NHL

Off-Season Game Plan: Montreal Canadiens

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Scott Cullen
6/17/2014 3:07:19 PM
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The Montreal Canadiens made a run to the Eastern Conference Final, losing in six games to the New York Rangers, and the challenge this summer will be to continue improving, recognizing that run wasn't built on the strongest foundation.

Off-Season Game Plan examines a Habs team that has some very nice pieces around which to build, but GM Marc Bergevin has some work to do to fill out his roster this summer.

The first priority will be getting restricted free agent defenceman P.K. Subban signed to a long-term deal. Subban took a bridge deal the last time he was a restricted free agent and betting on his own performance paid off, or it will shortly. Subban is the Canadiens' most dynamic player, one of the few defencemen in the league that drive play and create offence.

Behind Subban, the Habs have goaltender Carey Price, who has put up numbers that rank the best among starting goaltenders in recent years and is coming off the best season of his career; one shortened when Rangers winger Chris Kreider collided with him in Game One of the Conference Final.

Up front, the Habs' building blocks include Max Pacioretty, who scored 39 goals last season, 2012 third overall pick Alex Galchenyuk and rambunctious winger Brendan Gallagher; nice players all of them.

The trouble is, while the Canadiens just had their second 100-point season since 1993, they were also a team that ranked in the bottom third in terms of possession and responded to that by signing their coach to a four-year contract extension. For the Habs' sake, they better hope Michel Therrien has some ideas about how to reverse that puck possession trend because if the plan is to rely on Carey Price to play out of his mind in goal, well, it's possible that will work, but it's a risky approach to bank on a goaltending advantage to overcome a puck possession deficit.

Personnel changes could help alter that tilted ice. Letting veteran defenceman Doug Murray head to free agency is a start, and maybe young blueliners like Nathan Beaulieu, Jarred Tinordi and Greg Pateryn can be part of an improved back end that will ease Price's workload. A decision to be made on free agent Andrei Markov will also play a role in determining reasonable expectations for next year's defence corps.

Since the Thomas Vanek experiment seemed to fall flat, the Canadiens may still have room for another scoring forward and that's probably necessary if the Canadiens harbour hopes of competing with the best teams in the Eastern Conference. If it happens to be a forward that has a track record of pushing play in the right direction, all the better.

The TSN.ca Rating is an efficiency rating based on per-game statistics including goals and assists -- weighted for strength (ie. power play, even, shorthanded) -- Corsi, adjusted for zone starts, quality of competition and quality of teammates, hits, blocked shots, penalty differential and faceoffs. Generally, a replacement-level player is around a 60, a top six forward and top four defenceman will be around 70, stars will be over 80 and MVP candidates could go over 90. Sidney Crosby finished at the top of the 2013-2014 regular season ratings at 87.12.

Salary cap information all comes from the indispensable www.capgeek.com.

CF% = Corsi percentage (ie. percentage of 5-on-5 shot attempts), via www.extraskater.com.

GM/COACH
Marc Bergevin/Michel Therrien

Returning Forwards

Player Rating GP G A PTS CF% Cap Hit
Tomas Plekanec 68.84 81 20 23 43 45.5% $5.0M
Max Pacioretty 77.92 73 39 21 60 51.6% $4.5M
Daniel Briere 63.39 69 13 12 25 47.1% $4.0M
David Desharnais 68.07 79 16 36 52 50.3% $3.5M
Rene Bourque 66.44 63 9 7 16 45.3% $3.333M
Brandon Prust 59.45 52 6 7 13 42.2% $2.5M
Travis Moen 58.71 65 2 10 12 45.7% $1.85M
Alex Galchenyuk 65.10 65 13 18 31 47.4% $925K
Brendan Gallagher 68.71 81 19 22 41 52.0% $685K
Michael Bournival 59.53 60 7 7 14 44.0% $660K

Free Agent Forwards

Player Rating GP G A PTS CF% Class '13-'14 Cap Hit
Lars Eller 67.69 77 12 14 26 48.2% RFA $1.325M
Dale Weise 62.53 61 6 10 16 44.3% RFA $750K
Ryan White 56.82 52 2 4 6 37.5% RFA $700K
Thomas Vanek 73.52 78 27 41 68 47.0% UFA $7.143M
Brian Gionta 67.64 81 18 22 40 45.4% UFA $5.0M
George Parros 51.83 22 0 1 1 26.9% UFA $938K

He doesn't necessarily have the reputation as a premier goal-scorer yet, but after Max Pacioretty tallied 39 goals in 2013-2014, he has 87 goals in the past three seasons, which ranks seventh in the league, so maybe it's time to give him that respect. His relative puck possession stats have also been sensational over the past four seasons, as he's been placed into an offensive role with the Habs and has run with the opportunity.

