It is often said that the Montreal Canadiens have not had a true top centre in 25 years, however the definition of what makes a player a true top centre remains somewhat fluid.
It typically breaks down into several key points for the Montreal market: Scoring prowess, playoff success, and size.
The last player who is generally credited, under this criteria, as the last true top centre the Canadiens had is Vincent Damphousse. In nearly seven seasons with Montreal, he put up four 90+ point seasons, and is the last player to hit the 40 goal plateau for the Canadiens, accomplished in 1993-94. By the 1997-98 season Damphousse began to fade, putting up only 59 points, and the following year, faced with an expiring contract and unwilling to give him a raise, General Manager Réjean Houle dealt the captain to the San Jose Sharks for a fifth-round pick in 1999, a first-round pick in 2000, and a second-round pick in 2001. (The most notable player obtained from those three draft picks was Marcel Hossa).
During the off-season following Damphousse’s trade, Houle acquired veteran centre Trevor Linden from the New York Islanders for a first-round pick in 1999.
“We’ve already said that we were looking for a physically imposing centreman and Linden fits the bill to perfection. He’s a guy who brings leadership, maturity, and a good work ethic. [...] We hope that the message is clear to everyone: we want to win in Montreal.” said Houle to La Presse on May 29th, 1999.
Houle immediately signed the veteran forward to a four-year contract at a price tag not much better than Damphousse’s new deal with the Sharks. Linden’s new contract paid him $3.75M per season, while Damphousse received $18M over four years, $4.5M per season. Linden proved to be a bad substitute for Damphousse, putting up 0.6 points per game (PPG) in an injury marred season where he only played 50 games. Meanwhile Damphousse went one to have three more 20+ goal seasons with the Sharks. A year after Linden was acquired by Houle, he was traded away by his replacement André Savard. Linden played a total of 107 games with the Habs for 63 points (0.59 PPG).
The trade itself was not for performance reasons, but rather a financial decision that was made, taking into consideration of course Linden’s injury history.
“This trade went the way that we wanted it to”, said Savard to La Presse on March 14th, 2001. “First of we get two good skilled players (Richard Zednik and Jan Bulis). Also we save some money in the end. We will pay a portion of Linden’s salary, but when all is said and done, this trade allows us to save three million dollars that we will invest this summer in free agency. We want to get more forwards.”
The emergence of first-round draft pick Saku Koivu as leader on and off the ice helped attenuate the Linden misfire. Unfortunately a series of injuries in the 1999-00 season derailed Koivu, just as he was expected to start taking over from Linden as the Canadiens’ top centre. Suddenly the Canadiens were left without either of their top two centres for major parts of the season.
After Linden’s departure, a well-documented battle with cancer in the 2000-01 and 2001-02 seasons limited Koivu to just 81 games over three seasons in the prime of his career.
In 2001-02 the Canadiens counted on veterans Yanic Perreault, Doug Gilmour and Joé Juneau to lead the offence, but results were not great.. Combined, these players didn’t match Damphousse in his prime years with the Canadiens. Koivu remarkably returned towards the end of the season, and immediately propelled the Canadiens to their first playoff birth in four seasons.
Koivu returned for good at the start of the 2002-03 season, and put up four consecutive seasons of 0.80+ points per game, a remarkable feat worthy of a top line centre. The main knock against Koivu’s tenure is of course the lack of a Stanley Cup win, something that every previous top centre, including Damphousse could boast. Generally history tends to downplay Koivu’s legacy in the role because of the questions about his size, but in terms of the quiet composed leadership that he brought to the team, he was among the most memorable. He rarely lost his cool under a barrage of reporters questions, and through his charitable works became a very respected figure in Montreal.
During the 2003-04 season the heir apparent to Koivu began to emerge, and it was Mike Ribeiro, a second-round draft pick in 1998. He was scoring at a similar pace as Koivu, and for the first time since the Damphousse and Mark Recchi era, the Canadiens had two centres who were scoring above 0.80 points per game. But personal problems plagued Ribeiro, and a few years later he was traded out of Montreal to Dallas for defenceman Janne Niinimaa. It’s considered one of the more lopsided trades in Habs history, but done for Ribeiro’s and the team’s own good.
Ribeiro’s loss was Tomas Plekanec’s gain, as he got promoted to center the second line, streamlining his development.
Plekanec ushered in a new era of centreman for the Montreal Canadiens. He was not the flashy centreman, but he was an incredibly reliable two-way centre, and often times was the one who had the best chemistry with the best scorer on the team. He counted five consecutive 20+ goal seasons, something that not even Damphousse was able to accomplish with the Canadiens.
