In response to the challenge levelled on Twitter among Habs fans, I have decided to compile my own list of the 12 forwards I'd like to see on opening night for the Canadiens.
First line: Michael Cammalleri - Tomas Plekanec - Andrei Kostitsyn
Cammalleri: Why? Something to do with being the best player on the team to likely score 40 goals or so on the season I'd say. Cammalleri has excellent offensive zone instincts, he knows when to set up for the one-timer while his wrist shot is deadly accurate with time and space and his backhand can also deliver on occasion. He is very familiar with Tomas Plekanec after playing through a season and a playoff campaign together so they'll not be strangers. His a part of the leadership core and once he scores one goal, he's likely to have 5-8 goals in the next 10 games or so. Once he gets going on a streak, he's hard to stop from scoring and importantly, he is a 'team killer', he's got a knack for lighting up Pittsburgh's Marc Andre Fleury and the Ranger's Henrik Lundqvist. Sometimes, a guy in the lineup with a knack to score against a team is worth more than any 2-3 forwards on your team.
Plekanec: I'm quite convinced Plekanec can only improve on last season, especially with players like Boyd and Halpern added to the PK, with a possible return of Max Lapierre to PK duties and defensive forward shifts. Plekanec will see his defensive workload lightened so he can focus on offensive situations, he has great hockey sense, speed and a good shot he uses at very surprising times to beat the opposition. His creativity gives him a fantastic surprise element, he tends to set up a play or score a goal that is out of his style and utterly beats those defending againstt him because he doesn't see it coming. He's off to a running start in the pre-season, I expect at least 80 points this season from Tommy Jagr.
Kostitsyn: Oh, the man 0f the 10th overall pick in 2003, you have taken a giant amount of abuse for your selection ahead of players like Jeff Carter, Zach Parise, Ryan Getzlaf, Mike Richards, Ryan Kesler and Corey Perry. However he has shown elements that most of these players can't offer in a full package. Andrei hits like a bull, few guys can withstand his strength in the corners or open ice, not the biggest player at 6' but incredibly strong for his size. He has one of the best wrist shots in the league, he releases it and it's a goal when he's on, he can dangle and shock a goalie with a quick backhand shelf when he goes in 1-on-1 with the netminders. The issue is between the ears, Andrei had his breakout year in 07-08, with 26G and 27A along with Plekanec and Kovalev, Plekanec enjoying his own career year and Kovalev at his 2nd-best career output. Around the same time though, Sergei Kostitsyn arrived wth the Canadiens and the next two seasons, his antics weighed heavily on Andrei's mind. Choosing between your brother and your team is a nigh-impossible avenue for someone to walk and be able to keep his mind seated so he can play at the highest level of hockey. I think with Sergei exiled and Andrei free to focus on his game, he'll rebound with a line that he has shown a capacity to produce with at a high rate, 30 goals is not out of reach for him, if not 35.
2nd Line: Benoit Pouliot - Scott Gomez - Brian Gionta
Pouliot: Some considered Benny the best player in the 2005 draft after Sidney Crosby and he's shown flashes of great talent in his time. He endured a difficult junior hockey career where he dealt with the unimaginable tragedy of his father passing away while trying to become a professional hockey player. His development, generally mishandled by the Minnesota Wild organization, which has a bad history with preparing prospects for the NHL. Pouliot came over to Montreal and produced at a great pace, reading at times like a possible 40-goal scorer for Montreal with maybe a 50-goal season in the works going by the numbers. Than he was injured and the bottom fell out, he bcame soft and detached from the play and his lack of conditioning showed, for a man who stands 6'3", he didn't even weigh 200 pounds and that was costing him to battle in the NHL. I still think Pouliot can achieve things, he gained 12 pounds over the summer and he has the hands for his position and the skating, albeit his skating skills need work as he tends to fall over by himself far too often with no contact. He can deliver a hit as well when necessary, with his size he can bring the bulk to the Gio-Gomez line that would make them effective. Much like Andrei, Pouliot is considered a between-the-ears case but again, with the upside to be a much better player than what he's shown. With a sustainable two-way effort and a front of net prescence that delivers 25 goals or more, he could really help the Canadiens to some wins this season.
Gomez: The way people talk about his cap hit and his goals per dollar, you'd think he got his salary through a Ponzi scheme that robbed the Montreal Children's Hospital in the process. Gomez is not a scorer and has never been advertised as a goal scorer, he's a passer and one of the best in the game. Watch how he passes and how he sets players up, he is not just assisting, he is creating goals that would not exist otherwise. With Gionta for a full season and a choice of either Eller or Pouliot on his wing, it's not crazy to imagine Gomez tops the 55 assist mark for the 5th time in his career along with 15 goals or so to go with them. Yes he won't score as much as Plekanec but Gomez offers what few players in the NHL do, the ability to go coast-to-coast at maximum speed and carry the puck over the opposition blue line while he does it, head up. Dump and chase can be beaten especially if you don't have the bodies to dig for the puck along the boards, Gomez can transition and have the puck inside the blue line without the need for a messy chase every time. That's a valuable asset for any team to use in carrying offence. He'll have to dial back from some ill-timed penalties he took last season but generally, a solid player in all situations.
