Montreal’s centre depth at the end of the season was, to put it nicely, lousy. Unfortunately for the team, it’s an issue for the other areas of the organization as well.
Several players played at both centre and the wing this past season. I’ve placed them based on where they played the most in 2015-16.
Signed: Phillip Danault, Torrey Mitchell, Tomas Plekanec
Let’s get the good out of the way first. Danault had a breakout campaign and rewarded GM Marc Bergevin’s faith in him when he acquired the centre from Chicago. He was a little above average at the faceoff dot and was one of their top five-on-five scorers. Danault moved up the lineup as the year progressed although that worked against him down the stretch and in the playoffs as he was overmatched as a true number one.
Then there’s Plekanec who vastly underachieved. He picked up where he left off the year before with his offensive struggles and while he was still a good defensive player, that was hardly the type of performance they were expecting for $6 million a season. Danault exceeded expectations but Plekanec’s play negated that which left them in the same spot when all was said and done.
Mitchell was his usual self. He provided adequate fourth line minutes and followed up a small hot streak offensively with multiple months of nothing at that end of the ice. He has one year left on his contract and with some young players likely to push for a spot next season, he’s someone that could be deemed expendable over the course of the summer or into training camp.
Needs Assessment: Very High – If Alex Galchenyuk isn’t viewed as a centre moving forward (and I don’t think he is by management and the coaching staff), there’s a case to be made that the Habs need two centres this offseason, a top liner and a middle six option. There are options around the league to fill the latter void but landing a front line pivot is going to be a significant challenge for Bergevin. For this team to take the next step though, he’s going to need to find a way to get it done as a 1/2 punch of Danault and Plekanec to start next season isn’t going to cut it.
Signed: Daniel Audette, Chris Terry, Markus Eisenschmid, Michael McCarron, Niki Petti (AHL deal)
RFA’s: Jacob de la Rose, Mark MacMillan
AHL Free Agents: None
I don’t think it would be too fair to say McCarron had a down season but he failed to really progress a whole lot. In the minors, he was a secondary scorer while with the Habs, he just rarely scored (once in 31 games). He profiles as a pure bottom six forward and looked more like a fourth liner than a third in his NHL stint. He also struggled at the faceoff dot and as a result, it wouldn’t be shocking to see him moved back to the wing at some point if that continues.
Terry was a toss-up as to whether or not to go here or on the wing as he spent a lot of time at both spots. He finished up down the middle so he’ll go here. The veteran was a great addition for the IceCaps as he finished second in AHL scoring. Assuming he makes it through waivers again next year, he’ll be a top liner. Whether that’s still down the middle though or on the wing remains to be seen.
Audette was given a golden opportunity to be a go-to scorer right off the bat but had a few strong weeks overshadowed by a few mediocre months. He’s the one centre in the minors that has any sort of real offensive upside so he may be in line for top minutes as soon as next season. That said, the NHL potential doesn’t appear to really be there.
Eisenschmid was off to a nice start to his season in a bottom six role and earned himself a two year NHL deal in the process. He was injured shortly thereafter and when he was healthy, he found himself a healthy scratch more often than not. He had more of a chance and more playing time under Sylvain Lefebvre when he was on a minor league deal compared to when he became a Montreal prospects which makes very little sense even now.
As for de la Rose, it was a tale of two seasons. He underwhelmed early on but really picked things up in the second half of the season, particularly offensively where he was finally given a chance to build some sustained confidence instead of getting yanked back to Montreal at the first sight of progress. He’s waiver eligible moving forward and given his previous NHL success, he’ll likely get snapped up off waivers if Montreal tries to send him through next season.
MacMillan actually saw his numbers (and role) drop from his rookie season which is hardly a good sign. He’s 25 and barely held down a fourth line role which makes it unlikely he’ll return. Instead, his spot appears to be earmarked for Petti, who signed after Hamilton of the OHL was eliminated and held his own when he got into St. John’s lineup.
Needs Assessment: High – McCarron seems likely to spend a lot of time with Montreal next year while de la Rose probably won’t make it back down. If Terry shifts back to the wing, that presents a situation where Audette would be the top line centre. That’s not a good sign if the Habs want Laval to have any shot at being a playoff team. At least one more top six pivot is needed one way or another and they’ll probably have to get that in free agency.
Will Bitten didn’t get off to the greatest starts as a preseason holdout kept him out of the lineup early and he was a step slow for a bit when he joined Hamilton. He steadily improved as the season went on although he did spend considerable time at the wing as well while struggling at the faceoff dot. He’s a quality NHL prospect but long-term, he may be earmarked for the right wing.
Martin Reway’s first season on an NHL contract was a complete write-off that caused him to miss the entire year. Fortunately, his recovery is going well and he has begun training again in the hopes of being ready for training camp. Given what’s transpired though, it’s hard to place any sort of expectations on him moving forward.
Lukas Vejdemo’s second SHL season didn’t yield the type of offensive progression anyone was hoping for. He did, however, spend more time down the middle and spent a good chunk of the year as Djurgarden’s checking centre. He re-upped for another year in Sweden and his play in 2017-18 will go a long way towards determining what type of NHL future he has.
Michael Pezzetta was picked in the hopes that he’d start to produce on what was expected to be a better Sudbury team. While the team was better, he wasn’t. Aside from being a faceoff specialist for them, his only other specialty was bad penalties. He’s going to need quite a year to even warrant a contract offer next season.
Needs Assessment: High – The depth is there in terms of quantity (and the first three have some sort of potential NHL upside) but there’s probably no top six centre of the future in the mix either (if Reway makes it, it’s probably as a winger long-term). Given that there’s not much to work with in the minor pro system either, this is something that needs to be addressed at the upcoming draft and/or in any offseason dealings.