Veteran centre Tomas Plekanec had 43 points in 81 games, his lowest per-game scoring rate since 2008-2009 but, for the fifth straight year, he played more than 19 minutes per game. Much of the reason for Plekanec's offensive decline is that, as a strong two-way player, he's asked to handle tough assignments and he took on some of the toughest, against high-quality opposition and less than 40% offensive zone starts. Plekanec's ability to handle those tough minutes frees up Montreal's other centres for more offensive focus.

Brendan Gallagher followed up a strong rookie campaign with a good full season in his second year. The short and stocky agitator has already been a strong puck possession player, a facet of his game that should earn him more ice time on a Canadiens team that doesn't control the puck particularly well. Additionally, Gallagher plays with a relentless drive that is a great example for other Habs forwards.

Through the first 19 games last season, David Desharnais had but one assist and the Habs were trying to figure out what they were going to do with him over the three-plus years remaining on his deal. Then, the tide turned, and pucks started finding the net and Desharnais, who played primarily with Pacioretty and Gallagher (and some with Thomas Vanek), tallied 51 points in his last 60 games of the season. He's small, there's no getting around that, but Desharnais has been productive and a solid puck possession player while playing in an offensive role.

Just when it might appear to time to unload Rene Bourque, and a 16-point season made that fair game, he flipped the switch in the playoffs and scored eight goals in 17 games, while generating 3.0 shots on goal per game. That's the kind of play that the Habs need out of Bourque, a big winger who can skate and was a three-time 20-goal scorer before he was acquired in 2011-2012; he has tallied 21 goals in 128 games since.

The Canadiens won't be accused of throwing Alex Galchenyuk into the fire, keeping his ice time down and his production waned as his second season went on. Around time missed with a broken hand and prior to a knee injury that knocked him out late in the regular season and through a dozen playoff games, Galchenyuk managed nine points in his last 30 games of the year. He's a real talent and needs to play a bigger role going forward.

There was plenty of reason to be skeptical that 36-year-old Daniel Briere would be a help to the Canadiens and his point production, 25 points in 69 games, was his lowest in 15 years. What is somewhat noteworthy, though, is that Briere was an adequate possession player with 44.1% offensive zone starts. That's hardly ideal for a $4-million player, but Briere can at least fill a depth role and contribute to the power play on occasion.

Acquired from the Colorado Avalanche in 2010 for defenceman Ryan O'Byrne, Michael Bournival started paying dividends for Montreal last season, using his speed in a checking role. He missed some time with a concussion and maybe there isn't a lot of offensive upside to his game, but Bournival can give the Canadiens reliable work in a checking role.

When Brandon Prust was earning his reputation and a bona fide NHL player, in addition to willing pugilist, he was coming in a little below break-even in possession terms, but starting a high percentage of his shifts in the defensive zone, close enough that Prust could handle a regular shift, sometimes in a top-nine role. Last season, however, Prust got thumped in puck possession terms, so his play needs to improve if he's going to keep getting regular ice time. Otherwise, he can point to 100 fights over the past six seasons as his calling card.

Injuries kept Travis Moen out of the lineup from time to time last season, but he was adequate in the defensive role to which he was assigned when he was healthy. It doesn't very well justify his contract, which has two years remaining, but if Moen can handle a strictly defensive fourth-line role, that's okay.

No Canadiens forward scored more points in the postseason than Lars Eller, who finished with 13 in 17 games. This was among the bigger surprises of the playoffs, as Eller had six points in 35 games to finish the regular season, with three of those points coming in his last two games. For all of Eller's attributes, as a big centre who can skate, there's something amiss when he can go 33 games with one goal and two assists. He was remarkably unlucky in terms of on-ice shooting percentage and that should bounce back, but it would be nice to see the 25-year-old take another step forward in his development.

Acquired in a trade for Raphael Diaz, Dale Weise has typically been obliterated when it comes to puck possession, though it needs to be acknowledged that he starts many more of his shifts in the defensive zone, tilting the ice a little in one direction already. Weise had a fortunate postseason run, scoring three goals and seven points in 16 games, and that pace isn't the kind of thing that he's expected to contribute, but if he could handle a steady fourth-line role, that would be a positive.

Ryan White certainly adds bite to the Canadiens lineup when he plays, but he struggles to stay disciplined and is frequently caved in when it comes to puck possession.

