One of the biggest laments you hear among fans of the Montreal Canadiens is about the amount of line juggling that Michel Therrien does. The weird thing though, is that even with all that line juggling, he still hasn't, at least in my opinion, ever stumbled upon the optimal lineup. He's come close, only to break it up after a couple of shifts, but seems to be most reluctant to break apart the biggest problems.
First of all, let's clarify that we're only talking about forward lines, not defense pairings. Thanks to a new tool built by hockey stats guru David Johnson, we can see how certain lines have played when together over multiple years. Before we get into what's the best, let's look at the current Habs' lines.
Max Pacioretty - David Desharnais - Dale Weise
This is the so-called "first line" of the Canadiens. On the surface, it looks pretty good in a smallish sample. They've scored 66.7% of on-ice goals, and carried a 56.8% share of shot attempts. Those are very good, first line worthy numbers. However there are several huge caveats. The line is scoring on 15% of their shots on goal, essentially double the NHL average. Pacioretty is an above average scorer, and Desharnais has a high percentage shot, but not that high. Looking at the shooting percentage of all three players when apart, it's obvious that's more luck than it is effectiveness.
Then there's the zone starts. That line is starting an absurd 73.5% of their time on ice together in the offensive zone, on a team that manages the fifth least offensive zone starts in the NHL. That is a colossal amount of resources to expend on making sure that line produces offensively.
Alex Galchenyuk - Tomas Plekanec - Brendan Gallagher
This is a legitimately solid second line. They're still getting more offensive zone starts than defensive ones, but not by much, and they're outperforming them possession-wise. They've been pretty unlucky together when you look at their numbers apart over the last three seasons, but overall, this is a good setup by Therrien. Right now, I would consider this to be the real Habs first line.
Lars Eller - Jacob de la Rose - Devante Smith-Pelly
This line has looked pleasing to the eye, but they've been given extraordinarily tough minutes, and been fairly obviously crushed in the process. Ignore the goal based stats in this sample size, but notice that each player is better outside this situation, even in comparatively tough minutes. It's a bad line so far.
Brandon Prust - Torrey Mitchell - Brian Flynn
Miniscule sample size, but burn it with fire. That's a gong show so far, and this sample doesn't include the game against Tampa Bay, where this line was even worse. I'm sure Mitchell is an upgrade on Manny Malhotra, and no offense to him or Flynn, but I'm not sure what Bergevin was thinking trading for two players from a historically bad team and adding them to a first place team. I don't get it.
The Optimal Lines
Before the new SuperWOWY tool came about, I had in my head a very specific top-six that would make the Canadiens significantly better, and as it turns out, the stats supported my hypothesis, even if it looks a little out there to a lot of people. Stick with me.
First Line: Max Pacioretty - Lars Eller - Brendan Gallagher
When you think about how often Therrien shuffles his lines, it's pretty shocking to think that this line has been together for such a small amount of time over three seasons. Then again, Lars Eller has less ice time with Pacioretty in the last four seasons combined than Dale Weise does this year. Some things don't make sense.
We're dealing with small sample sizes here, but this line absolutely destroyed tough minutes. 65.5% of shot attempts is completely absurd, even more so when it's happening with only 12.5% of your shifts beginning in the offensive zone. This is a line that has the defensive savvy, scoring ability, and forechecking power to matchup against anyone in the NHL, and still produce like mad. Why this has never been tried for a five game stretch or longer is beyond me.
This is a true, power-on-power first line in the NHL, something the Canadiens have lacked for a long time. Any bit of perceived drop in playmaking ability that you lose in swapping Eller in for Desharnais would be heavily outweighed by the forechecking prowess and offensive zone time this line would generate.
Second Line: Alex Galchenyuk - Tomas Plekanec - P.A. Parenteau
You're probably thinking that you want Galchenyuk to play center, and he will eventually. If the Canadiens keep Plekanec the next few seasons, and I expect they will, don't be surprised to see him moved to the wing at even strength. Plekanec isn't very strong on faceoffs, and even strength is statistically where he's been weakest, while he's the Habs' best special teams player. Moving to the wing could extend his career like it did for Marleau in San Jose.
This is another line that played together this season, but only for a short while, and crushed it. Parenteau is a pass-first player, and he needs his center to be able to shoot, which is why it never worked out with him and Desharnais. Plekanec and Galchenyuk can both do that, which made this line very effective. They got a nice share of offensive zone starts, which would be possible to continue if that first line can take defensive zone matchups and continue killing it.
Third Line: Michael Bournival - David Desharnais - Christian Thomas
There's nothing statistically to back this line up, they have essentially never played together. What I'm doing to build this line is working logically, with the same reasoning as I used to build the other lines. It's a small line, one that would need offensive sheltering, but you can do that with the improved top-six. All three of these players can produce offense, even if Thomas hasn't hit his offensive stride in the NHL yet. Bournival and Thomas are both voracious forecheckers whose speed disrupts teams, while Desharnais is the puck carrier on this line, who has the freedom to create away from teams' best checkers. Thomas has a hell of a shot, and with Bournival as the mucker on the line, and Desharnais setting him up, I really like the chances of this line being successful.
Fourth Line: Brandon Prust - Jacob de la Rose - Devante Smith-Pelly
Again, we're dealing with small samples and logically building out, but I like what I see here as well. Prust and de la Rose are both excellent defensively, and all three of these guys are disruptive offensively. They would be unlikely to score a lot, but this is a fourth line very few coaches would be afraid to send over the boards in important situations, and in their few shifts together, they've actually rocked it.
Depending on what you need in certain games, you can swap in Weise, Flynn, or Mitchell, you have that kind of flexibility. Simple reworking of the lines has the Canadiens running three scoring lines, and a fourth line that can chip in as well as their current third line.