Monday, September 22, 2008

Canadiens Depth Preview: The Centres (Part 1)

It has been said for some time that a major strength of the Canadiens has been organizational depth. Up to last season, depth was nothing more than a nice thought, but youngsters graduating at impressive rates, the depth is now being put to the test.

Ahead of what should be an exciting season, I wanted to take a look at the team's overall depth at each position. I'm starting with centres. Part 1 will be big-team guys, Part 2 will be the farm system as it stands now.

Based on team lists, prospect lists and my evaluations, here is the list of centres in order of importance to the team:
  1. Saku Koivu
  2. Tomas Plekanec
  3. Robert Lang
  4. Maxim Lapierre
  5. Kyle Chipchura
  6. Steve Begin
  7. Brock Trotter
  8. Ben Maxwell
  9. David Desharnais
  10. Ryan White
  11. Mathieu Aubin
  12. Ryan Russell
  13. Olivier Fortier
  14. Olivier Latendresse
  15. Yanick Lehoux

The top-line centres

Saku Koivu

What more can be said about Saku Koivu? If one is wondering how I have him at number one on this list, a brief look back at the playoffs 2008 should clarify matters greatly. And for those who are worried that Koivu is and never has been a number one centre, I would suggest taking a look at much of the rest of the league. Atlanta, Edmonton, Vancouver, NYI, Minnesota, Columbus, Nashville, Florida (I could go on) – these are all teams that would not say no to Koivu as their number one centre. He is not Lecavalier, Crosby or Thornton, I grant that, but he is definitely among the top 30 in the league. And, when you factor in his playoff boost, he is made even more valuable.

In my mind, there are basically two things you need to know about Saku Koivu:

1) He will do anything to help the team win (including play a defensive role)
2) He makes every winger he plays with better

These two qualities speak to why he is the captain and longest-serving Hab. They also speak to why he is consistently the best player when the chips are down. I think these qualities also make him a valuable asset at this stage in the team's growth. Take for example all the new forwards. There will need to be shuffling of lines. Koivu's flexibility and reliability makes the coach's job a cinch as there will always be place for a winger (Tanguay for example), who is finding it hard with someone else.

No matter what, I would hope to see Koivu with at least one of the top offensive wingers (that is to say Kovalev, Tanguay or Andrei Kostitsyn). This should prove exciting for Koivu, as it will be the first time since Mark Recchi for Zubrus (ugh), Saku has the chance to play with a winger who has some established credentials other than in playoff bail-out moments. For the man who made Zednik, Savage and Ryder into NHL goalmen, this should be a relief.

A valid question is: will it turn into a statistical boon? I would answer this cautiously. For one thing, I don't think Saku Koivu has scoring championship on his mind. As I said, he wants to help the team win. As such, I think there will be times during the long season that he will again take the offensive back seat. So, I don't think 90 points are on the cards. If pressed for a prediction, I would be comfortable saying a return to 70-point level, but with the most goals he's ever scored.

A word of warning though. There will be moments when you all want to question Koivu, his place in the lineup, his captaincy. And the usual suspects will goad you on. But be mindful of the lessons of last season, where all that occurred but the captain with the broken foot was all that kept us from even worse embarassment at the hands of the Bruins.

Saku's 2007-08 Review

Tomas Plekanec

In Plekanec, the Canadiens have themselves a real gem. Last year, we called him the number one centre for more than half of the season. He can click with Kovalev, he can click with Kostitsyn. In the past he has also shown he can thrive with Higgins or just about anyone on the team.

I think if fans of other teams are looking in, they might ask why we are getting so carried away about Tomas. After all, he only put up 69 points – his other seasons were sub-50 points. I think that shows how important it is to watch a player in order to evaluate them. From watching Plekanec, we know that we could trust him on the top line, the fourth line, the PP or the PK. We know that he is fast, intelligent, generous when he needs to be and ruthless as well. We know that the 47-point man from 2 seasons ago was transformed some time around December 2007 into a true top-line centre, who can be feared around the league.

Like Saku, Tomas is a very adaptable centre. In fact, his adaptability is on par with the captain's, in my esteem. He only sits at number two in the depth chart at this point, because of Saku's repeated excellence in tight situations. Plekanec, on the other hand, found it difficult to thrive throughout the tight-checking of the playoffs (famously likening his own play to that of a little girl). However, it must be said that he did learn as the games went on.

So, what should we expect from this quick-witted, fleet-footed Czech. Like Saku, his statistical outlook is up in the air right now. Should Tomas play with Kovalev, I would say improvement in stats is on the horizon, and we could have an 80-point centre for the first time since Turgeon and Damphousse. But, if Carbonneau sees a better fit on another line for Tomas, his stats may wane.

Whatever happens, the team will benefit from having Plekanec's offensive nous and defensive commitment. One thing is crystal clear in my mind, Plekanec will have a good season. As we pointed out last year, Tomas plays well most of the time. You notice him most nights. This includes games where he doesn't get points, as well as those where he does.

Tomas' 2007-08 Review

Robert Lang

Ah, the mysterious Lang.

You wouldn't be wrong in pointing out that I may have overreacted (or underreacted) to this addition on the day. Call it clouding by Brisebois.

Upon reflection, and remembering what I really thought about adding Sundin, I think that Lang could be a sound addition. I am not as sold as The "Daily" Hab-It is, but I can see some value.

