did in the second-half of last season.
He was royally roasted in the offseason by fans and media alike, but before his injury last fall he was playing quite well at center and was among the league leaders. A full training camp with Julien and Muller drilling him on the defensive part of the game..a new opportunity to seize the top-center spot..and renewed enthusiasm on a line with a tremendous playmaker in Drouin? No reason why he can’t fill the position ably if his coach has some patience and Galchenyuk finally gets that it’ just as important to keep goals out as score them.
It’s funny..last July fans and media (myself included) were clamouring for the Habs to give Galchenyuk a shot at first-line center…and for two months he was solid before his knee injury. Nine months after the injury many have given up on him playing there, and insisting that Bergevin find someone else to play first-line center. What a difference a year makes.
Well…Bergevin couldn’t get one in a market where none were simply not available this summer…so we have to be able to change our minds don’t we? It’s not inconceivable for Galchenyuk to fill the position and prosper – he did it in junior as a 16-year-old and was dominant, and he did it at the start of last season. Teams need to be adaptable and change plans, so he should be given another opportunity to fill the role and put up with a few growing pains on the defensive end.
If he can’t pull it off Drouin will get the spot, and he’s more than capable of filling that role offensively because, as one NHL scout told me at the time of the trade, “he likes to roam and make plays.” Much like Galchenyuk, where there will be issues is on the defensive end, so there is much work for the coaching staff this summer and fall. Thankfully the Habs have one of the best NHL defensive centers from the past 25 years in Kirk Muller to work with Galchenyuk and Drouin on all of the little things..including faceoffs, positioning and work ethic. Hopefully, both of them get time at center in training camp, and the “best man” wins. Julien and Muller are good judges on such things, and I trust that they’ll make the proper choice.
So there you have it. For this reporter, all is not doom and gloom for this club. It’s not a forward roster filled with over-the-hill talentless players. Plekanec is the only player on the decline, but two years ago he was one of the four best players on the team so it’s not like he’s ready for the scrap heap as he hasn’t lost a step, just his confidence. This club will compete, score, and contend…of that I am confident.
If they improve at 1-2 C, I agree. The wingers are more than good enough. But like B said, it’s been a hole for 20 years. Galchenyuk? I don’t know.