MONTREAL, QC. — The buzz word among Hab fans this week is undoubtedly “draft,” and rightfully so with the team being in the most exciting position its held for a National Hockey League entry draft in quite some time. Not only does the team have the third overall pick, but a club that has made a habit of dealing away second round selections in recent years currently possesses two picks. It is such an exciting time, in fact, that it might be easy to temporarily forget that we’re still talking about a team which finished 15th in the Eastern Conference this past season.
But that’s the reality. Next weekend, the Canadiens will add a few key pieces that will contribute to the team in the years to come, but barring a trade up to draft Nail Yakupov, no players selected by Montreal will have an impact on the 2012-13 campaign. This means that Habs GM Marc Bergevin has numerous dockets to balance at the moment if he is to address the short-term in addition to building towards future success.
Previously, I identified three areas Bergevin needs to reinforce this summer, and have already gone over some of the top unrestricted free agent options for scoring forwards and minute-eating defensemen. The Canadiens also need to address their bottom six forwards, as the club struggled to piece together any functional third or fourth lines up front throughout all of last season. The lack of foresight forced the team to sacrifice its seventh round pick in this year’s draft to acquire Petteri Nokelainen, and even that proved insufficient as the club’s depth forwards were regularly outmatched by the opposition’s.
What are we looking for in a bottom six? Different teams have different philosophies when it comes to these trios, but there are a couple of generalizations which typically hold true. A team’s third line was traditionally considered a “shutdown line,” filled with defensive-oriented forwards and tasked with lining up against the opponent’s top unit.
Today, most no longer consider this sufficient, wanting the line to still be responsible defensively, but to also serve in a tertiary scoring role. While some teams have used a fourth line to break rookies into their line-ups slowly, shielding them from difficult matchups, typically the focus is on “energy” players. In an energy player, a team wants a physical presence, ideally a hard-hitting, quick skating player with size, who won’t get in trouble in the defensive end and can potentially burn opposing players out by cycling the puck in the offensive zone.
Finally, the bottom six is also used by teams to stash certain “specialists” — guys who may not have the overall game to play big minutes, but excel in one particular area, be it a player who dominates in the face-off circle, a top penalty killer, a powerplay quarterback, an enforcer, or even sometimes a shootout whiz.
To figure out what the Canadiens need to add to their third and fourth lines, we should first look at what pieces are in place.
Lars Eller – a restricted free agent – appears locked in to start the year as the third line center, even if some would like to see him get a shot in the top six. He is a good fit in the 3C hole, being responsible defensively, a strong penalty killer, having a big frame, and being able to chip in offensively.
Ryan White is a second RFA who should have a guaranteed job, able to line-up on the wing or in the middle on the fourth line. Average-sized, White is a physical player, capable of dropping the gloves when needed.
Outside of these two, there are a lot of question marks. Will any of the other RFAs or UFAs be back? Options include Mike Blunden (size, physical), Blake Geoffrion (size, but inconsistent), Travis Moen (size, physical, penalty killer, but UFA), Petteri Nokelainen (face-offs, penalty killing), Mathieu Darche (energy, penalty killer), and Brad Staubitz (enforcer).
Will Louis Leblanc‘s successful audition last year, combined with a good summer of improving his skating and adding muscle, ensure him of a job on Eller’s wing right out of training camp? Where does Aaron Palushaj fit given that his abilities don’t meet any of the usual bottom six criteria?
Whatever the case, as a group, there are a lot of elements the club could stand to add, and depending on some Bergevin decisions, there could be a number of line-up spots to fill. This is not just about toughness or physicality, this is about a statement Bergevin made when he first took over the team. About how it takes every kind of player – all different elements – to build a winning roster. Without further ado, then, let’s get into who is available on the open market this summer to provide needed support in today’s top 10 list. I’m excluding the guys who finished the season on the Habs’ roster from this list, as if the team wishes to retain their services (and report say he’d like to keep at least Moen), I’m assuming Bergevin will try to get it done before they hit the market.
