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Therrien running out of time to disrupt Habs’ forward lines

Montreal Canadiens head coach Michel Therrien considers his forward lines during a recent home game against the Boston Bruins on March 12, 2014.

Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

Business theory seldom wants for buzzwords, and one of the terms particularly in vogue within the tech industry is "disruptive innovation."

It's not known whether Montreal Canadiens head coach Michel Therrien is an avid reader of management books, but he has certainly shown a willingness to disrupt his lineup.

But as Therrien searches for solutions to his team's goal-scoring woes he is hamstrung by a problem at least partly of his own making.

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While he's been active with mixing his lines and defensive pairings this season – stats show he has tried more than 90 line combinations for each of his centres – he's been more willing with some than with others.

Most NHL coaches build their lines around regular duos – sticking with the Silicon Valley riff, former Habs coach Jacques Martin was an early adopter – and Therrien is no different.

The problem is that thinking necessarily limits the avenues for change.

For example, centre Tomas Plekanec, who is generally matched up against the opposition's top line, has played nearly 90 per cent of his even-strength shifts this season with right wing Brian Gionta according to line combination stats from

Top-scoring forward Max Pacioretty has spent roughly 80 per cent of his shifts with regular centre David Desharnais – the number would be higher were it not for an early-season injury to the former and a lengthy offensive dry spell from the latter.

Even the slumping Lars Eller, he of the one point in 24 games, has spent over 40 per cent of his ice time at even-strength flanked by 20-year-old phenom Alex Galchenyuk.

Thus, when you add a top-quality offensive piece like Thomas Vanek, acquired at the trade deadline, it can take some time to find the right fit.

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But hey, at least the stakes are high.

As Therrien strives over the final 15 regular-season games to create a balanced, three-line scoring attack – the key to making noise in the postseason – he has limited his experimentation regarding Vanek to playing him with either Pacioretty and Desharnais (where he'll start on his off-wing Saturday against the Ottawa Senators) or with the defence-first pair of Plekanec and Gionta.

"[Vanek's] got to make some adjustments to his game. I understand that he's confident on the left side, he's been playing there most of his career, but at times you've got to adjust with the players that you've got and put together lines that you think that you'll have success as a team," Therrien said after a 90 minute team practice during which injured goalie Carey Price complete his longest workout since the Olympics (he's still listed as day-to-day).

Former Vanek teammate Jason Pominville, now with the Minnesota Wild, told La Presse the Austrian is at his best and most comfortable on the left side, ideally playing with a right-shooting centre such that the shooting angles for both are more advantageous.

Might make sense, then, to try Vanek with former Buffalo teammate Daniel Brière, a righty, as his centre.

Or perhaps take Galchenyuk, the Habs centre of the future, and pair him with Vanek on his left and Brière on his right? How about breaking up Plekanec and Gionta, sticking Vanek on the left side, someone else (Brière? Galchenyuk?) on the right, and giving the line a primarily offensive vocation?

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It might work, it might not, either way it doesn't appear that level of tinkering is forthcoming.

Galchenyuk will be reunited with opening-day linemates Brendan Gallagher and Eller (who must be suffering from mission confusion, having seen 109 line permutations this season.)

Players, as they must, take the juggling in stride.

Eller alluded to the familiarity he already feels with Gallagher, saying "you know he's only going one way."

"Lines are going to change, it's a long season, no team is going to use the same combinations for a whole season, coaches are just trying to find different little clicks … as players, whoever you're dealing with, my game stays the same," said Gallagher, whose unit with Pacioretty and Desharnais has been the Habs' most-used combination this season. "When you do change lines you try and talk to each other and figure stuff out."

Implicit in that statement is this: time will necessarily be lost trying to figure things out.

And time for the Habs is short; after this weekend's back-to-back against Ottawa and Buffalo, they will have less than a month to find the elusive three-line, multiple-wave attack that tends to pay big dividends in the postseason.

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