All right, let's take a look at what the Canadiens roster will/could be this season, as the team heads into camp, with the current players under contract available to build a lineup. I've been itching to do this since the season ended, and then do the same for the St. John's IceCaps, but on post-free agency 'frenzy' day, when Marc Bergevin defiantly told the press corps asking if he was happy with his team as constituted, that it was "only July 2", and threw in an impish smile, I held off. He's unpredictable as a GM, but here at least he hinted that there might be more cooking in the kitchen. And there was, with the announcement a month later that Alex Semin would join the team.
The players who are being allowed to walk away are no surprise. Sergei Gonchar might have been retained in a different situation, if he'd signed a low-cost deal, he still has veteran wiles and some utility, but the Canadiens have a bounty of options on defence. Having Sergei taking minutes away from the three young d-men who'll now require waivers to be sent down to the AHL isn't wise, or even necessary. Manny Malhotra, Bryan Allen, Mike Weaver, they'd served their purpose as patch jobs which were no longer needed.
Buying out P.A. Parenteau wasn't ideal, but it's not a catastrophe either, the cap hit can be absorbed relatively easily. Since we couldn't gin up a reason to terminate his contract like the Kings did with Mike Richards, and/or bring Emperor Bettman on board with this three-card monte, we didn't have any choice but to play by the rules. Unlike the Kings.
One of the issues we had last season, the lack of pure goalscoring ability, has been allayed with the addition of Alex Semin and Zack Kassian. Alex's bona fides need not be argued, if he's in the right frame of mind and right situation, he can snipe, I'm penciling him in for 20-25 goals, accounting for the preferred icetime and linemates he'll receive, and the drive he'll have to rinse away the bad taste of the end of his Hurricanes tenure and to sign another bigger deal.
Zack Kassian is a surprisingly talented large forward, but the reason we were able to acquire him at all, let alone at such a bargain cost, should be its own note of caution. He's mercurial, and may not conform to the image that hockey people and fans believe he should project on the ice. He can use his great size to throw thunderous checks and engage in pugilistic pursuits, but this is not a consistent feature of his game. Expectations shouldn't be of a Milan Lucic-clone, he's more of a Benoit Pouliot-type with more edge, with lots of talent, but sometimes unfocused or downright unmotivated. If he can play with the drive to earn his big UFA contract, he could be a pleasant surprise and a steal for the Canadiens, another fleecing of the Canucks.
The best news of the off-season was Marc Bergevin's ability to re-sign Jeff Petry, and solidifying the Top 4 for a couple of seasons at least. He's what we hoped Tom Gilbert would be, the guy who skates with the puck with authority, clears the zone without any migraines for the coaches and fans, and has shown an affinity for jumping in on the rush and creating offence that way.
Another pleasant contract signing was Torrey Mitchell, who didn't quite wow us last season, but will replace Manny as the fourth-line centre. He's a rightie who brings lots of experience and speed, and should mesh well with the team construct. I'm excited that the team is generating good vibes and players now back up their words, their praise of the city and the New Forum with ink on new deals.
Brian Flynn, who also came from Buffalo at the trade deadline, was just more depth for the Bottom 6. It'll be interesting to see how much he'll play, whether he becomes trade-bait during the season, but as a RFA who cost little to retain, it didn't make any sense to not do so.
The great big departure is Brandon Prust, exiled to Vancouver and away from Mariepier Morin in the deal for Zack Kassian. While he was limited in talent and what he could bring to the team in terms of tangible production, the list of what he did bring, the intangibles, was lengthy. He's the type of player who'll sacrifice and work hard and stand up for his teammates. He'll be a role model for young players, a big brother on and off the ice. He'll take on any comers, even when he's often outweighed and apparently outclassed, and never be outmatched. He killed penalties, skated with abandon, assumed the mantle that was vacant when Marc Bergevin got the job, and became the self-professed "new sheriff in town". His bickering and playfighting with the kids and P.K. was priceless. He was the very definition of a great teammate. He had embraced the fans and the special culture of Montréal, with his girlfriend's help to introduce him to that realm. He will be missed.
With this preamble aside, let's look at what the lineup could be for Game 1. Note that this isn't my best guess of what it will be, but my opinion of what it should be, with the current pieces.
Assumptions: Max will be ready for the start of the season, and we don't make any trades until then to clear out some opportunities for the youngsters.
If neither of these hold up, if Tomas Plekanec and Tom Gilbert were traded to unclog some of the rosters jams we're in and to allow more icetime for the youngsters, here's what I'd like to see.
Notes: 1) David Desharnais takes a lot of flak on social media, but he's shown in the past that with two strong wingers he can be very productive. Mike Cammalleri and Thomas Vanek complained when they were taken off his line, and we know how close the relationship with Max is, on and off the ice. If we have slot receiver who can in the right scheme amass catches and yards, you can bemoan that he's not the rangy speedy WR type in the Randy Moss mode. Or you can put him in the right scheme and use him in the best way possible.
