The most discussed area up front for Montreal is the centre position.
Talent wise most feel the depth is there, it’s just the size (or lack thereof)
that’s a concern. This position is also an area the Habs have focused a
lot on in recent drafts and as a result seem to be in good shape moving forward.
Signed: Tomas Plekanec, David Desharnais, Scott Gomez
RFA: Lars Eller, Petteri Nokelainen
There were a lot of negatives in the 2011-12 season but Desharnais was one of
them. He shattered his previous career highs across the board en route to
a pleasantly surprising 60 point campaign which placed him third on the team in
total points. Statistically speaking it was a down year for Plekanec whose
52 points were his lowest in three seasons although in his defence he played
more of a shutdown role and, especially late in the year, had mediocre wingers
to work with on the best of nights. As for Gomez? I think we all
know the story there by now, he followed up a sub-par 2010-11 season by putting
up as many points as his number. Though signed, most expect he won’t be
with the team come October.
As for the RFA’s, Eller still figures to be part of the team moving forward.
His offensive game improved as did his defensive efforts although consistency is
still a concern. With Michel Therrien now behind the bench, that doesn’t
bode well for Eller if he can’t turn it around. His size (the lone one
over six feet tall) does work in his favour at least. Nokelainen was
brought in to give the team some extra depth last year and that’s about the only
thing he was good for. Although he is projected to be a restricted free
agent, I’d guess there’s a good chance he goes unqualified.
Needs Assessment: Medium – Production wise, Plekanec and Desharnais
aren’t a bad 1-2 tandem to have down the middle. Of course, it would be
nice if one of the top two centres had better size but there are 29 other teams
who feel the same way; the odds of adding one this year are low (even if they
draft one, that player likely won’t put up second line production). Grit
is an area that can stand to be addressed, something Marc Bergevin can look to
fill via trade or free agency. If both Eller and Desharnais stay at C,
that fourth line player may be the only newcomer next season.
Signed: Gabriel Dumont, Michael Bournival, Patrick Holland
RFA: Andreas Engqvist, Robert Slaney, Olivier Fortier
There are quite a few players here with NHL potential although none of them
figure to be big producers at the NHL level. Bournival and Holland both
had good years offensively but the early reports on them is that both are more
likely to be two-way forwards at the pro level. As both are heading into
their rookie seasons in Hamilton, there will be some early growing pains.
Dumont, who played with the Habs late in the year, gets by with a never-say-die
attitude and all-out effort, qualities that surely will endear him more to
Therrien than a 24 point sophomore AHL season.
The RFA’s are all filled with question marks – will they be back? I
have to believe the Habs will want to keep Engqvist around to be a veteran
leader and defensive specialist with the Bulldogs while being a callup option if
injuries arise. However, he has fielded multiple offers out of Sweden and
may choose to go back home. Fortier showed offensive improvement last year
but also (yet again) missed a big chunk of the season. Although I’d like
to see him qualified, there’s a case to be made that he could be let go as well.
As for Slaney, he was mediocre at best after being acquired in the Hal Gill
trade, it’s highly unlikely he gets a qualifying offer.
Needs Assessment: Low – You can assemble pretty much any combination
of the above names and feel somewhat comfortable about the centre position in
Hamilton. As is always the case, a veteran scorer would be nice to have to
take some pressure off the young guys but that’s about the only true need.
Converted wingers such as Joonas Nattinen and Louis Leblanc (if not up with the
Habs) could help shoulder some of the scoring load as well. There aren’t
really any gritty players out of this group but they play enough of a tenacious
game to hold their own in the physical department.
It has been previous years that the Habs have focused on drafting
players down the middle so the class of players here is a little thin.
Daniel Pribyl is the most prominent of this group. He earned a spot on the
Czech Republic’s World Junior team although injuries forced him to play a very
limited role. He also spent some time in the top Czech league which is
encouraging for an 18 year old 6th round pick. His combination of skill
and size is certainly intriguing. The same can be said for Dustin Walsh
who finished his third season in college. He averaged over a point per
game but the bad news was that injuries forced him to only play in ten contests.
That’s ten more than Michael Cichy who was forced to sit the season after
transferring to Western Michigan. There is certainly offensive potential
with all of these players but there are big question marks with all of them as
Needs Assessment: Medium – With a pair of rookies moving to
the AHL this season, the situation for young centres isn’t as grave as it would
appear to be. There certainly isn’t a blue chipper among the group nor
even a safe ‘organizational player’ which is a little concerning though.
We all know the top centre options in the upcoming draft, picking up one of them
would make this a lot better but even if they go a different route, a second or
third round pick that has upside as a bottom six forward would add a missing
element to this section of the Habs’ prospect base.