Sunday, January 18, 2009

How to incorporate the injured players?

Earlier in the season, when the Habs were healthy, I was nitpicking about the way the Canadiens were winning games. But now, with an entire scoring line on the shelf along with their number one goalie, to see anything other than the two points for a road game would be completely unfair.

Yes, no one wants to give up two-goal leads twice in the third period, especially not against one of the lowest-scoring teams in the league, and especially not against a division rival.

But the Habs won Saturday night, and right now that's all that matters. With two games left before the all-star break, the Canadiens have the fourth-best points percentage in the NHL and the power play is slowly climbing up the rankings, reaching 23rd at 15.7 per cent after Saturday's 1-for-5 performance.

For those who have lost count, that's an 11-2-1 record in their last 14 games, and to get an idea of how the Canadiens are consistently doing just enough to win consider that those 11 wins and three losses have resulted in a goal differential of only plus-13, with seven one-goal/shootout wins over that span.

I'm bring up all this useless information that most of you likely know for a reason, and that's the upcoming return of injured players to the Canadiens lineup. I think questions need to be asked about the makeup of Carbonneau's team and how it will change with a healthy squad, or at least a healthier one.

In Ottawa, fourth-liners Matt D'Agostini and Steve Bégin appeared to get a real boost from the addition of Gregory Stewart, and I thought that group played a great game. Over the course of the Habs current run injuries have forced Carbonneau to go with a more conventional makeup of two scoring lines and two energy/checking lines, and I don't think anyone can argue the formula's been very effective.

But this was not the plan this season, as Carbonneau was going to use his depth at forward to create three scoring lines. Except that only caused Carbonneau more headaches than anything else as he was constantly shuffling his lines in an attempt to find a good mix of forwards. Since the establishment of the Maxim Lapierre line, which, by the way, coincides with this 11-2-1 run the team is on, Carbonneau's lines have solidified and the players appear to be getting more comfortable with each other.

When Saku Koivu, Christopher Higgins and maybe Georges Laraque return, probably just after this weekend's all-star break, Carbonneau will be going back to his original formula. So what does he do? Does he play Koivu with Higgins and D'Agostini, keeping the other three lines intact but depriving himself of Bégin's penalty-killing and forechecking? Or does he replace Max Pacioretty on Alex Kovalev's line with Higgins, playing Koivu with two rookies? Maybe he could try playing Koivu with Kovalev again? With three scoring lines and the Lapierre line set in stone, where does Laraque fit in if indeed he's needed?

In any case, you get my point that there are a ton of questions to be asked when the injury situation starts to sort itself out. Most coaches have a pretty simple philosophy that you don't mess with a winning formula, but how on earth could Carbonneau not play Koivu? Higgins could probably be told to wait and make sure that shoulder is perfectly healed, but Koivu is too valuable to the team to do the same.

The one thing that has become a bit clearer is the question of who will be sent back to the minors when the injured forwards return.

Kyle Chipchura has done absolutely nothing to prove his value to the team, and it's incredible to think that as recently as September there was some question as to whether he should be filling Lapierre's role. The two are not even in the same category of player anymore, and I'm starting to wonder if Chipchura will ever flourish in Montreal. He may need a change of environment on a team with less talent up front to find his game, but it's pretty obvious to me he should be sent back down when Koivu returns.

As soon as Laraque is back it will likely mean the end of the line for Gregory Stewart, though for my money Stewart brings a lot more to the table than Laraque and is probably a more valuable player.

So the question remains as to who between Pacioretty and D'Agostini goes when Higgins comes back. Right now, Pacioretty appears to be improving with every game he plays while D'Agostini has clearly come back to earth after his scorching start, despite last night's goal. But what needs to be kept in mind is that Pacioretty played his eighth game Saturday, and while he's been very impressive, so was D'Agostini after eight games. This is a battle that will continue until Higgins returns, and Pacioretty has to be considered as the one in the driver's seat simply because he's playing with better players and getting some power play time. But it will be up to him to maintain that level of play until Higgins returns.

1 comment:

Sliver24 said...

C'mon Arp, the answer is obvious. Trade Koivu, Higgins, Tanguay and Laraque straight-up for Lecavalier. Hell, toss Dandenault in while you're at it.

All your problems are solved!

You're welcome...