As the season has worn on, the Montreal Canadiens have proven that they are not immune to the injury bug. Many key players have taken time off to recover from injuries. Alex Galchenyuk, Andrei Markov, Jeff Petry, Greg Pateryn, David Desharnais and Brendan Gallagher all headline the marquee above the therapy room door.
While they were all out at various times, the depth players were able to step up and provide a level of play that was capable of keeping the Habs in first in the Atlantic division. It also may have prompted Marc Bergevin to pull the trigger on a deal that brought third-pairing puck moving defenceman Nikita Nesterov to Montreal in return for a minor league defenceman and a sixth round pick.
All of the walking wounded have returned to the lineup with the exception of Gallagher, who is not expected back until March. As these players have returned, it has had a trickle-down effect on other Canadiens players.
With Nesterov in the fold, along with the return of Pateryn and Markov, Bergevin was forced to put Zach Redmond and Mark Barberio on waivers. This leaves Montreal with seven NHL defencemen. Redmond cleared waivers and provides the St. John’s IceCaps with veteran defensive help in their goal to make the AHL playoffs, while Barberio and his epic moustache were claimed off waivers by Colorado.
This trickle-down effect places everyone in roles that are more easily filled by each player. The top pairing of Alexei Emelin and Shea Weber will remain unchanged. However, the second pairing will be in flux as Markov and Nathan Beaulieu will likely platoon the left side while Markov returns to form. The third pairing will have Pateryn providing his physical and simple defensive play to support either Markov or Beaulieu.
Nesterov will be the depth defenceman. Michel Therrien enjoys having a player as useful as he is on the roster. Nesterov is capable of playing on either side of the blueline, and has experience playing forward as well. His skill sets will be platooned in with Pateryn when Therrien feels the game calls for another puck mover.
Phillip Danault is surprisingly doing a capable job centering the top line with Max Pacioretty and Alex Radulov so far. They have been a very good line for some time. This luxury will provide Galchenyuk the time he needs to be eased back into his role as the team’s top center. This also has the trickle-down effect on depth scoring with such a talented player lining up against lesser defensive pairings.
Another effect, and one that has been building for two seasons, is the move of Desharnais from center to the wing. Desharnais is no longer able to compete in Montreal’s lineup for a center position, and he must now adjust to playing on the wing. He will be on a line with Galchenyuk and Andrew Shaw, so his declining playmaking skills will be put to use.
This leaves a difficult decision of what to do with Sven Andrighetto. He has been playing very well as of late, as he has returned to what made him successful. He has once again been using his speed and drive to get to pucks and make plays. He’s now in direct competition in the top nine against Artturi Lehkonen and Paul Byron, two players who have been steadily providing offence and two-way play.
This leaves a team that was decimated by injuries that somehow found a way to remain at the top of their division with a great problem to have. The problem is having too many NHL-capable players in multiple positions.
So what does this mean for the Habs now? Well, for now, it means that the IceCaps get an influx of talent to help them make a run at the playoffs. However, it can also mean that all of the players that have showcased their talent have increased their trade values and made themselves targets by other NHL general managers to fill their rosters.
That includes Las Vegas. It may now be possible to trade one of these improved assets to anyone, including Vegas, for picks or the consideration to not select a player that Bergevin couldn’t place on the protected list.
It is also no secret that Bergevin is looking to upgrade at center. He has been rumored to be interested in Matt Duchene, Martin Hanzal and Mikhail Backlund over the course of this season. Where there is smoke, there is usually fire, and it is very possible that he will make a deal before the trade deadline. This long stretch relying on depth players and having it pay off may have been the bump in value to these depth players and prospects that is needed to land that big name to put the Habs over the top.
As it stands now, the lineup should be capable of making it to the Eastern Conference Final (ECF). With the team’s current makeup, the window of opportunity to contend is wide open and an ECF would be seen as insufficient for most fans. However, to go further, they lack that proven offensive threat up the middle in the top six as mentioned above. They also lack some physical size to withstand the punishment the playoffs provide.
Michael McCarron could provide help in the size department, but he is a bottom-six player at the moment. That said, he may top out as a third line center, which would be a good fit for Montreal’s needs. All things considered, is he ready to give a consistent effort every shift which the playoffs demand? I believe so, but more as a fourth liner at this time, as he still needs another offseason to grow into his role.
Depth has helped Montreal get to this point in the season in a relatively good position. It is available to step up when it counts, as we’ve seen nearly every depth player do thus far. They could also be used as a bargaining chip to upgrade. Bergevin is always tight lipped and has said openly that he doesn’t expect moves to happen. However, with several draft picks, prospects, and arguably 25 NHL-level players, he has the means to make a deal and have the Habs take that leap forward.