If the Canadiens could ever convince Joe Thornton to waive his no-movement clause -- come beat the Bruins! -- to jump into the Montreal pressure cooker, he would be an excellent fit for a team that shouldn't be seduced by their run to the Eastern Conference Final. There is talent here, and there should be room to add more in the summer, but the Canadiens need a lineup that starts driving the puck in the right direction more consistently, and Thornton is an ace in that regard.

If not Thornton, and presuming that Thomas Vanek won't be coming back after a miserable postseason, then another top-six forward -- Paul Stastny, Ales Hemsky, Marian Gaborik (maybe Pierre-Marc Bouchard on a bargain deal?) -- would be most welcome.

Returning Defence

Player Rating GP G A PTS CF% Cap Hit
Alexei Emelin 64.24 59 3 14 17 44.4% $4.1M
Josh Gorges 62.63 66 1 13 14 45.2% $3.9M

Free Agent Defence

Player Rating GP G A PTS CF% Class '13-'14 Cap Hit
P.K. Subban 77.83 82 10 43 53 49.9% RFA $2.875M
Andrei Markov 72.68 81 7 36 43 49.4% UFA $5.75M
Francis Bouillon 60.72 52 2 4 6 43.8% UFA $1.5M
Mike Weaver 59.39 72 1 12 13 49.1% UFA $1.1M
Douglas Murray 56.12 53 0 2 2 41.4% UFA $1.5M

Coming back from knee surgery, Alexei Emelin had a bit of a tough year, with poor possession stats, though he was starting a lot of shifts in the defensive zone against quality opposition. He's physical and isn't afraid to mix it up with opposing forwards, but the Canadiens need Emelin to be better and it's fair to expect that, with good health, he will be better than he was in 2013-2014.

Josh Gorges gets the tough minutes on the Montreal blueline, facing quality opponents and starting the majority of his shifts in the defensive zone. He missed some time with a broken hand last season, but he's generally quite durable for a defensive defenceman who blocks shots regularly and has played more than 21 minutes per game for the past five seasons.

The straw that stirs the proverbial drink in Montreal, P.K. Subban is up for a new contract and should get paid in a big way after taking a bridge deal the last time his contract came due. After scoring a career-high 53 points, while playing a career-high 24:37 per game during the regular season, before leading the Canadiens in playoff scoring, with 14 points in 17 games.

He might make the occasional highlight-reel gaffe, but Subban drives the play for Montreal; they need him.

There is room for significant turnover on the Montreal defence. While there appears to be interest in bringing back veteran free agent Mike Weaver, it gets more complicated with Andrei Markov, a 35-year-old who had a solid season, but has clearly lost a step. If Markov wants a three-year contract, it's possible he would find that on the open market, from a team needing a top pair defenceman, but that could give the Canadiens second thoughts when they are already preparing for Subban's new deal.

Prospects Nathan Beaulieu, Jarred Tinordi and Greg Pateryn could have really good opportunities to join the Montreal defence full-time, but free agency or trades could be important to rounding out the group. A lot will depend on how the Subban and Markov situations shake out.

Returning Goaltenders

Player Rating GP W L OTL GAA SV% Cap Hit
Carey Price 77.27 59 34 20 5 2.22 .927 $6.5M
Peter Budaj 64.43 24 10 8 3 2.51 .909 $1.4M

Coming off the best season of his carer, it would be easy to believe that Carey Price is now set as a top-tier goaltender, but that would require ignoring the fluctuation in performance that comes with most goaltenders, even the really good ones. Over the past four seasons, Price has a .920 save percentage, which ranks fourth among goaltenders to play at least 150 games, but he's also one season removed from a .905 save percentage, so more time north of .920 would be just fine from the Canadiens' perspective.

With a .910 save percentage in 54 games over three seasons with Montreal, Peter Budaj has been a solid backup for Price; not playing very much, but providing adequate rest for the starter. When Price got hurt in the playoffs, though, the Canadiens turned to Dustin Tokarski, and with Tokarski requiring waivers to get sent to the AHL next season, there may be a decision to make regarding who gets to spell Price next season.