10) George Parros – RW – Anaheim Ducks
6’5″, 232 lbs – 2011-12: 46 GP, 1 G, 3 A, 4 PTS, 85 PIM
One of only a few old school enforcers left in the game, Parros would be an upgrade on Brad Staubitz in terms of size and veteran leadership. Known as well for his bushy mustache as for his intimidating reputation as a top heavyweight, Parros had only 11 fights last season (though fans have awarded him a 7-2-2 record in those bouts), down from 27 the year prior. Parros has averaged about 6 and a half minutes a night each of the last two seasons, entirely at even strength, but certainly is a better option than Georges Laraque for those who believe Montreal is in need of a protector.
Contract offer: 1 year, $800K cap hit
9) Ryan Carter – C/RW – New Jersey Devils
6’1″, 200 lbs – 2011-12: 72 GP, 4 G, 4 A, 8 PTS, 84 PIM
Carter was a pivotal member of the Devils’ fourth line this post-season, scoring five big goals. During the season, Carter ranked third among Devils’ forwards with 114 hits while averaging just 10:21 a game. He’s capable of killing penalties, averaging 53 seconds a game when a man down on a club that led the league in penalty killing efficiency. By no means an enforcer, Carter was still credited with five fights last season, so he’s a tough customer who addresses a number of areas the Canadiens need to reinforce. He isn’t particularly good on face-offs, which is why he was shifted to wing at times.
Contract offer: 1 year, $800K cap hit
8) Zenon Konopka – C – Ottawa Senators
6’0″, 209 lbs – 2011-12: 55 GP, 3 G, 2 A, 5 PTS, 193 PIM
Many Hab fans wanted the team to sign Konopka last summer, but the defensive zone face-off pro (58.9 percent overall last year) struggled to fit in at times with the Senators. Battling injuries and some conditioning issues, Konopka bounced in and out of the Sens’ line-up a bit, and averaged just 7:50 a game when dressed. Konopka’s hockey sense and overall skill set is limited, but he’s a versatile player who combines a quick draw with a willingness to drop the gloves, credited with 18 fights last season and 25 the year prior. Konopka can also support a team’s penalty kill, averaging just under a minute a night in that role last year.
Contract offer: 1 year, $800K cap hit
7) Tom Kostopoulos – RW – Calgary Flames
6’0″, 205 lbs – 2011-12: 81 GP, 4 G, 8 A, 12 PTS, 57 PIM
If this summer has seen a number of former members of the Canadiens’ organization returning in some capacity, here’s a player who – while hardly unreplaceable – probably shouldn’t have been let go. A tenacious forechecker who is also responsible defensively, Kostopoulos averaged 12:20 a night in Calgary, including 1:43 on the penalty kill. Though always willing, Kostopoulos isn’t much of a scrapper, but is pretty much the definition of an energy player, perhaps fitting on a line with Ryan White.
Contract offer: 1 year, $750K cap hit
6) Steve Bernier – RW – New Jersey Devils
6’3″, 220 lbs – 2011-12 (NHL): 32 GP, 1 G, 5 A, 6 PTS / (AHL): 17 GP, 3 G, 3 A, 6 PTS
Bernier ranked ninth in the post-season with 64 hits as a member of the surprising New Jersey fourth line (after registering 61 in 32 regular season games). Though he has never lived up to the billing that saw him taken 16th overall by the San Jose Sharks in 2003 (ahead of the likes of Zach Parise, Ryan Getzlaf, Mike Richard, and Corey Perry), the Quebec City native has successfully redefined himself as a player, filling a niche energy role and still contributing 7 points during the Devils’ 24-game playoff run. Yes, he made a poor judgment call on a hit in game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final, taking a 5-minute major, but the Habs could stand to add a guy who always wants to finish his checks. A good replacement for Mathieu Darche (though he isn’t a penalty killer), providing some offensive upside and capable of going to the net on the powerplay.
Contract offer: 2 years, $750K cap hit
5) Tanner Glass – LW – Winnipeg Jets
6’1″, 210 lbs – 2011-12: 78 GP, 5 G, 11 A, 16 PTS, 73 PIM
Glass was a big part of the Jets’ penalty kill, with 1:47 of his average 13:25/game ice time coming a man down. An intense player with good size, Glass is more of a pest than enforcer, but was still credited with seven fights last season and finished 10th in the league with 246 hits. Last season was his first in a third line role, playing with Jim Slater and Chris Thorburn, which has him looking for a contract in the $1M range this summer, possibly punching his ticket out of Winnipeg. Ideally, Glass should be a hard-working, heavy hitting fourth line type on a deeper team, meaning he may price himself out of the range for many clubs.