2) If I had my druthers, we'd trade away Tomas because he's in the last year of his contract, he has good value in a putative trade, and we need to stir things up, the centres we have aren't the right mix, don't get the job done in the playoffs, even though they've taken a good number of kicks at the can. This opens up an avenue for Chucky to play centre.
3) Tom Gilbert is redundant. We can clear off a bit of salary, get some return for the rightie, and free up some icetime for Nathan, Jarred and Greg Pateryn.
4) Alex Semin is a rightie who prefers to play on his off-wing on the left side. He's played both sides at various times in his career. In Washington, he played some on the left, but was often put on the RW to allow him to play with Alex Ovechkin. Since we have four strong RW'ers but are a little softer on the left side, especially if Max is out/Alex plays at centre, let's try him on the LW, at the start of the season at least.
5) The last thing the brain trust will do is to lose the assets they've accumulated lately for little or no return, so waiver situations will play a large role in the decision making. For Jarred Tinordi or Greg Pateryn or Michaël Bournival to not make the initial roster, I think it would take a disaster, or another youngster to have a Keith Acton or Kent Carlson-type of training camp, one that demands attention and unquestionably bumps one of the 'incumbents' down the depth chart. Which I don't know is possible in the span of a month-long camp.
6) The deviation from the above will be with players who are not likely at all to be claimed on waivers, guys like Christian Thomas, Gabriel Dumont and Morgan Ellis. I believe they'll clear waivers and continue their career in the AHL in October.
7) Special case #1: Mark Barberio is eligible for waivers, but I don't think the Canadiens will risk one of the other young defenceman on waivers, so the new signee will draw the short straw by process of elimination. I think he was signed as organizational depth on the blue line, and to provide veteranship and a leftie for the IceCaps.
8) Special case #2: George Holloway. He's the International Man of Mystery, a player who can be dismissed by fans as a European league longshot, but there's more to the story. It's not like he couldn't hack it in North America, but more of a case of an independent thinker who decided he preferred to continue his career in Europe rather than be stuck in the Kings' system, stuck in the AHL, waiting for an opportunity. He has obvious talent, a seasoned pro, has offensive skill, so if any players are traded away off the current roster, he'll be kept from waivers and make the 23-man roster if he has a decent camp.
9) Special case #3: Jacob de la Rose spent the latter half of the season in Montréal, where he didn't embarrass himself, earned praise from Head Coach Michel Therrien, but didn't exactly wow anyone either. I see the roster decision coming down to either him or Michaël Bournival. Since Jacob doesn't require waivers to go to the farm team, and since he didn't show that he has nothing left to learn down there, that his offensive game compared to his defensive strengths, I see him being sent down to start the season at least in St. John's. He can be a leader down there on the ice, on the Top 6, and polish up his game in the offensive end. And we wouldn't risk losing Michaël. Win-win.
10) The addition of Zack Kassian and Alex Semin has reduced the need/hope that one of the prospects win a job out of camp, Sven Andrighetto or Charles Hudon or Daniel Carr or Nikita Scherbak or Mike McCarron. If one of these guys does sneak his way onto the roster, I suspect Sven will earn the spot. He has two years of AHL experience, has evidently spent a lot of time in the gym to build himself up and counter the fear that he may be too small, and has the ability to score goals, something we need. Charles Hudon can continue his AHL journey, build on a great rookie year, and vie for a callup. The crown jewels McCarron and Scherbak get their feet wet in the pro hockey pool in St. John's.
11) I see a platoon or rotation on the bottom pairing on defence, with Nathan getting 70 games in, and Jarred and Greg each getting 40-50. This hinges on Tom Gilbert getting traded away, and a lot of wishful thinking. If not, the guys, specifically Jarred and Greg, will not waste their time practicing hard every day against NHL'ers and continuing their apprenticeship, necessarily, that way. For one season at most.
12) It's time for Alexei Emelin to finally, solidly assert himself in the Top 4. He's had flashes of promise and growing pains, injuries, a lengthy recovery from ACL reconstruction surgery, ups and downs. He has the opportunity, and the mission, to become that steady Top 4 guy who can play solidly on defence, dish out big hits and demand respect from opponents, kill penalties, and chip in some on offence as he's shown he can do. If he doesn't take that step forward, he can see himself supplanted by Nathan Beaulieu or even an improved and confident Jarred Tinordi, in a flash.
13) I'm not crazy about our backup goalie situation. I kick myself thinking how the Canadiens could have retained Devan Dubnyk last year, or have snapped up Jacob Markstrom on waivers partway during camp. Dustin Tokarski garnered a lot of support from the coaches, specifically from Stéphane Waite. He needs to have a solid season, on his own right, and not just as compared to other backups or with allowances that he's not Carey Price. The excuse that the team isn't playing with the same gusto that they do with Carey behind them is actually not an excuse for him but a condemnation. He needs to play so as to inspire his teammates, and to not let in routine bad goals.