For the Montreal Canadiens, the 2018-19 season is a chance to refresh and revise many parts of their current NHL roster. This holds especially true in regards to the make up and utilization of their fourth-line forwards next season. The combination of Logan Shaw, Michael McCarron, Jacob de la Rose, Byron Froese, Nicolas Deslauriers, and Daniel Carr handled the majority of playing time last year, and outside of Carr, most of these players aren’t overly productive in terms of offence. As of right now, only Deslauriers and Froese are signed for next season. That means that Montreal has a chance to rework that unit and make it more suitable for the modern pace of the NHL.
Given his usage and how he made the roster right out of the preseason, it wouldn’t be a shock to see de la Rose lock down a centre spot as well. With Jonathan Drouin and Phillip Danault entrenched in the top two spots for the time being, de la Rose could make his home on either of the lines in the bottom six. While Froese held the fourth-line centre position for a large chunk of the season, he may be best utilized in captaining the Laval Rocket, something he was only able to do for two games before being recalled to Montreal. His veteran leadership will be counted on to help guide the young players joining the AHL next year, and new head coach Joel Bouchard would likely be happy to have a player of Froese’s caliber.
Deslauriers is signed for two more years and given how he endeared himself to fans and the Canadiens, he’s likely secured himself a spot. Whether he plays as much as he did last season is up to the coaches, and given that he piled up 10 goals, he’ll be afforded the chance to prove his season wasn’t a fluke.
There’s also Shaw who, as a 13th forward, would be acceptable in the Montreal lineup. Using him as a regular forward might be overdoing it, but sliding him into the lineup if there’s an injury or a back-to-back situation wouldn’t be the worst option in the world. Of course, this hinges on the restricted free agent re-signing in Montreal and given that he shouldn’t cost much to re-sign, it’s fairly likely he’ll be back in a Canadiens sweater this season.
Now, so far I’ve left a name out of this discussion. Michael McCarron. He can play a heavy, physical game and would seemingly fit the role of a defensive centre. Unfortunately, in every opportunity McCarron has had at the NHL he’s looked out of place, unable to keep up with the play or contribute anything more than the occasional fight. If he is brought back, they should focus on finding the form he had in his rookie season and he can’t do that in the NHL. Instead, he should be handling big minutes in the AHL.
If the Habs wanted to promote an AHL player to the NHL for next season, they have a pair of ready-made options available. Both Chris Terry and Adam Cracknell were outstanding for the Rocket last year, in spite of a dreadful overall season for the team. Terry captured the AHL points title, while Cracknell contributed 48 points in 54 games with 27 of those points being goals. If the Canadiens wanted to add an older body, or a little scoring punch, either player could be a good option, though this depends on either free agent signing a new deal with the organization.
There is, however, a different route the Canadiens could go next season — making their fourth line into something that can be used to exploit other team’s weaknesses. Nikita Scherbak broke into the NHL last year and proved that he has the talents to make the opposing defence look absolutely silly at times. An option for Claude Julien and Marc Bergevin could be to build a faster, more skilled fourth line. In the process, this would eliminate the notion of a top six and a bottom six and instead they would have a skill-laden forward core.
With the way he played, it’s almost assured that Deslauriers will be a featured piece in that group, and it’s been argued that Carr deserves an expanded role as well. It’s worth exploring the idea of playing Scherbak and Carr on the wings, and either slotting in de la Rose as their centre or, if he has the aptitude, give Jake Evans a chance at some point to help drive the offence forward.
There’s no one correct alignment that will make up the Canadiens fourth line next season. In fact, they have a huge opportunity to mold it into something that is a departure from older versions. They can choose to run a similar group from this past season but that comes with it’s drawbacks, most notably that in terms of possession the fourth line was not great. They do have new options to better that group and all of them are either already signed, or can be re-signed for next to nothing.
Whether they opt for the skilled, younger group, or reuse a unit Julien already trusts, there are a multitude of options and they can afford the time to try out various combinations to find the one that works the best.