Julien hoping to find right combination for Canadiens’ fourth line

Montreal Canadiens left wing Charles Hudon (54) celebrates a goal with centre Tomas Plekanec (14) and right wing Brendan Gallagher (11) as Ottawa Senators right wing Mark Stone (61) looks on during first period NHL hockey action in Ottawa on Monday Oct. 30, 2017. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

BROSSARD, Que. — They were dubbed ‘the Merlot line’, named after the colour of their practice jerseys, and without their contributions, it’s fair to say the Boston Bruins wouldn’t have won the Stanley Cup in 2011.

Shawn Thornton brought the muscle from the left side, Gregory Campbell brought the strong two-way game down the middle, and Daniel Paille injected speed from the right to make up one of the most potent fourth lines in recent history. During the regular season they combined for 29 goals and 63 points, with Campbell scoring 13 and Thornton managing career highs in goals and assists—notching 10 in each category.

And along the way they also provided energy, blocked shots, threw hits and got into fights that were essential to the Bruins building their rough-and-tumble identity.

The Merlot line may have only accounted for four of the 81 goals the Bruins scored on their 25-game run to the Cup that year, but their reliability helped turn their team into one that proved near-impossible to defend against. They were great, and if they were it had everything to do with the opportunity former Bruins coach—and current Montreal Canadiens coach—Claude Julien gave them to show it.

He’s pining to do the same with three players on this year’s Canadiens, but finding the right ones for the job has proven to be a challenge through the first 18 games of the season. Not that Julien expects he’ll just be able to bottle what he found with Thornton, Campbell and Paille in 2010-11; he’d just like to be able to depend on his fourth line for upwards of 12 minutes per game and an offensive contribution here and there.

“I’d like to have four lines that I can count on,” Julien said from the Canadiens south-shore practice facility on Monday.

He feels he’s getting closer to being able to do that after a solid performance from the line of Charles Hudon, Byron Froese and Jacob de la Rose in a 2-1 overtime win over the Buffalo Sabres this past Saturday.

“You try to find an identity to that line that’s going to give you something,” said Julien. “For some teams that’s just big and physical, and for other teams they try to put some players there that—maybe a guy who’s great in shootouts. Different teams react differently.

“I think, in our case, right now I don’t mind what I’m seeing there. Froese is a smart player, who makes great decisions even in pressure situations. De la Rose is a player with a big body that can skate and certainly has a great shot and needs to continue to develop, and Charlie gives that line some offence.”

Alex Galchenyuk is the only player to have scored from the Canadiens’ fourth line this season—his goal coming on a breakaway pass from defenceman Jordie Benn against the Ottawa Senators on Oct. 30. Michael McCarron, Ales Hemsky, Torrey Mitchell and Nikita Scherbak have all been used there, and none of them have been able to record a single point.

Neither have de la Rose nor Froese, with the former only scoring four goals and adding three assists through his first 73 NHL games and the latter only managing two goals and three assists through his first 64.

Hudon might be able to provide the spark, but one of his two goals this season was scored from the third line, the other was scored on the power play, and all four of his assists were notched from higher up in the lineup.

“I think Charlie’s biggest asset is the offensive part of his game,” said Julien. “So you have to think those things through. I am one of those coaches who’s a little bit more patient with his lines because, as I mentioned at the beginning of the year, you like to build some chemistry. If I’m going to change, sometimes I’m going to change in the middle of a game or if we’re going through a bad stretch.

“I think that fourth line last game showed me some improvement, so hopefully they can give us a few more goals than just Charlie’s two.”

Anything more would help Julien manage his bench the way he wants to, even if the Canadiens don’t have the components to put together a fourth line that would match what the Merlot line offered his Bruins in 2011.