Montreal fans have been talking about next year since before the calendar flipped to 2012. With the draft and opening frenzy of free agency behind us, it is finally time everyone in the NHL starts to focus on next year. Obviously, the focus of the Canadiens is to climb out of the cellar of the Eastern Conference. The best way to do this is to realize what landed them in the nethermost regions of the NHL and fix the greatest problems.
So, what exactly was the Habs biggest weakness last year? Many fans will point fingers at their undersized and overpaid defence group. Beyond Gorges, there were question marks about the rest of their D. Subban has been absolutely scorned by hordes of Habs haters and fans as well for his play in his own end. Emelin and Diaz were both solid rookies but have a lot to learn at the NHL level yet. Kaberle is one of the most overpaid players in the league and could quite possibly be the worst defensive player in the NHL. Yannick Weber has had years to earn himself regular playing time but has not been able to do so and Markov has played 20 games over the past two seasons combined.
However, with plenty of help from Carey Price, the much maligned group of defenceman got the job done. The number 1 priority for a defence core is obviously to avoid having to fish the puck out of the back of their own net and the Habs allowed the fifth fewest goals in the Eastern Conference this past season. On top of that, as a team the Canadiens had the second best penalty killing percentage in the entire NHL.
If the defence got the job done and the Canadiens were so good at keeping the puck out of their net, how did things go so horribly wrong? Well, scoring was, in a word, abysmal. Being the 13th highest scoring team in a 15 team conference combined with being the third worst team on the power play in the whole NHL, led this team spiraling to their demise.
All this begs the question, where will the goals come from next year? Well, knowing these stats from last year, one would think Bergevin would focus on finding a goal scorer in the early days of free agency. However, the Habs new GM brought in Brandon Prust, Colby Armstrong and Francis Bouillon. A trio that combined for ten goals all of last season including zero while on the man advantage. I am not saying these were bad signings, I am just pointing out that there is still a glaring weakness to be addressed.
If the puck were to drop tonight in the Habs season opener the top line would be the same as last years with Desharnais centering Cole and Pacioretty. This line had a tremendous amount of success last season with both Cole and Pacioretty tickling the twine over thirty times. Put 30 more in the bank for Patches already for next season but can Cole repeat a career year when he will be 34 years old in November? History tells us a career year at 33 is followed up with a decline in production. I do not think Cole will drop off the map next year but he has only reached 30 goals twice now in his career and will be hard pressed to do so next season. Desharnais shoots the puck like his grandmother is tending nets for the opposition all season, which is to say he never shoots, so do not expect a big jump on his 16 goal season. A great set up man who works extremely well with the Habs top two goal scorers can certainly repeat his 44 assist season but with a total of 98 shots last year in 82 games played, it is surprising he was even able to reach 16 goals. His 16.3 shooting percentage was top 25 in the league among players who played over 25 games.
The second line as of now appears to be Plekanec in between Rene Bourque and Captain Brian Gionta. Plekanec scored 20 goals for five straight seasons before a disappointing year in 2011-12. With inconsistent and mostly terrible linemates last season, Plekanec finished the year with 17. Expect him to top 20 goals once again in 2012-13. However, both players expected to flank Tomas next year are extreme enigmas. If healthy and playing to their potential both Gionta and Bourque could top 25 goals, but that did not come close to happening for either of these two last season. Gionta, after topping the 20 goal mark in every full season he played in the NHL was injured much of last year and finished with just 8 goals in 31 games played. Bourque on the other hand was healthy all year but scored only 18 goals on the season, including a miniscule 5 in 38 games with the Habs after being acquired in the Mike Cammalleri trade with Calgary. An absolutely scary number for someone who is currently penciled in to the Habs top six.
Past the top six forwards the only other player that can be counted on for consistent offense is Lars Eller. The recently re-signed Danish center finished last season with 16 goals in a largely shut down, defensive role. The 23 year old returns in much the same role next season with wingers who are not known for their scoring prowess. Unless Eller finds more power play time than last season it will be hard for the young skilled center to even match last years totals if he will be playing on a line with Prust and Travis Moen all season. No disrespect to these players, but their specialty is certainly not overpowering opponents with skill and finesse. Speaking of Prust and Moen, each of them have reached double digits in goals once in their respective careers, so expecting any more than ten from them is optimistic.
This leaves a 4th line made up of Armstrong, Ryan White and Petteri Nokelainen. A threesome that combined for a grand total of 4 goals last year so do not expect an outburst from any of these players next season. Armstrong had a few good seasons with Atlanta and Pittsburgh earlier in his career, actually topping 20 goals in 2008-09. However his past two seasons with the Leafs resulted in 9 goals in 79 games, so if anyone of the 4th liners are to exceed expectations it would be Army but it remains a long shot at this point.
The only other forwards that could see ice with the Habs as of right now are Scott Gomez who could quite possibly play 82 games and not score at all, Blake Geoffrion who is far from the sniper that his grandfather, Boom Boom was and Aaron Palushaj who has produced at the AHL level but has had a difficult time transferring that success to the big leagues. There are of course a few youngsters who could step up in Louis Leblanc and recent third overall pick Alex Galchenyuk but the young guns will likely benefit from some minor league and junior time this coming season to continue growing their games and may have a minmal NHL impact this season at best.
Quickly looking at the defence the best goal scoring blueliner is P.K. Subban who scored 14 goals in his rookie season but dropped to 7 last year. Expect him to be closer to his rookie total than his sophomore season, especially if Andrei Markov can stay healthy and set him up on the powerplay. Speaking of Markov, he has 4 seasons of double digit goals in his career, but, mostly due to injuries, has scored only 7 in the last 3 seasons combined. His last tean goal season came in 2008-09, also his last full season. Even if he can stay healthy next season it is hard to imagine him returning to his days of scoring 16 goals. Aside from these two the pickings are slim on the point with Kaberle, Weber, Diaz, Gorges, Bouillon and Emelin combining for 19 goals last year.
With goals so hard to come by last season especially on the powerplay, it would be very wise of Marc Bergevin to address this need by finding a pure sniper to play the left wing with Plekanec and Gionta. This is much easier said than done but if the Habs are to climb far in the standings it will only be if they can increase their goal totals, as their defensive game was surprising one of the top in the East last year.
Hockey is a pretty simple game when you break it down. You put the puck in the net and keep it out of your own. As one of the best in the East at keeping it out, the Habs have to be better at putting it in if they want to join the elite eight and extend their season into the playoffs in 2013.
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