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Smack Down the Middle

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Let’s first give credit where credit is due. The idea came about this afternoon when CTV’s own Brian Wilde tweeted a couple of one-two punch at centre for some teams, pointing out to the difference with the Canadiens. This came about after a Western Conference executive told him that the Habs only had three top-6 forwards on the team… Guy Carbonneau seems to agree as he came to Michel Therrien’s defense after the loss against the Bruins by saying that the coach is going hunting with sling-shots!

Further, I have been claiming loud and hard in the off-season that this team cannot be considered a serious contender as long as it has Tomas Plekanec, David Desharnais and Lars Eller as its top-3 centres. Well, they switched Alex Galchenyuk to centre and placed Eller on the wing… with mixed results so far.

Because I happen to agree with that unnamed NHL executive quoted by Mr. Wilde and since we had recently explained that the Canadiens’ need to improve at centre, I figured it would be a great complement to this first article to compare the current Canadiens’ centres to some other teams across the NHL. Without further due, here are the top centres across some of the teams:

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Compare that with Plekanec, Galchenyuk, Desharnais, Eller… If you’re honest with yourself and know the players mentioned in the table above, you’ll recognize how disproportionate this is.

What the Canadiens do have that few teams have is, when he’s healthy, the best goaltender in the game, which helps cover for the lack of natural scoring ability, size and quality up the middle. While it will never be mistaken with the great group of the 70’s Canadiens, the addition of Jeff Petry has solidified the defense.

It’s great to see that Marc Bergevin really wants Jonathan Drouin, a local talent and recent 3rd overall pick, even if it means having to deal with this awful agent that is Allan Walsh. And even if Drouin’s stocks will likely fall a bit after the Lightning suspended him for refusing to play, it is still very unlikely that he gets him.

Bergevin is on the right track. A young player with top-6 potential and who would be with the team for a long time is a smart move. He does however also needs one more top-6 forward and that one might be best to come from the pending free agents’ market at the trade deadline. With names like Steven Stamkos, Eric Staal and David Backes being possibly available, those players might decide to re-sign if they accept to wave their no-trade clauses to come to Montreal.

The fact is that status quo is not an option for the Canadiens’ GM at this point. It is unfortunate because he is now dealing in a position of weakness, other teams seeing him coming from miles and they are in no hurry to bail them out. If he wants quality, he’ll have to pay for it. But he must help his coaching staff to stop that terrible slide they are on.

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Nathan Beaulieu a Likely Trade Bait

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Young defenseman Nathan Beaulieu is full of promise and he has already shown some flashes of greatness, although not quite often enough yet. He is a great skater with some good flair offensively and standing at 6’2”, he does have the physique to play the position.

Picked 17th overall in the first round of the 2011 NHL Draft, Beaulieu is the most logical choice to eventually take over Andrei Markov’s role on the team when the veteran defenseman’s contract expires after the 2016-17 season.

Like a few others this season, the young defenseman made the news for the wrong reasons however, as a video of he and Christian Thomas came out while they were partying at a local club. Ironically soon after, Thomas was traded and the next game, Beaulieu was watching from the pressbox. There is no doubt that the organisation is frowning at such behaviour, particularly when the team is in a prolonged slump. In addition, this wasn’t the first time that Beaulieu found himself in trouble that way as he and his father Jacques plead guilty of assault charges placed against them which stemmed from an altercation at a house party in April 2013.

News and reports that GM Marc Bergevin is actively looking for offensive help up front are plastered all over the internet and in the media and from what we’re hearing and reading, he is looking for a top-6 forward. We know that he wants Jonathan Drouin really badly but as we discussed previously, it is unlikely that Steve Yzerman wants to trade him within the division.

So if Bergevin is looking for a young quality forward who can contribute on the top-6 with the Canadiens, he will have to pay as those guys don’t come cheap. When you look at the team’s depth chart, it is easy to notice that the team’s deepest position is on defense and when you talk quality, Beaulieu is likely the one every other team wants.

Oh it would hurt to lose Beaulieu, no doubt. But when we look at the way Mark Barberio has been playing since being called up, he may have shown the organisation that he is NHL ready and that he could take some of the pressure off Markov and provide some offensive upside on the left side.

Barberio (25) has played nine games so far with the Canadiens, accumulating two points with a differential of minus – 1. During that same nine-game stretch, Beaulieu (23) also has two points and his differential is minus – 4.

So if the Canadiens were to sacrifice Beaulieu to get help up front, the team should be stronger after the trade as long as another roster player isn’t included in the deal. The reason is simple: the step down between Beaulieu and Barberio is a lot lesser than the gain from obtaining a top-6 goals’ scorer who will help not only at even strengths, but on a struggling powerplay.

Brian Wilde revealed earlier that the Canadiens made a serious offer for Jonathan Drouin and as anticipated, it doesn’t look like Steve Yzerman will take the bait. Something tells me that Bergevin will be moving on to his plan “B” and that something should come up prior to Saturday’s game against the Toronto Maple Leafs. I would keep a close eye on Edmonton. Stay tuned.

