Marc Bergevin held a press conference on October 25th after the 5-1 victory vs the Florida Panthers stating that the answers to the team’s success are already on the team.
“The answer is in our dressing room, it’s not the skill (that’s missing), it’s the confidence. You can play with a bad hand or bad foot, but if you play without confidence it’s so obvious. I’m not going to make a panic move. I told these guys the answer is in that room.” – Marc Bergevin
The statement was somewhat self-serving but it confirms that Bergevin is committed to his vision of this version of the Canadiens. But the question remains: Do the Habs truly have a complement of quality centres to successfully compete in the NHL?
For nearly two decades the Canadiens have been without a legitimate top line centre. They have also gone as long without two capable top six centres to carry the offensive load.
While the jury is still out on Jonathan Drouin making the transition to centre, he has shown that he’s capable offensively if supported. But who can step into the role of being a second line centerman on a consistent basis. As it stands right now, Phillip Danault fills this position.
Danault was acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks, along with a 2018 second round pick, in exchange for Dale Weise and Tomas Fleischmann at the trade deadline in 2016. It can be argued that this deal is the best overall trade made by Bergevin in his tenure with the Canadiens.
Danault, the former 2011 first round pick, arrived in Montreal during the 2015-16 season and played 21 games, contributing five points while averaging just over 12 minutes per game. The following season Danault began on the fourth line but was pressed into the role of first line centre, playing an average of 15 minutes scoring 40 points over the full season.
The position of first line centre is truly out of reach for Danault. But is he capable of being a second line center?
So far this season, Danault has a defensive zone start rate of 54.3 per cent. Although this is still well behind Tomas Plekanec’s defensive zone start rate of 57.7 per cent, it is an indication that Danault is trusted by the Canadiens coaching staff. This is helped by a positive faceoff win percentage of 54.4 per cent behind only Torrey Mitchell, Mike McCarron and Andrew Shaw.
Danault, like all members of the team, is learning to play Claude Julien’s defensive scheme. He uses his quickness to support the defenders and move the puck up ice. His Corsi For at five on five is 52.8 per cent which is average for a top six centre. This means that the team was controlling the puck for more than half the time he was on the ice.
The Canadiens have had a major problem giving up far too many quality scoring chances and goals since the start of the season. Defensively, Danault has struggled being one of the bottom two regular forwards in goals against per 60 at 3.9. He is still adjusting to facing top-quality opposition on a nightly basis.
Danault has also been a key penalty-killer for the Canadiens. His aggression on the puck and speed has been helpful. However, the Habs are ranked 29th in the league on the penalty-kill at just 75.0 per cent. This is an area that requires desperate improvement for the Canadiens to be successful.
Danault’s offensive role fits his simple and efficient style. He excels on generating a cycle in the offensive zone. His play-making skills are serviceable as he attempts to retrieve the puck moving it to his linemates.
He also is capable at finding space in the slot to generate offence. While his shot is not elite, it is decent, but it would help him to shoot more. He is adept at redirecting pucks on net and generating rebounds. This season, Danault is on pace to score 50 points.
It is hard to argue against a budding centre who looks to be capable of getting 50 points in a season. Danault will have to make significant improvements to his defensive game to unseat the role of Tomas Plekanec as a reliable two-way centre and penalty-killer. But Danault has certainly entered the conversation.
Yet, this analysis again highlights the critical issue in Montreal: the team is weak down the middle.
Drouin can offer a play-making role but his defensive game is a work in progress and his weak faceoff ability impairs his line starting with the puck. Danault’s defensive game is a liability, but offensively, his points will flow from sheer effort and having a high-quality shooter like Pacioretty paired with him. Plekanec’s defensive game remains strong but his offence has dried up.
Alex Galchenyuk may become a center, but he plays a similar game as Drouin in that offensively he will be a threat yet his defensive game is suspect. Both Galchenyuk and Drouin require solid two-way wingers to compliment them, and there just aren’t enough on this roster. And on Julien’s team, Galchenyuk is not under consideration to play centre.
Strength at the center position is an issue that Bergevin has failed to address during his time as general manager of the Canadiens.
Given all of the factors listed, it would be beneficial for Marc Bergevin to acquire a veteran top-six centerman. Providing another two-way center, who can play Julien’s system, would allow the coach to spread the offence across all lines as he had in Boston, and as Pittsburgh does now. It would also help the forwards better support all three pairings of defensemen to lessen the scoring chances against, which at the moment is a larger issue.
A quality center can help provide another veteran voice in the room but could also provide the help needed in all three zones. He could be used to spread the ice-time load which could improve the penalty-kill as well as the 18th ranked power play, which sits at 16.4 per cent.
The Habs are a good puck possession team but that doesn’t translate to rewards on the scoreboard. They have difficulty getting the puck to the prime scoring areas preferring instead to run up their volume of shots. They have done a much better job of going to the crease since their 1-6-1 start this season, but it is yet to be seen if this trend will continue consistently on a game-by-game basis.
The majority of fans on Planet Habs are demanding that the Habs GM add a puck-moving defenceman. Yet, the larger impact to this franchise over the long term would be to have three top-six capable centers.
More to the point, Julien’s defensive system relies more heavily on his centermen to be able to create an odd-man situation defensively and win possession quickly. They also are the ones who can provide short pass outlets for their defencemen allowing for a transition game that builds speed beginning in the defensive zone.
The answer to the Habs future success is two-fold. Players in the room must consistently play quality hockey. But providing the coaching staff with quality personnel falls squarely onto the shoulders of the general manager.
Adding a top-six centre would not be a panic move, but a step to improve the team. This could also help the team’s confidence, a factor that Bergevin claims is of ultimate importance. Players would feel reassured that management believes in them enough to add a solid piece.
With the difficult start to the season, and the long road laid out ahead of them due to that difficult start, the Canadiens GM will need to decide very quickly if the answers in the room are enough to overcome hurdles. He must also wager whether he has assembled a a team who is not only strong enough to make the playoffs but to do well once there, a well-established bar for this franchise.