For the past several years, the Habs have been deep down the middle though they’ve lacked the prototypical #1 centre. That doesn’t seem likely to change next year but how are they at that position in the rest of the organization?
Several players played at both centre and the wing this past season. I’ve placed them based on their expected role for next year or, when their role is uncertain, where they played the most in 2015-16.
Signed: David Desharnais, Lars Eller, Alex Galchenyuk, Torrey Mitchell, Tomas Plekanec
RFA’s: Phillip Danault
Galchenyuk, much to the chagrin of many, spent a lot of 2015-16 on the left wing. He was moved to centre down the stretch and flourished on the top line. He should stay in that role for next year. That shifts Plekanec to the second line which is more ideal for him at this stage of his career. He’ll still likely log major minutes and be an anchor on their penalty kill though.
Desharnais and Eller, despite being vastly different players, have a few similarities. They both have identical cap hits ($3.5 million), are thought to be overpaid, and most of the fan base wants them gone. Both also prefer to play their natural position. As things stand, one would have to shift to the left wing (likely Eller based on this past season and Desharnais’ small stature) if both are still around in October.
Mitchell is a lock for the fourth line and penalty kill and gives the Habs an above average player in that role, even though he is miscast as a faceoff specialist by Michel Therrien. Danault was the key piece in the Dale Weise trade but may not have a defined role or spot in the lineup to start next year. He’s someone who likely will be shifting back and forth between centre and the wing based on injuries until he cements a permanent role.
Needs Assessment: Low – While many would like to see another top six centre added to push Plekanec to a #3 role, that may not be the best use of money given the weaker depth on the wing. That move may yet be a couple of years away when Plekanec’s new deal is up. I could see GM Marc Bergevin trying to move one of their pivots (Eller and Desharnais are the most likely to be shopped) to either save some money or find someone that’s more of a natural fit on a wing. That said, if there’s any forward spot you want to have extra forward depth at, it’s this one.
Signed: Jeremy Gregoire, Charles Hudon, Mark MacMillan, Michael McCarron
UFA’s: Gabriel Dumont (VI)
AHL Free Agents: Markus Eisenschmid, Angelo Miceli, Cory Ward
While it’s easier to convert centres to the wing, the Habs have had success going the other way when it comes to Hudon and McCarron. Hudon was one of the top goal getters in the AHL and is a legitimate top line player at that level. He could contend for a spot on the wing with Montreal though his waiver exemption may work against him. McCarron got off to a fast start in his rookie campaign (20 points in his first 20 games) but cooled off somewhat after that (18 in the final 38). While some may want to see him in the NHL to start next season, he’s probably better suited to start as an AHL top liner in 2016-17 and come up as a midseason recall if he does well early on.
MacMillan and Gregoire both had disappointing rookie seasons but have enough upside that they can’t be written off just yet. Both spent most of the season in bottom six roles (which is where they project as potential NHL’ers) but struggled to adapt for the most part. With several forwards ahead of them likely departing, they should both jump up the depth chart accordingly and should serve as 2nd/3rd line options. MacMillan could be in play to shift to the wing as he did on several occasions last year.
Dumont was named MVP for the IceCaps last season and is the perfect young veteran for that team. He played in all kinds of roles for them and has improved every year. To me, he’s a must-keep player but Dumont may want to take advantage of his unrestricted status to see if there’s another organization that could provide him an easier route to an NHL call-up spot or to try his hand overseas.
As for the AHL free agents, Eisenschmid is the most interesting of the bunch. There are rumblings that the Habs pondered drafting him over Jeremiah Addison so he is someone that they think somewhat highly of. Sylvain Lefebvre gave him a healthy workload early in the year (I suspect at the request of the Canadiens) and he handled himself relatively well. I think he was on his way to earning an entry-level deal before injuries struck which probably threw a wrench into those plans. At the very least, I suspect they’ll offer him another minor league deal and invites to offseason camps but will he take it?
Ward had some good moments on a tryout deal late in the year and he’s a candidate to be invited to Development Camp in July. Miceli was brought in to provide some tertiary offence and didn’t deliver. I don’t see him being brought back.
Needs Assessment: Medium – A top line with both Hudon and McCarron has a good chance of happening as they’ll want both of them to get as much ice time as possible. That leaves a potential vacancy on the 2nd line as neither Gregoire nor MacMillan is ready for that spot at the start. Dumont would be the ideal player to slide in there if he’s willing to stick around. If not, that’s a vacancy that will probably need to be filled from outside the organization. They’ve had a few centres on AHL deals signed in recent years so decisions will need to be made on who to keep and who to sign from elsewhere to minor league pacts as well.
Trevor Timmins and his staff have selected a few centres in recent years to give Montreal some depth although there aren’t any blue chippers in the bunch.
Lukas Vejdemo was a surprising and, at least at the time, underwhelming pick in the 3rd round in 2015. He took some steps towards validating his selection as he held down a regular role on a decent Djurgardens team in the SHL. He’ll remain there for 2016-17.
Jake Evans is quickly rising on the depth chart after a near point-per-game sophomore campaign at Notre Dame (NCAA). He’s a well-rounded prospect and given that he has taken summer courses the past two years, appears to be a candidate to fast track and turn pro at the conclusion of next season.
At the junior level, things aren’t quite so rosy. Daniel Audette was expected to be a top scorer in the QMJHL but injuries and general struggles saw him take a step back. He’s eligible to turn pro (and has already signed) but he may be ECHL-bound to start. A return for an overage year may not be out of the question either.
Matt Bradley was expected to take a jump forward with Medicine Hat of the WHL but that didn’t come to fruition until late in the year. He’ll need to continue his late season push into next season if he wants to make a serious run at a contract.
Needs Assessment: Medium – In terms of quantity, the depth is pretty good. But none of these prospects project as top six players down the road and given the difficulty the Canadiens have had in the past when it comes to getting top six centres, they can’t just be satisfied with a handful of adequate to intriguing options.