Top Prospects

Player Pos. Team/League Stats
Nathan Beaulieu D Hamilton (AHL) 7-20-27, -19, 57 GP
Jacob De La Rose C Leksands (SHL) 7-6-13, -5, 49 GP
Zachary Fucale G Halifax (QMJHL) 2.26 GAA, .907 SV%, 50 GP
Jarred Tinordi D Hamilton (AHL) 3-6-9, -4, 47 GP
Charles Hudon LW Hamilton (AHL) 26-50-76, +9, 57 GP
Dustin Tokarski G Hamilton (AHL) 2.38 GAA, .919 SV%, 41 GP
Michael McCarron RW London (OHL) 14-20-34,+11, 66 GP
Sven Andrighetto RW Hamilton (AHL) 17-27-44, -4, 64 GP
Martin Reway LW Gatineau (QMJHL) 20-42-62, +13, 43 GP
Greg Pateryn D Hamilton (AHL) 15-19-34, +4, 68 GP
Tim Bozon LW Kootenay (WHL) 33-36-69, +9, 63 GP
Dalton Thrower D Vancouver (WHL) 12-27-39, +9, 42 GP
Magnus Nygren D Farjestads (SHL) 12-8-20, +6, 25 GP

A first-round pick in 2011, Nathan Beaulieu is a puck-moving offensive defenceman who has played 23 games, with sheltered minutes, for the Canadiens. He's promising, but also 21-years-old, so he shouldn't be rushed, but Beaulieu also showed well enough in limited ice time for the Habs in the playoffs.

A forward with good size and skill that was a second-round pick last summer, Jacob De La Rose hasn't scored much playing against men in Sweden, but has shown in international play that he can produce in an offensvie role. The 19-year-old has signed with Montreal and will get an opportunity to adjust to the North American game.

Also a second-round pick last summer, Zachary Fucale is a highly-regarded goaltending prospect, but hasn't had a dominant statistical season through three years as a starter in the QMJHL. Fucale is a 19-year-old goaltender, though, which leaves lots of time and lots of room for improvement.

Like Beaulieu, Jarred Tinordi has played sheltered minutes in his 30 NHL games, but hasn't looked out of place and while his puck skills can improve, it's safe enough to project Tinordi in a defensive role. If all goes right, the 2010 first-rounder could play shutdown minutes in the top four.

Drafted in the fifth round in 2012, Charles Hudon is an industrious winger who can create a bit of offence and could use some time to get stronger before he is considered for a spot in Montreal.

Acquired from Tampa Bay for Cedrick Desjardins, Dustin Tokarski is a little small (5-foot-11) as NHL goaltenders go, but he played well in the playoffs and has a .912 save percentage in 235 AHL Games, which is good enough to get consideration for a backup role.

Last summer's first-round pick, Michael McCarron had trouble generating offence in his first OHL season, but he's something of a project, a 6-foot-6 winger with a massive frame. If he can improve his skating and pick up his production next season, that would ease some doubts created by his 2013-2014 season.

A third-round pick last summer, Sven Andrighetto is a smallish Swiss-born winger who was a productive scorer in the QMJHL, putting up 204 points in 133 (regular season plus playoff) games and made a smooth transition to pro hockey.

Picked in the fourth round last year, Martin Reway is an undersized winger who has 139 points in 109 (regular season plus playoff) QMJHL games over the past two seasons. The 19-year-old will play for Sparta Praha in the KHL next season, but is worth keeping tabs on because of his offensive talent.

Acquired from Toronto in a trade for Mikhail Grabovski in 2008, Greg Pateryn is now knocking on the door for an NHL job after scoring 15 goals in his second AHL season. He wasn't a big scorer at the University of Michigan, but has good size and a big shot.

Taken in the third round in 2012, Tim Bozon is a winger with good finishing touch who endured a meningitis scare this year and has just returned to the ice. He scored 105 goals in three WHL seasons and while he likely needs time to get back up to speed and strength, he'll be intriguing to follow.

A second-round pick in 2012, Dalton Thrower isn't the biggest defenceman, but plays an aggressive game and has some puck skills that will give him a chance to develop into an asset on the Habs' blueline.

An offensive defenceman that returned to Sweden after starting the year (1 G, 7 A, -9, 16 GP) in Hamilton, Magnus Nygren is a 24-year-old who has 52 points (25 G, 27 A) in 76 games in Sweden over the past couple seasons.

Daniel Carr, a free agent signed out of Union College after scoring 157 points in 160 points over four seasons with the Skating Dutchmen, is also worth keeping an eye on.

Canadiens advanced stats and player usage chart from Extra Skater

DRAFT
26th - Travis Sanheim, Nickolay Goldobin, Nick Schmaltz, Connor Bleackley.

FREE AGENCY
According to www.capgeek.com, the Canadiens have approximately $42.9M committed to the 2014-2015 salary cap for 14 players.

Check out my possible Canadiens lineup for next season on Cap Geek here.

Needs: One top six forward, one top four defencemen, three more defencemen.

What I said the Canadiens needed last year: One top nine forward, depth forwards.

They added: Daniel Briere, George Parros, Douglas Murray.

TRADE MARKET
Lars Eller, Travis Moen, Magnus Nygren.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.

P.K. Subban Andrei Markov (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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