When Bob Gainey resigned his commission at the helm of the good ship Canadiens 18 months ago, many fans had serious doubts about his successor's suitability for the job. While management post-Gainey hasn't been flawless, it's been pleasantly surprising.
One thing Pierre Gauthier has managed to do fairly well in his tenure as Habs GM is turn up just the right player to fill a void when needed. Last September, after Dominic Moore left for Tampa, Gauthier plucked an unemployed Jeff Halpern off the free agent scrap heap to take his place for less money. When Andrei Markov and Josh Gorges were lost for the season, the GM brought in some much-needed punch on D with the acquisition of James Wisniewski. This summer, recognizing the fact that the Canadiens can't contend as long as Travis Moen or Mathieu Darche are playing in the top six, Gauthier signed Erik Cole to fix the problem.
Now the Habs' skipper has just over five million dollars in cap space left, 21 players signed and a few decisions to make. While it's wise to keep a few million dollars around until training camp just in case some team needs to make an emergency salary dump (*cough*Buffalo*cough*), there's no point in keeping more than a couple of million after rosters are set. That means the Habs could certainly add a player or two from the scrap heap, assuming there's anyone out there who can help improve the team.
It would be nice to have a reliable veteran defenceman like Scott Hannan to help shore up the defence with the departures of Roman Hamrlik and Wisniewski. There's a lot of uncertainty about the health of Markov and Gorges and the NHL readiness of Yannick Weber, Alexei Emelin and Raphael Diaz. However, considering the fact that there are eight potential NHL Ds coming to camp, Gauthier's likely to take a wait-and-see approach on defence. So any tinkering that will happen in the next few weeks will probably be to the forward lines.
Right now, unless some team is willing to trade a top-line centre for Scott Gomez before camp opens, the top six forwards appear to be set. Likely, Tomas Plekanec will centre Cole and Mike Cammalleri. Gomez will play with Brian Gionta and Max Pacioretty.
The bottom six and a spare forward are still open to tinkering. Last season, one of the big differences between the Habs and other top teams was the general ineffectiveness of the third and, in particular, the fourth lines. Nobody on those lines contributed much to the scoring, but neither did they provide any degree of robust physical play. Right now, it appears as though the Canadiens will be going with three scoring lines, with Lars Eller and Andre Kostitsyn together with either Mathieu Darche or David Desharnais.
That leaves the fourth line. If the Habs are to contend, that bottom line has to have an identity. It can't remain just a melting pot for whatever spare parts (Laraque? A spare defenceman? Ugh!) don't fit anywhere else. A good fourth line should either be energetic and aggressive enough to forecheck the opponent into the ice, or tight enough defensively to play shut-down on the other team's top players.
Looking at potential fourth line candidates right now, Ryan White and Travis Moen will probably land there, with one of Darche or Desharnais. If Desharnais is to be a third-line winger, there's room for a defensive-minded centreman for the fourth line. If Desharnais is to centre the fourth line, he'll need a big winger who can play a solid two-way game. Two current scrap heapers who could fill those roles nicely are John Madden and Trent Hunter.
Madden is a bit long in the tooth at 38, but he's still able to skate and he's a shut-down star. He's not bad on faceoffs (averaged better than 52% in the last five years) which is a need the Habs must fill. He's known to be a tireless worker, a leader and a team-first kind of player. He's a three-time Cup winner. He also managed 25 points on Minnesota's fourth line last year, which was comparable to what Halpern produced in Montreal. Paired up with White, Darche or Moen, Madden could give the Habs' fourth line a defensive identity. Signing him would likely be a one-year option, in case a home-grown player like Andreas Engqvist isn't ready to take on that role full time.
Hunter, on the other hand, would bring a different look altogether to that line. He's a big man (6'3", 220 lbs) who loves to hit. He's also good for 30-40 points a year and can pinch in on a top line if necessary. He's able to play a defensive game when needed and is a right-handed shot. For a Habs fan, the most enduring memory of Hunter as an Islander is of him bearing down on the slow Canadiens defence and tormenting them into making mistakes all game long. The man was a pain to play against, which, in theory, would make him a great guy to have on your side. Hunter is a bit of a risk, though, coming off MCL reconstructive surgery that forced him to miss most of last season. On the other hand, he's still fairly young, having just turned 31, and has been cleared by both the Islanders and Devils doctors who say he'll be ready for camp.
Both Madden and Hunter would be low-cost, short-term options to help revitalize the Canadiens fourth line. Both of them could blend well with White's energy and Darche's tenacity. They both can chip in points from a bottom line. Both would be better, in his own way, than Moen, and isn't that the point of adding players? A GM should look to his team's weakest player and improve that position if he wants to make the team better as a whole. It's the hockey version of a chain being only as strong as its weakest link. Last year, the fourth line was a weak link for the Habs because it didn't really do much of anything. Adding a player who can give that line a purpose and earn it some ice time would be a help in so many ways. It would provide a defensive weapon against other teams' top players. It would help spread out ice time to keep everyone fresh late in games. And it would score a vital goal or two in a pinch. Barring an unexpected player hitting the market before camp starts, either of those players would help the Canadiens.
Of course, off-season speculation is just a time filler for bored fans. Pierre Gauthier is likely looking at all the options available and knows better than most of us what the team needs. He's proven he knows how to tweak a team that's already pretty good. If he can find a scrap heap player to make it better, we'll be in for a fun year.