The Montreal Canadiens are in a fairly strong position when it comes to their forward group. Seven top-6 forwards, a 3rd-line centre in Lars Eller taking on increasing responsibility and doing okay with it, and a 4th-line in David Desharnais centre who dominated opposition 4th-lines last season. Jacques Martin has a lot more options than he did at the beginning of last season.
Martin has generally employed power-on-power match-ups: 1st line (Plekanec) against 1st line, 2nd line (Gomez) against 2nd, and so on. About 2/3 of NHL coaches employ their forward lines in this manner, hoping that their best players can out-score the opposition best rather than merely rack up the points.
Of late I have been thinking about Martin’s line permutations and usage for the upcoming season. Tomas Plekanec will undoubtedly play against the opposition best and I would bet on free agent signing Erik Cole likely to slot in on one of Plekanec’ wings. Conventional wisdom has Mike Cammalleri occupying his usual spot on the left-wing of that line but I wonder if the Montreal would be better off doing something else.
Mike Cammalleri, while handling the tough Plekanec minutes fairly well, saw his shot rate decline slightly last season. The much-maligned Scott Gomez suffered horrendous luck with a goon-like on-ice shooting percentage. Brian Gionta’s doing just fine though suffered a little bad luck in the shooting percentage department and he’s heading into his mid-30s. It may be beneficial for the Canadiens to put the three of them together and give them more favourable circumstances, especially if Gauthier’s plan is to trade Scott Gomez in the off-season should Eller become capable of handling top-6 minutes.
Doing the old "Pump n’ Dump" with Scott Gomez’ point totals could make him a more valuable trade commodity next off-season (his value couldn’t be lower than it is right now). Gomez should see his point totals improve on its own with some regression in his on-ice shooting percentage, but pairing him with the Montreal wingers with the best shots would help. Furthermore, starting the line more often in the offensive zone would allow them to spend greater time in that zone and provide greater opportunities to take shots at goal. Last season Gomez had the greatest proportion of starts in the offensive zone of any Hab last season but I wouldn’t mind seeing it taken to another level.
Feasting on offensive zone faceoffs has pumped point totals for players on other teams. For the Sedins it helped make them into Art Ross candidates (over 70% Ozone% in 10-11) and one-year wonder Ville Leino (62.3% ozone% in 10-11) got a contract the Sabres will almost certainly regret when they can’t employ him in the manner Philadelphia did so successfully.
While the Canadiens do not have Manny Malholtra to allow Gomez Sedin-type usage but it may be possible to have the Gomez line have Leino-type faceoff usage. Last season, David Desharnais had no problem handling moderate defensive zone starts (46.9%) against 4th-line opposition and I believe he can do the same with Travis Moen/Mathieu Darche and Ryan White on his wings.
Lars Eller is the biggest question-mark in the scheme. Has he progressed enough to not be over his head against 2nd-line opposition while starting in the defensive zone more often than last season? Having one of Pacioretty or Kostitsyn on his wing would help him out, Travis Moen’s defensive play wouldn’t hurt either but I have misgivings about his readiness for such a role. Ideally, the Habs would acquire another tough-minutes forward to play with Plekanec and bump Kostitsyn down to Eller’s flank to make things easier but such players are rare and difficult to acquire so that isn’t in the cards.
Also of concern is whether Scott Gomez is suited for such a role. His greatest skill is transporting the puck from the defensive zone to the offensive zone and this alignment would largely take that away from him. While starting him in the offensive zones may bump Gomez’ point totals up it may be sub-optimal to do so.
I don't believe Jacques Martin will employ such a strategy this season as I'm not sure Lars Eller is quite ready for the added responsibility. Nonetheless, the bounty of forwards under his disposal will allow Martin plenty of time to experiment and tinker heading in pre-season and the early stages of the regular season
10-11 Ozone% from Behindthenet.ca
The line-up and rough Ozone% under consideration in the article:
Andrei Kostitsyn-Tomas Plekanec-Erik Cole (48% Ozone%)
Mike Cammalleri-Scott Gomez-Brian Gionta (60% Ozone%)
Max Pacioretty-Lars Eller-Travis Moen (46% Ozone%)
Mathieu Darche-David Desharnais-Ryan White (45% Ozone%)