Contract offer: 2 years, $900K cap hit
4) Adam Burish – RW – Dallas Stars
6’0″, 190 lbs – 2011-12: 65 GP, 6 G, 13 A, 19 PTS, 76 PIM
Burish was generally perceived as a fourth liner, but got a bump after playing a part in lengthy Chicago Blackhawks playoff runs in 2009 and 2010. That earned him the contract he is now finishing in Dallas, where he averaged 12:47 of ice time per game, including 1:26 shorthanded and interesting/oddly an average of 32 seconds of powerplay time per game. Burish can play center in addition to wing, and was a strong 55.8 percent on draws this past season while bringing a physical brand of aggressive hockey to the table (though he isn’t a fighter). He’s a hard-working, agitating, energy player who could be a great fit on the Canadiens’ fourth line for the right price.
Contract offer: 2 years, $1M cap hit
3) Jay McClement – C – Colorado Avalanche
6’1″, 205 lbs – 2011-12: 80 GP, 10 G, 7 A, 17 PTS, 31 PIM
McClement averaged 13:45 a game as a third liner for the Avs, and was third among all NHL forwards with an average of 3:06 a night shorthanded (7 seconds fewer than Montreal’s Tomas Plekanec). McClement isn’t particularly physical, registering only 72 hits in 80 games, but is a defensive stalwart with 54 blocked shots and 34 takeaways compared to only 16 giveaways. Most importantly, he is also a strong face-off man, annually coming in above the 50 percent mark. The downside is, he won’t be as cheap as some other options, having made $1.45M annually on his previous deal.
Contract offer: 2 years, $1.45M cap hit
2) Joey Crabb – RW – Toronto Maple Leafs
6’1″, 191 lbs – 2011-12: 67 GP, 11 G, 15 A, 26 PTS, 33 PIM
Crabb was a pleasant surprise with the Leafs this season, cementing himself as a full-time NHL’er after bouncing up and down from the American League for several years. In fact, his play even heard him a call to join Team USA at the World Hockey Championship once Toronto’s season was done. Two of Crabb’s eleven goals came shorthanded, and he averaged 1:34 a night with a man disadvantage (13:26 a game in total). Crabb is a high energy player who would bring some more sandpaper to the line-up (101 hits in 67 games) and should come at a fair price to earn the first one-way deal of his career. A player finding his own who may still have his best seasons ahead of him.
Contract offer: 2 years, $875K cap hit
1) Brandon Prust – LW – New York Rangers
6’0″, 195 lbs – 2011-12: 82 GP, 5 G, 12 A, 17 PTS, 156 PIM
For a player to earn public praise and accolades from John Tortorella, he must be doing something right. A guy who is the very definition of an energy player, Prust averaged 11:56 a game last season, including 1:40 shorthanded, while ranking fourth among Ranger forwards with 144 hits. He fit into the shot-blocking culture in New York, with 51 on the season, and will have a lot of teams interested in him on July 1st if the Rangers can’t get him signed before then (which they’d like to do). While he’s generally more valuable agitating on the ice than sitting in the penalty box, Prust is a very willing combatant, with 20 regular season fights and one post-season bout in 2011-12. The photo at right should be sufficient to convince Hab fans that he’d make a good addition.
Contract offer: 3 years, $950K cap hit
Finally, I should touch on a couple of players I didn’t include in this list. Stephen Gionta and Jordin Tootoo could both be fourth line options for the Canadiens, playing intense gritty games. But at 5’7″ and 5’9″ respectively, they don’t fit a need for the club to get bigger. I also have concerns as to Tootoo’s off-ice behaviours, with stories indicating the inspirational tough guy may not be the best teammate. Another player not included was Paul Gaustad. Based on his comments during and after a Sabres-Canadiens game last season, it unlikely he’d be received well in the team’s locker room. Whatever we’ll be, we’ve got less than two weeks until market opening day, so stay tuned to AllHabs.net for all the latest!