Sorting out the Montreal Canadiens’ fourth-line situation

Montreal’s fourth line is capable of a lot this year, but who exactly is going to claim the spots?

If there’s one thing Marc Bergevin loves to do, it’s to stock up on interchangeable players that can be slotted into Montreal’s fourth line. They don’t need to be flashy, or produce a ton in terms of points; they just need to eat some defensive minutes and give the offensive lines a chance to rest on the bench.

This year is no exception for the Habs, who possess a surplus of forwards who are battling for spots in the bottom six, some of whom will see some time on the bottom line.

The only holdover from last year’s team who played a significant role is Torrey Mitchell, who more than likely will resume his spot at centre for Claude Julien. He was a reliable veteran for both of his coaches last season, able to chip in the odd goal playing primarily defensive minutes, in addition to time on the penalty kill. It’s safe to say, given his usage, that Mitchell will be the anchor on the line, and we should expect to see him play the majority of games next year.

That leaves both wings open, and there are at least six players looking to lock down those two spots and a 13th-forward role. Charles Hudon appears to be a favourite to land a spot, as both Marc Bergevin and Claude Julien have pumped his tires at various points this off-season. With a two-year deal in hand, and three dominant AHL seasons under his belt, regular NHL hockey is the logical step for him. Being eligible for waivers for the first time may be his ticket to the top league. Despite being a skill player as opposed to a grinder, his presence can make the fourth line far more versatile and productive over the course of a season.

In the same vein, Daniel Carr could be a sneaky option for Montreal next year as well. He suffered through what can nicely be called a slump last year after a promising debut NHL season. Much like Hudon, Carr has a nose for the net, and plays a high-energy game that endears him to coaches and fans alike.

His season ended early last year due to an ugly cheapshot in the AHL. If Carr returns to form, pairing him with Hudon could give the Habs a potent punch that the fourth line has missed in the past.

Andreas Martinsen returns for another season, and Peter Holland was added for one year during free agency. It’s most likely that those two will be waived to play in the AHL, but the potential is still there for an NHL spot.

Holland has to battle with Mitchell, who is the incumbent centre and unlikely to be ousted from that role. Martinsen doesn’t have it much easier, with Hudon and Carr breathing down his neck, and both arguably better options — definitely offensively — than the Norwegian winger. Despite his physical side, using Martinsen for long stretches of time isn’t going to help Montreal, and as we saw in the playoffs opting for skill over grit can be a huge boost for the team.

The wild cards come in the forms of Jacob de la Rose and Michael McCarron. Despite solid AHL careers, neither has yet to show they’re capable of regular NHL minutes.

McCarron in particular might benefit most from spending the final year of his entry-level contract with the Laval Rocket, where he’s likely to play major minutes and can focus on developing his game. At the NHL level he won’t get the same ice time, and has shown a propensity for making impressions with his fists, as opposed to being a useful option on the fourth line.

De la Rose just finished his best season in North America, and with a solid deployment under Julien, could be a handy tool to play on the wing, or down the middle if the need arises.

Save for McCarron, all of those options are eligible for waivers, meaning those who don’t make the team will need to be made available to the other NHL teams before they can play with the Laval Rocket. That alone may seal McCarron’s fate as a minor-leaguer next year, and forces the Canadiens to think about the future of the team and not just the present when making final cuts in training camp.

There’s a wealth of options available for Julien to utilize, depending on what sort of fourth line he wants to ice on a given night. The days of sacrificing a line in heavy defensive minutes are gone in the possession-heavy NHL we’re witnessing now, and there are options available to make this group a threat every game.

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