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Carry That Weight: Lamenting the loss of the Canadiens’ old first line

Brendan Gallagher isn’t performing at his usual standard, and that may be because he’s had two years of chemistry stripped away.

NHL: Montreal Canadiens-Workouts Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

In acting, when someone calls out “Line!” it’s a safety net. It’s a little ace up your sleeve that you can use when you need it. Not to be relied upon but certainly there.

Montreal used to have a line that was a safety net. A line that wouldn’t put up eye-popping numbers but was always there to play solid hockey and carry that weight when needed.

Last year in the playoffs, I wrote an article about the trio of Brendan Gallagher, Phillip Danault, and Tomas Tatar, lamenting the fact that Tatar was not being utilized. I compared the line to the Beatles and the gist was the Beatles still needing Ringo.

(As a small aside, one person in the comments quipped, “if comparing Tatar to Ringo is a compliment, maybe he doesn’t want to be complimented.”)

Nevertheless, the point of the article was to suggest that if you listen to any member of The Beatles and their solo music it’s just fine, but when they’re together they’re The Beatles.

This isn’t meant as a slight against Gallagher or to suggest that he can’t be an excellent player without the other two. As a matter of fact, for now maybe we should just call him John.

Whenever Marc Dumont joins my podcast he refers to Gallagher as a “cheat code” for coaches. He’s driven possession and succeeded on almost every line he’s played on. But there’s no point in denying that he put up his best numbers on that line with Danault and Tatar.

So let’s take a deeper look at the Fab 3 over the last couple of years.

Firstly, let's talk methodology. Something that bothers me is when certain people try to compare stats and manipulate the sample size. So, for example, they’re trying to look at line X. So they look at how many minutes line X played and set the minimum minutes requirement to that number. What that means is that the line they’re looking at has the smallest sample size of any line. So to avoid that I figured out the minimum minutes played for the top 35 lines in the NHL in each year I looked at. In theory, that should include at least every team’s first line.

According to MoneyPuck.com, for lines that played over 230 minutes in the 2020-21 season, the Tatar-Danault-Gallagher line led the NHL with a whopping 70.8% expected-goals-for percentage. They beat the second place line of Hyman-Matthews-Marner by almost five percentage points.

Before we start poohpoohing the North Division, let’s remember something. Despite those teams having weak depth, that line was forced to go up against the Matthews, McDavid, and Schiefele lines with regularity.

But, if you insist, let’s look at the last time the NHL played the entire NHL. The year before yielded a similar result. Danault’s line was tied for first with the Pacioretty-Statsny-Stone line in Las Vegas, at 68% xGF%.

So, if you’ll allow me to put a bow on this. I’m not down on Gallagher. I still think he's a first-line winger. I think Montreal has a lot of good pieces that can do a lot of good things if used properly. However, the most difficult thing to find in the NHL is consistency, and Montreal had it. A line does not put up numbers like that while playing very many bad nights.

So hopefully, here comes the sun, and this team can learn to come together. And one final message to the team paraphrased from John: the nightmare is over (if you want it).