Starting at the top:
For the bulk of the season, this has been Higgins/Koivu/Ryder. Latendresse filled in for Higgins for a month or two when he was out with an ankle injury.
Thanks to Montreal's magnificent power play this year, Koivu's counting numbers (16G, 29A) aren't too far off his usual pace. Unfortunately, his line has been getting absolutely killed at even strength.
Koivu was good for about 0.55 points per game at even strength from 2002 to 2006. This season he's at a 0.3 ppg clip.
Believe me - I've tried desperately to find a way to blame his struggles on his linemates, but it just doesn't wash. Here's a chart tabulating GF/GA for the Koivu/Ryder combination for the last three seasons:
In the two previous seasons under Julien and Gainey, the Koivu line has had basically the same role as it does this season. The checking line (Juneau, then Bonk) has had the tough assignments against the opponents' top lines and Koivu's line has always been the second option. From '03 to '06, Koivu/Ryder were good for 3.4 GF/60 and 2.7 GA/60 at even strength. This season they are at 2 GF/60 and 4 GA.
That's a huge swing. From +0.7 per 60 to -2.0 per 60.
So what the hell happened? It's hard to fathom how the ES numbers could drop so drastically with so little change in personnel. If anything, goaltending has been better this year. The coaching has been the same - defensive and conservative - for years. The drop off can't be blamed on being saddled with the rookie (Latendresse) while Higgins was out because their numbers were actually better over that period. Higgins has been playing hurt, but I can't see that causing a 2.7 goal per 60 swing. Ryder has always been a sub-par defensive player, but it's hard to imagine him suddenly turning his line into suck in his third NHL season.
The one difference I can think of between this season and prior seasons? Saku Koivu's eye injury.
This has been less stable than Koivu's trio. Samsonov/Plekanec/Kovalev have been the most common, with Perezhogin and Latendresse occasionally filling in. Their role has been similar to that of Ribeiro's line in the past: soft opposition, few defensive zone draws, less play when trying to hold a lead.
That is why I'm not prepared to cut Samsonov and Kovalev much slack. Yes, their +/- numbers are far better than Koivu/Ryder, but they have been getting very soft icetime. Their job is to score goals on the other teams' roster filler while Bonk/Koivu try to hold the fort against the stars.
If Koivu's line has been failing at their role, the Kovalev line has been failing just as much at their own role. Samsonov and Kovalev are being asked to do exactly what they've done their whole careers - play plum shifts and rack up points. They're both way off last season's pace.
While Kovalev's struggles might be injury related, I'm willing to bet that Samsonov's season-long pout has been due to a lack of time on the first PP unit. The Habs' top unit of Koivu/Ryder/Kovalev/Markov/Souray has been either the best in the league, or damned close. Sorry, Sammy, you're not going to displace one of those guys.
Bonk/Johnson have been the most reliable pairing all season. This is Carbonneau's checking line and they have really been carrying the mail at ES. Perezhogin has been the most common LW, with Latendresse and lately Samsonov getting some shifts. Perogy's numbers look great, but that's solely because he was riding the coattails of Bonk/Johnson during their best run of the season.
They're the first option when the opposition's best is on the ice. For that reason, they have benefited immensely from being on the ice with Carbo's top D pairing of Markov/Komisarek. It's noteworthy that the Koivu line most often has to contend with the on-ice hijinks of Rivet/Souray at even strength, while both the Bonk and Kovalev lines both get to reap the benefits of having the Markov pairing as their most common defencemen. See the most common teammates at the behindthenet page here.
This line has been a pleasant surprise all season. Does that make Bonk a better or more valuable ES player than Saku Koivu? That's hard to answer. Intuitively, I think Koivu could do Radek Bonk's job more effectively than Bonk could do Koivu's. But the enormous drop in Koivu's play this season has shaken my confidence in him.
In the 'other' category fall Begin, Streit, Lapierre, Downey and Murray. There's not much to say here - these guys are not the ones deciding the games.
The problems at forward are broader and deeper than the problems on defence. Basically, everyone sucks except for the checking line. Looking subjectively at rosters across the NHL, I'd say that the Canadiens don't have a centreman in the top 20 in the league. I might even have to bump that down to top 30, given Koivu's production this season. The team doesn't have a winger in the top 50 in the league. When I watch a game, I see maybe five forwards who make me feel safe when on the ice with a lead in the final minutes: Bonk, Johnson, Koivu, Higgins and Plekanec. The rest are PP specialists, kids and 'energy' players - guys who need to be sheltered from situations like that. The forward ranks are out of balance.
The peanut on top of this turd sundae is that Bonk and Johnson - the sole bright spots up front - are going to be UFAs this summer. The rest of this motley crew is either signed or a RFA.
The lack of scoring punch is nothing new for the Montreal Canadiens. Their record in drafting forwards over the last dozen years must be among the worst in the league. Of the batch of highly touted kids from recent drafts - Perezhogin, Higgins, Kostitsyn, Grabovski - none look like they're going to suddenly turn into star forwards.
The alternative to drafting star forwards is signing them once they're UFAs. That isn't going very well, either. Big names don't want to play in Montreal, says Sheldon Souray:
"You have a lot of people who are influenced by what they read in the papers, which is a downside of playing in Montreal... It's not an easy place to play. Look at some of the free agents who have turned down the opportunity this summer to play here, for some of the reasons that everybody knows - the media hiding behind bushes, starting rumours... When hockey's a religion, people are impatient."
Yes, the reasons are plentiful: The media, the taxes, the defensive system, the language issue, the weather...
And that's why the team was stuck with Sergei Samsonov. He must have been a rash desperation signing after plans A(rnott) and B(rendan Shanahan) failed. Samsonov was likely somewhere around plan E or F. Surely, Bob Gainey saw the spots on this leopard before signing him but what else could he do? He had the cap space, the team needed a forward, and Samsonov was the best available.
The worst of the Kovalev/Samsonov deals is yet to come: This offseason, Datsyuk, Briere and Gomez become UFAs.