Gionta: The 28th captain of the Montreal Canadiens has a daunting task ahead of him. Success in Montreal is measured by Stanley Cup Parades and not much else. Saku Koivu knew full well the stresses of trying to a non-contending team to Contender status on his shoulders and as valiant as he was in his efforts, he never reached the ultimate prize. Gionta is of a similar stripe to Koivu, they are both players who leave it all on the ice and are rarely seen taking a shift off, let alone a game. They have a tendency to score in the big moments as well, Gionta likes to score the important goals for his team above all else off of fantastic efforts to make them happen. He has top-end speed and is not afraid of going to the net for his goals, with 28 goals in just over 60 games last season, 30+ is not out of reach for the crafty speedster considering the quality of his linemates. Gionta was my pick for captain right around the time we found out he'd spent over a week playing on a broken foot and kept scoring goals before he had to pull himself from action. Anyone who will go that for the team is a guy you want wearing a C.
Third Line: Dustin Boyd - Lars Eller - Maxim Lapierre
Boyd: Habs fans are not sure what to make of him yet. He hasn't been a big standout in camp like Ryan White, but he does bring some NHL experience and impressive junior stats with him. At 6' with speed and over 80 hits last season, he doesn't shy from the physical nature of the game and is a prototypical Bottom-6 checking forward. If his hands are indeed underrated (and he's had some quality NHL goals) than playing him with Lars Eller may be useful as Eller is more playmaker than shooter. I don't expect much, but 12 goals from Boyd would be handy along with PK shifts to take the weight off of Top-6 players serving a lot of PK minutes.
Eller: The key piece in the Halak deal, Eller has so far, shown a fluid skating ability, soft hands, he has no trouble getting into the dirty areas and doesn't shy from contact. He has not shown trouble transitioning to the North American ice from his time in the Swedish Elite League after leading his AHL team in scoring last season and being named to the AHL All-Rookie Team. The team's current best choice to flip into a Top-6 role should Pouliot or Kostitsyn falter, Eller could be the basis for a strong 1-2-3 punch at center for the team especially with Boyd and a resurgent Lapierre on his wings providing physical impact and at times, opportunistic scoring.
Lapierre: I have to admit, I was pretty ashamed for most of last season to wear my #40 Lapierre T-shirt until the playoffs and Lapierre wonder of wonders, remembered how to play his game again. Lapierre, while being notably weak on remembering to pass, has pretty good hands for a checking forward which resulted in his 15 goals in 08-09 and his two excellent goals against the Penguins in the playoffs that pushed the Habs to victory in Games 4 and 6. He can check, skate with the best of them while raising the blood pressure of any player he works against because of his tenacity and his mouth. A pest, but an effective one with hands that can score goals at the right times, Lapierre's a utility player that can go big in the right moments. If he has in fact returned to old form for the 10-11 season, the Habs will have a highly effective 3rd-liner in "Mad Max".
4th Line: Travis Moen - Jeff Halpern - Tom Pyatt
Moen: Okay, so he wasn't the super-tough grinder we expected last season, but who can forget his SH goal in Game 7 against the Penguins? Moen is an effective checker who can play and if necessary, drop the gloves, he might not win but sometimes the team gets raised up more by the guy willing to fight than who wins it, they certainly don't care when the 4th-line 3-minutes-a-game heavyweights have their prestaged bouts. Moen doesn't have a scoring touch, but again, every once in a while he will score that important goal. With a more effective line, Moen will have more freedom to play physically and follow through on his checks because his linemates will be minding their play. It won't be a big year for Moen, but it will be a quietly effective one.
Halpern: Cheapest 4th-line forward the Habs can get that doesn't involve a rookie call-up, Halpern was a bargain signing thanks to the cap crunch in the NHL. He's a right-handed shot, a faceoff specialist and a PK player, something the Habs need to take weight off of Tomas Plekanec and his heavy PK load last season. His RH shot may also earn him PP time much like Glen Metropolit's shot did last season, which would again give the Canadiens an offensive option when rotating PP personnel. If he can take a regular PK shift, win the defensive zone faceoffs while contributing 7-10 minutes a game, he's value signed and I'll take it.
Pyatt: Tom Pyatt is maybe the quickest forward the Habs have and blessed with an incredible instinct for reading the plays in front of him. If he had Andrei Kostitsyn's strength and hands, he'd likely battle for a Top 15 forward in the league position. Pyatt is still capable of a surprise play and goal now and then but the Habs are best served by how he plays, smart defensive hockey with fantastic speed that allows him to play PK time and keep up with just about anyone on the ice. Others may add more physical impact but I doubt there are many 4th-liners out there who can read and handle game situations like Tommy can. The team needs to win with smart, skilled hockey and Pyatt is definitely an element you want in that game plan.
It was hard to cut White out of this lineup, but because of the one-way deals and Pyatt's proven playoff performances, he's on the outside looking in here, as much as I love him for his season in Hamilton and hearty performances.