The story of the 2014-15 Montreal Canadiens was, more or less, all about one guy. It was an easy narrative for media and fans alike; the team's chances lived and died in the capable hands of Carey Price. After all, the eventual Vezina winner had a season for the ages and stole his fair share of points for the Atlantic Division champions.
The 2015-16 edition of the Canadiens seem determined to write a different story.
It's almost hard to believe, some nights, that this is the same team that struggled their way to one-goal decisions throughout much of last season. It might not be perfect every night, as the Habs have undoubtedly been outplayed on several occasions in this young season, but more often than not they seem to be a team ready to turn the corner and become one that is about much more than just their best player.
There is a whole host of factors that go into the hot start the Canadiens have had, and each can be discussed ad nauseam. Without question, one such reason is that the Habs have been able to rely on consistent secondary scoring throughout this early season.
Michel Therrien has been hesitant to put a number on any of his lines, and with good reason. It seems as though on any given night, you could pick a line at random and it could be the one that makes the difference.
In recent games it has been the "second" line of Alex Galchenyuk, Lars Eller, and their "mystery right winger" that has played the least amount of minutes. Going back to the start of the season however, the minutes have been dispersed very evenly as the Habs have been able to roll with four effective trios. One of the most effective, in stark contrast to 2014-15, has been the fourth.
Can we still call it the fourth line? Torrey Mitchell and Brian Flynn each played over 15 minutes against the New York Islanders on Thursday night, while Devante Smith-Pelly was on the ice for a little over 13 minutes in his own right.
While the spotlight is (rightfully) shining on Dale Weise for his contributions thus far, Mitchell has certainly been just as surprising an offensive threat. Having scored five goals already this year, the Quebec native is just four shy of his career high.
Despite many of his shifts starting in the defensive zone, Mitchell has been able to work his way into top-quality scoring areas - his 10 individual high-danger scoring chances ranking fifth on the team, just one behind Eller and Galchenyuk.
Mitchell may be the "star" of the fourth line, but he isn't the only one making it work. Smith-Pelly, who has also spent time on Galchenyuk's wing, has been one of the most-improved players on the club since last season.
Considered to be on the outside looking in by many at the start of training camp, Smith-Pelly came in lighter, faster, and seemingly more determined. Per 60-minutes of ice time, no Habs players have been on the ice for more high-danger scoring chances than has Smith-Pelly, whose newfound blend of speed and aggression might indicate he is finally delivering what was advertised.
Paul Byron and Flynn have been useful role players in their own right, with Byron especially endearing himself to fans as a result of his two highlight-reel, short-handed goals. Opposing units have had trouble keeping up with the quickness of the Habs' fourth line, making for no easy match-ups and no time for a breather.
A Significant Difference
The overall success of the fourth line has been one of the biggest factors in the Habs' early-season fortunes. A team that a year ago was chastised for its lack of goal scoring has turned things around; now leading the league with 55 goals through 15 games. While Weise and Max Pacioretty have led the charge, it has been the fourth line that has made, arguably, the most significant difference in this season compared to last.
In the Canadiens' first 15 games of the 2014-15 campaign, the fourth line scored exactly none of the team's 33 goals. Secondary scoring was, essentially, non-existent. In comparison, the four players who have split the majority of their time on the fourth line this season have combined for nine goals, making up 16.4% of the Habs total markers. This is, of course, a gigantic boost for the Habs' offense, with those nine goals making up nearly half of the growth in their goals scored.
While it would be unreasonable to think a player like Mitchell will continue to score on every fourth shot, the Habs' fourth line — made up entirely of players who were not part of the organization this time last season — has proven it can contribute offensively when needed, giving the more natural scorers a bit of leeway on their off-nights.
Of course, the headlines are reserved for the likes of of the top goal-scorers and Mike Condon, as they should be, but it's clear that the Habs would not be in as comfortable a position as they are without the consistent reliability of their fourth line.