It is good that he wins slightly more faceoffs than he loses. It is good he holds his stick the other way. It is fine that he scores points with regularity in this league. However, no matter whether he wins 54% of faceoffs from here to March or scores 60-odd points, I still think his value will only be shown (or not) in May and hopefully June. The Canadiens had good enough options to promote from within and make the playoffs again, but it was their post-season failure that prompted this acquisition, I suspect.

So, how do I see Lang helping in that regard? Well, thankfully still have Koivu and Plekanec. Teams that have relied on Lang in bigger roles have generally not conquered much in the postseason at all. I hope we will not be foisting him into a bigger role than what he has shown he can cope with.

But having a third option like Lang (as opposed to Smolinski or Bonk) to make checking assignments a little trickier could work wonders. And, basically, that's the biggest value I think he will bring – a legitimate third threat. Regardless of how the wingers get shuffled, a healthy Habs team will have a third line centred by either Koivu, Plekanec or Lang. This is good news indeed. That should make scoring on goalies like Thomas and Biron a bit easier this time around.

In terms of statistics, I am expecting Lang to match his usual outputs, that is to say 50 points. Barring a massive shift in policy from Carbo, Lang is bound to benefit from Kovalev as a linemate at some points, probably a Kostitsyn at other times. In the best-case scenario for Lang, he will play a season with Kovalev and whoever else and put up 65 points or so. In a best-case for the Habs (in my opinion), he'll play third-line duties with some PP time.

Filling out the NHL roster

Maxim Lapierre

Tobalev and I have a back and forth about Lapierre. We both like him, but our estimations of his potential differ. Tobalev sees Lapierre as a fourth-line player through and through. I can see glimmers of more.

That being said, I am happy that at this stage of Max's career, that he continue to learn the trade on the fourth line. Come an injury or player move, though, and I could be quite comfortable with Max moving up in the lineup. You don't lead a top-line to any championship if you have no talent and no character. Max's Hamilton playoff heroics showed me oodles about both.

It also shouldn't be forgotten that last season was a decent one for Max. Over a year, he pretty firmly established his place in the depth chart. For me, anyway. His demotion, exceptional play and attitude in Hamilton and his promotion were all great signs of maturity and drive. And, once on the team, he played like a pro who had learned something. I particularly think of his play in the playoffs, where his effort was outstanding. And, if not betrayed by a lower skill level and lower-tier wingers, he might have been able to do what he was trying so hard to do.

I see Max as one of those future playoff hero-type players – like Paul DiPietro. His desire to win combined with a bit more seasoning should make him more valuable to the team this coming spring. Statistically, I wouldn't take Lapierre in any pools. A great season would be 10 goals. 30 points should be his ceiling barring him being cast in a new role.

Maxim's 2007-08 Review

Kyle Chipchura

Future captain headlines a year ago. Doubt over future Habs player creeping this season. It just goes to show how different junior and professional hockey can be.

But, you know what? There is probably nothing more demanding to ask of a rookie than to step into the NHL and become a defensive centre.

A look at the who's who of defensive centres in the league, and you'll come up with vets, vets and more vets. Rookie forwards usually enter the league based on their offensive potential and after learning the game and learning they can't reproduce their junior statistics, morph into Selke aspirationals.

To draft a player based on his defensive excellence at the forward position in junior is not unprecedented, but let's just say it's rare. The Canadiens have done it with some success: Gainey and Skrudland spring to mind; but even so, patience is the key with Chipchura.

In what little we have seen of Chipchura, I think it is fair to say there is uncertainty. But, thanks to his personality and pedigree (Canada captain), I expect him to make it. I think I will even go out on a limb and say that Chipchura will make the centre position a log-jam if everyone remains healthy for the season.

Again, statistics probably won't be his thing. The boy does have a knack for big goals though, and that may get him some notoriety if given a chance in the spring. What is certain is that together with Lapierre, Chipchura gives the Canadiens outstanding (reliabl and potantially multi-dimensional) options for a fourth centre.

I'll leave the future captain debate for someone else this time, but we have a future player here. And the future is not so distant in his case.

Kyle's 2007-08 Review

Steve Begin

Listing him as a centre belies Begins position on the team. Personally, I see Begin deployed on the fourth line when he is healthy enough (probably on the wing). However, last season, Steve was overtaken by Lapierre in the depth chart without question, and I don't think Chipchura will waste much of training camp in doing the same.

The prognosis for Steve's season might be shaky if things go well for the Habs. What I mean is, young players, should they progress as hoped might make Begin obsolete by springtime. If Sergei Kostitsyn sticks, for example, he takes a place. Add Latendresse, who we hope will be better and we will have 8 better wingers than Steve.

Like Dandenault, this is not meant to be a slight against Begin. As teams get better they inevitably outgrow some old-time heroes. That is not to say he will be thrown to the trash heap. No, he still has value as an insurance policy. And, even as a permanent pressbox player, I could see Steve still bringing enormous value – simply because he never seems to give up.

Should Begin take the wrong attitude, only then could it actually hurt to keep him around. His tendency to try and prove his worth at times can mean nothing more than hitting for the sake of it and shooting directly at the goalie (I'm remembering Biron). I hope someone will have discussed Steve's new role with him, and the role that even we can foresee by 2009. It would be a shame for this player-team relationship to end on anything but a high note.

Steve's 2007-08 Review

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