NHL Roundtable: Habs' big flaw, next coach fired, best comeback story

Wednesday December 10th, 2014

Every Wednesday, a trio of SI.com staffers will sit down for a discussion of the hockey world's hot-button issues. This week, Sam Page, Sarah Kwak and Allan Muir talk about Montreal's big change in the middle, the next coach to hit the unemployment line, and the season's best comeback stories. First up:

• The recent struggles of the Canadiens—1-5-1 before knocking off the Canucks on Tuesday night—highlight what may be a fatal flaw in their construct: the absence of a viable No. 1 center. Can the Habs make a playoff run with David Desharnais filling the role or do they need to make a change to be considered a serious Stanley Cup contender?

Power Rankings: Blackhawks keep change at the top coming

SARAH KWAK: Is the lack of a No. 1 center a flaw? Sure. Is it a fatal flaw? That, to me, is debatable. Looking back on the last several Cup champions, they all do seem to have a marquee top line center, so I don’t deny that it’s a very important role to fill. But the question is: What constitutes a “serious contender?” Did Montreal really have a go-to No. 1 center last spring? They still managed to make it pretty far. Or what about the Rangers? Would you have considered either Brad Richards or Derek Stepan to be No. 1 NHL centers last season? I’m just saying that it can be done, but certainly, it will be a whole lot easier if the Canadiens have one. That said, the Galchenyuk experiment at center has long been in the works and they gave him some shifts there in preseason. Though they put him back on the wing to start the season, I think the taste they gave him early on has helped enormously now. He’ll be their top center before long.

SAM PAGE: Desharnais is a nifty player, but he'd only pass as a first-line center on a team that has an otherwise stacked roster—and the Habs aren't that team. He's also undersized (5'-7", 176 pounds) for a top center, which is less of a problem in the East, where Montreal doesn't have to regularly match-up with Joe Thornton, Anze Kopitar, Ryan Getzlaf and the rest of the West's big guys. But if "serious contender" here means conference finals or better, they should plan on having someone who won't get pushed around by Patrice Bergeron or John Tavares.

Luckily, there's an in-house answer. Alex Galchenyuk has gotten rave reviews this week during his audition as Montreal's top-line center. He's certainly got the build and skill you expect from someone in the role. Whether Michel Therrien has the patience to ride out the growing pains, however, should be interesting.

ALLAN MUIR: Pretty salty debut for Galchenyuk on Montreal's new-look top line Tuesday night as he, Max Pacioretty and Brendan Gallagher basically treated Vancouver to a puck-possession clinic. Therrien also got a solid response from the demoted Desharnais, who looked like a nice fit on the third line with Michael Bournival.  Still, I'll reserve judgment until we see how Galchenyuk handles some heavier competition, like Kopitar and Jeff Carter when the Kings come to town on Friday night. My guess is that he'll prove to be a work-in-progress, a guy with real potential to handle the responsibilities but probably not quite yet ready for crunch time. The Canadiens can go a long way with Carey Price between the pipes, but ultimately their center mix is going to catch up to them.

• Now that Ottawa has fired coach Paul MacLean, should other coaches start looking over their shoulders? Who do you think is next?

KWAK: I know how many times the Sharks organization has thrown its support behind Todd McLellan, but if San Jose doesn’t put itself in more secure playoff position or if it actually falls behind in any way, then I think they start taking some action.

MUIR: I could see San Jose dispensing a pink slip, too. In fact, I thought McLellan was a goner when the Sharks got pushed around by the Sabres and Panthers at the beginning of their last long home stand, but GM Doug Wilson continues to stand by him despite clear issues with his player usage and in-game management. That can't last forever, can it?

But you know, I picked Craig Berube the last time this question came up, and I'm sticking with him. Philadelphia has some deep personnel issues and it's wildly unfair to place the blame for this frustrating season at the feet of the coach, but it sure sounds like Ron Hextall is greasing the skids. Did you guys see this from a few days ago?

"Well, I can say this, there's culpability from all of us—from myself, [Berube], the assistant coaches, the players, everybody. Everybody's in this and we all have to do a better job. So, um ... and I have no plans of replacing the coach."

Not exactly a vote of confidence there.

Look, the Flyers are what they are: not a very good team. A new coach isn't going to change that, but the perception of change at least gives fans a reason to keep believing ... and to keep buying tickets. So Berube's the guy to go.

Eye Test: Justin Schultz and the virtues of keeping it simple

PAGE: The NHL's worst teams feature some surprisingly secure coaches, e.g. Dave Tippett and Patrick Roy. And according to TSN's Ryan Rishaug, everyone in Edmonton still likes Dallas Eakins. I think the Sabres really have no reasons to fire poor Ted Nolan.  So I'll give my usual answer (Randy Carlyle) a break here and say Craig Berube as well. Hextall, who yelled at his team a few weeks ago,  isn't seeing any results. He didn't hire Berube and there's some speculation that the Flyers want in on the potential Mike Babcock sweepstakes. Really, it's harder to think of reasons why Berube would stay.

• Hard to believe, but we're already a third of the way into the season. Who's your candidate for comeback player of the year?

PAGE: I'll be a Nashville homer here and plug Pekka Rinne. After missing last season with a hip infection, and playing poorly in his return, questions lingered. His save percentages had steadily declined from .923 to .910 to .902 since his breakout 2010-11 season, and he wasn't getting any younger at 32. Now he's having a season that puts him not just ahead in the Vezina Trophy race, but in the Hart discussion as well. He's also proving Tim Thomas right: If you want to have a historically good season in your thirties, just undergo grueling hip rehab.

MUIR: Rinne for sure. Ryan Miller deserves consideration, too, for the role he's played in Vancouver's early success. How about Kris Letang in Pittsburgh? The guy misses nearly three months last season after suffering a stroke and he's back in top form this year as one of the game's premier puck-moving defensemen. It's not just the points, though. It's that he's playing a simpler game, cutting back on the careless mistakes that hampered his effectiveness the past couple seasons. Here's hoping he gets over the groin issue he's dealing with now and gets back into the lineup soon.

KWAK: I'll go with the obvious: Marty Brodeur. At 42, he doesn't look like he's 24, but he is proving that he is still capable of helping a team. I'm hoping to see him reach 700 wins soon. 

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.