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The Time Has Come for David Desharnais

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Those who have been reading me or following me on Twitter for a while know that I have been defending David Desharnais against what I felt were unjustified and overblown reactions from a group of fans. As a matter of fact, I pride myself in playing devil’s advocate, trying to show the other side of the medal, particularly when the masses gather steam by trying to be popular.

You see, for the longest time, I genuinely felt like Desharnais was giving to the team what could be expected out of a guy getting paid 3.5 million dollars per season. The fact that coach Michel Therrien used him in situations that fans didn’t feel were right had absolutely nothing to do with Desharnais, who didn’t deserve the bad press he was getting. The only knock that I had against him was his play in the playoffs, much like Tomas Plekanec for that matter. Oh it wasn’t a lack of effort but with his size, he simply can’t compete when the going gets tough.

Demoted to third line duties to start the season, centering a line with Thomas Fleischmann and Dale Weise, Desharnais had an amazing start to the season, his line being the second most productive, just behind the top line centered by Plekanec.

But how quickly, and mostly how low things have fallen since then! While coach Therrien persists in using him more than he perhaps should, Desharnais’ play has been absolutely brutal for the past couple of months. It’s like he forgot how to play hockey, or what made him successful at every level that he’s played at, including the NHL.

I don’t know if he has any market value but it is my sincere feeling that it’s time to trade him away. The Canadiens are too weak up the middle and that’s something that should be rectified. They need a true number one centre until Alex Galchenyuk is ready to take that on. They also need to commit to Galchenyuk at centre in order for him to continue developing at that position. And last but not least, Lars Eller should be the third line centre on this team.

As we have explored in a previous article, not only do the Canadiens need some scoring punch on the wings, but they must get bigger and tougher to play against at the position of centre and trading Desharnais (and Plekanec as mentioned in the quoted article) would go a long way to do that.

Of course, Desharnais being the only French Canadian in the line-up doesn’t make it easy and that’s why team GM Marc Bergevin is trying hard to get young top prospect Jonathan Drouin from Tampa Bay.

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The Centre of Attention for the Habs

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Much has been said and written about what the Canadiens’ needed in order to be considered a contender since the start of this season and with the team slumping as badly as it has in the last several weeks, there seem to be more needs being discovered as time goes by. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that the team’s biggest need is to have a healthy Carey Price back between the pipes, not only for his outstanding play, but for his undeniable leadership in a dressing room that appears to be more and more divisive.

Like most, I was thinking early on that the team’s biggest need was a top scoring right-winger to help Max Pacioretty along and while that still holds, there might just be a more pressing need right now on this team. Can we really be satisfied with the production down the middle of the offensive line-up since December?

At the start of the season, I had stated that I didn’t think that this team could take the next step with Tomas Plekanec, David Desharnais and Lars Eller as their top three centres. This feeling got somewhat put on the side burner when Michel Therrien decided to move Alex Galchenyuk to centre and give Eller a shot on the left side. But no more.

Since signing his contract extension, Tomas Plekanec’s play has been well below what we could expect from a guy taking $5-6 million on the cap hit. While he is still reliable defensively, he is way too often invisible on offense, particularly when the going gets tough, a reminder of his playoffs’ performances in recent years. This is not a knock on Plekanec the person, as he is said to be a true professional and a good individual, but his hockey production is well below what the team can expect.

But he’s not alone. Even when he’s playing well, David Desharnais is the fan base’s favourite scape goat. While he started the season in spectacular fashion alongside Tomas Fleischmann and Dale Weise, DD’s production has come to a halt and like Plekanec, it is reminiscent of past playoffs’ performances. With the team struggling to score goals, it’s the offensive players like Desharnais that must suffer the blunt and the undersized centreman is getting more than his share of the blame.

Further, while I truly believe that Galchenyuk will, in time, become a very good centre, he doesn’t seem to be ready to face top opposition at that position and that became evident when he was given Max Pacioretty as a winger. Galchenyuk may become the number one centre that the team has so desperately been looking for, or he may develop into an excellent second line centre but for now, while showing sparks of greatness, he hasn’t taken that step yet.

Some will suggest that moving Eller back to centre the third line would be best for the team and that’s definitely something that the Canadiens should consider, but in my opinion, they need to do more than that. What this team needs more is a quality centreman, preferably one with size, until Galchenyuk takes over and perhaps prospect Mike McCarron is ready to join the big club.

A Steven Stamkos (who can move to the wing later if need be) or an Eric Staal would go a long way in improving the middle line of Therrien’s team and that’s where Bergevin’s focus should be at this time. Forget Jonathan Drouin as he won’t be traded to Montreal. Go after that elusive centre and, if possible, then get a good right-winger. Ideally, two of three between Plekanec, Desharnais or Eller should find a new team to perfect their art.