What is Michel Therrien doing with his forward lines?

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

I've noticed a lot of confusion lately with the way Michel Therrien is deploying his forwards, and I've got some fairly simple answers for you.

Not everything Michel Therrien does makes sense. Because of that, we give him a rough ride as fans and analysts from time to time. However lately, Therrien has been doing a pretty excellent job from a deployment perspective and he's not getting the credit that he deserves.

I've noticed a lot of complaining specifically about the way he's deploying his forwards over the last three games, so I'm going to explain what's going on there so we can all see it clearly, because it's actually really smart.

First line: Shut down (most situations)

Danny Briere Tomas Plekanec Brian Gionta

We can debate forever what first line means, but this is the first line in Therrien's eyes. You've got two players in Gionta and Plekanec that have excellent two-way games, and a one-dimensional scorer in Briere. This line is matched against the top offensive threat the opponent has to offer, and they're not matched zonally, or at least not very much.

They're your shutdown guys primarily, but because there's a lot of talent there, Briere's addition also means they're looking for goals, even though it's not the number one priority. Montreal has better scoring threats on other lines, so if this line can shut down the opposing team's best, and chip in the odd goal, they're doing their jobs.

First line: Shut down (lead protection)

Travis Moen Tomas Plekanec Brian Gionta

Late in games, when leading, Therrien has been taking Briere off the top line and putting Moen up there, because Moen is much better defensively than Briere. Moen plays a simple game, and Therrien knows that if Plekanec or Gionta have the puck in the defensive zone and there's no outlet, they can put the puck to Moen along the boards and they'll be in safe territory.

When teams are trailing, they'll often load up a line as well. Pittsburgh did this with Crosby and Malkin on Saturday, so Therrien is loading up a defensive line. It's smart.

Second line: Defensive heavy work

Alex Galchenyuk Lars Eller Brandon Prust

Two players with excellent two-way games, and all three with great skating and puck moving ability. Galchenyuk isn't great in his own zone yet, but he's going to learn with these two. This line is all about absorbing defensive zone faceoffs. Since they were put together, they've been starting just 37.9% of their non-neutral zone shifts in the offensive zone.

Eller's ability to skate the puck out and Prust's defensive awareness are what makes this work, and although they haven't clicked offensively yet, this is a line that given a bit of time, should end up looking a lot better than it has. Desharnais was tried in this role earlier in the season in order to give the EGG line an offensive push, but it didn't work at all. In many ways Eller is the victim of his own versatility (offensively), but the fact is that he has a rising star on his left wing that's going to produce in any role eventually, he just needs to grow into it.

Third line: Exploitation offense

Max Pacioretty David Desharnais Brendan Gallagher

These are the guys getting as many offensive zone starts as Therrien can manage. Since they've been united, they're seeing about 69.5% of their non-neutral zone starts in the offensive zone. Their job is to score, and they've been doing it.

Pacioretty is the defensive water carrier for this line when they do get the odd defensive zone start, or get caught in their own zone. Brendan Gallagher was playing this role with Eller and Galchenyuk earlier this season, and he seems stapled to it ever since he broke in. That's not really a knock on him, because his defensive game is coming along, it's just that Therrien has recognized that Gallagher is an absolute demon in the offensive zone. No one else on the Canadiens produces scoring chances at anywhere near the rate that Gallagher does, so he needs to be on the main line of offense.

Fourth line: Mop up

Travis Moen Ryan White Michael Bournival

Last season Therrien used the 4th line sacrificially, always starting them in the defensive zone, but this year it seems like he's just using them whenever his other three lines are tired and need a shift off. If they need to be used in the defensive zone, Moen and White are solid there and Bournival is no slouch either. If there's a spare shift in the offensive zone, Bournival is excellent there and Moen has been cycling the puck well all year, while White can execute a reasonably solid forecheck.

Because of how the other lines are used, this line is usually going to play the other team's fourth line, and because they're three solid players, they're probably going to outplay them most games, like they did against Washington.

***

Therrien's logic in how he's deployed his lineup is pretty sound thus far, with the only question mark being whether he keeps Prust with Eller to use that line defensively, or if he gives up on that idea and puts Bournival there, switching the 4th line to tough minutes in order to create two exploitation lines.

Both strategies have pros and cons, and it'll be interesting to see where he goes with it.

And then there's Rene Bourque, and I'm not exactly sure where he fits anymore.

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