At first it was right winger Alex Kovalev and left winger Andrei Kostitsyn. Then came Michael Cammalleri. Plekanec was the perfect guy to complement these offensively gifted forwards who led their teams in points.
Plekanec was generally tolerated by fans, but everyone recognized that he was top line centre by default. However he was never detrimental to the Canadiens since he had a complimentary skillset to the finishers who relied on his steadiness.
When Koivu’s contract expired in the 2009 off-season, General Manager Bob Gainey chose to pivot the team allowing Saku Koivu to go to unrestricted free agency, and instead traded for centreman Scott Gomez.
“We are extremely pleased to have acquired a player of the caliber of Scott Gomez,” Montreal GM Bob Gainey said to NHL.com. “He is an outstanding playmaker and an excellent skater. Having won the Stanley Cup twice with the New Jersey Devils, he brings to our team a lot of playoff experience. Scott is an elite player who will certainly contribute to the success of our team for years to come.”
Gomez was expected to be top line centre that Bob Gainey thought would take the Canadiens into the next decade. In his first season with the Canadiens in 2009-2010, Gomez put up 0.76 points per game, which was a very respectable figure, and in fact was the same scoring pace that Saku Koivu put up the year prior. Even more impressive is that the kept up the same scoring pace in that year’s playoffs.
But Gomez’s salary was massive, the richest contract in Montreal’s history, and Gomez was just not living up to the unrealistic expectations of the contract - even though it was not given by the Canadiens - nor of the return sent to the New York Rangers to acquire him.
In his second year he fell to 0.48 points per game, and finally 0.29 in his final season by which point he was centering the fourth line, and occasionally scratched. Certainly was not the replacement for Koivu that Bob Gainey intended, and new general manager Marc Bergevin’s first act was to buyout Gomez from the remainder of his contract.
Recently Gainey admitted to the failure of this trade to La Presse by stating that “We went all in and we lost”.
In recent years, Tomas Plekanec transitioned to a more defensive role on the team, which allowed an unheralded forward to take his spot on the top line, primarily due to the chemistry with the team’s top winger, Max Pacioretty, a perennial 30-goal scorer for the Canadiens. David Desharnais, an undrafted centreman, fought his way up the ranks of the ECHL and AHL to ultimately defy the odds and centre the Canadiens most prolific scorer.
But Desharnais was limited in the role, and his production was never on par with Plekanec and the others who preceded him. He did have one season with a 0.74 points per game, but he never reached the 20-goal plateau and was mainly a feeder for Pacioretty. But no one ever questioned his heart. He wasn’t a bad player but many fans soured on him because he was constantly put in a position to punch above his weight.
During the summer of 2017, Bergevin traded for talented young player Jonathan Drouin. The career winger was an interesting addition to the Canadiens, as in it wasn’t quite clear at first where he would fit on a team that was still counting on Alex Radulov to return to the fold. Quickly clues began to emerge when Drouin began centering Pacioretty in summer workouts. Sure enough, Pacioretty was partnered with Drouin right from the start of training camp. Time will tell how Drouin will develop as a centre and whether he will be able to become the top line centre that the Montreal fans really want.
Obviously the jury is still out on Drouin, but recent comments by Bergevin lead us to believe that the centreman role is not in Drouin’s future. At this point there is no evident succession plan in this role.
History has shown that trading for a centre has been a miss way more often than it has been a hit. Linden and Gomez are two cautionary reminders that acquiring a top line centre is neither easy nor a sure bet, and Vincent Lecavalier could have been added to this list as well if Bob Gainey (or Brian Lawton) had his way.
The Canadiens tried numerous times to draft centre in the first round of the draft, but were usually met with disappointment. Eric Chouinard, Kyle Chipchura, and Louis Leblanc are a few examples that fall in that category. And what to make of Alex Galchenyuk? Where will history place him when all is said and done? Michael McCarron appears to be approaching a supporting role with the Canadiens at best, unless he has a watershed moment in the AHL.
Essentially ever since Saku Koivu wasn’t re-signed in 2009, the Canadiens have failed to find a suitable replacement to be the franchise top line centre. It’s not quite the 25 years that everyone is talking about, because that undercuts Koivu’s massive contribution to the team, but it’s still a sufficient length of time to be concerned.
For the benefit of those who would also bring playoff performance into the discussion of whether Koivu was on the level of Damphousse, the answer is yes in terms of individual production, but no in terms of “but did he win the Stanley Cup?”
However, the difference in perception between Damphousse (and those before him) and Koivu could be boiled down to the lack of understanding of eras. Not only did the number of teams in the league increase dramatically, but scoring dropped dramatically as well making Koivu’s numbers in context look even better.
The only thing that could keep Koivu from being perceived as a number one centre is simply the success of the team - and more specifically management - around him.