The forwards who played last year were all about speed and skill. Size and strength weren't as evident. While the Habs definitely need to keep the speed and skill (see Detroit, Chicago, Washington and Pittsburgh), size and strength should also be added, where possible.
Those from last year that don't fit this model are Georges Laraque and Glen Metropolit. Laraque has plenty of size, but seemed reluctant to use it. He also has zero skill. And with the upcoming crackdown on fighting, his value is greatly diminished. Metropolit was on the smaller side, esp for a defensive forward, and had limited skill. He was also the only center to lose more than half of his faceoffs. He's a checking line center on a team that already has a more effective checking line center (Lapierre), and another on his way up (Chipchura). Both Laraque and Metropolit should be released or traded.
Gregory Stewart is similar, but should be re-signed and assigned to Hamilton. Like Laraque, he has zero skills, and is much smaller than Laraque. Still, he at least attempted to leverage whatever he had, and generally got under opponents' skin.
The rest is easy: every other UFA and RFA forward who played regular shifts last year should be re-signed. While that ensures another year of speed and skill, it also offers some (limited) opportunity to get bigger.
Maybe the biggest opportunity is for Max Pacioretty. He played responsible hockey last year with the big club, and showed flashes of being the power forward the Habs desperately need. Another player with size is Robert Lang. Hopefully he can return from that foot injury unscathed, although he was already maybe the slowest player last year -- and will turn 39 this year. But right handed, scoring centers are in short supply this offseason.
The Habs also should re-sign every man from their most potent line: Tanguay, Koivu and Kovalev. When on the ice, they were a good match for almost any line in hockey. Having Lang back will provide decent second line scoring, and provide good matchups against most opponents.
Plekanec centering the third line will be a bit like Patrice Bergeron centering the same line for the Bruins. Having that kind of scoring potential on the third line shows how deep the Habs can be. His dogged, hounding-the-puck style of play should also provide some defensive coverage, especially when paired with Chris Higgins.
Lapierre's line would then form maybe the best two-way line in all of hockey. They would provide defense, energy, size, and even a bit of scoring, especially from Latendresse and Lapierre. This line may have been the most consistent throughout the year, at least when healthy.
The lines might go something like this (free agents marked with asterisk):
bench: Sergei Kostitsyn, *Dandenault
This lineup has a right handed shot in every line (except Lapierre's which has two). It also mixes the youngsters like Pacioretty and D'Agostini amongst the veterans. D'Agostini especially needs to play with players who are defensively responsible, and can help teach him that part of the game.
Plekanec's line is almost all speed. D'Agostini is probably the fastest on the team, followed by Higgins. They'll be tough to pin down, and will blow by many an attempted hip check.
Lang's line has quite a bit of size, although a bit slower than Plekanec's. But if Kostitsyn and Pacioretty hit like they can hit, this will be a tough line to play against. This especially applies to Kostitsyn, who can deliver big hits but doesn't seem willing to do so -- except when he's pissed off. If he had the attitude of his brother, he would be lethal.
Speaking of whom, his brother will hopefully have learned to control his emotions a bit better and should make the team again. He'd make a great backup should anyone on the top two lines go out. Dandenault would provide relief for the bottom two lines, esp if D'Agostini has defensive zone issues again. Dandenault also is the 8th defenseman, so he might be seeing plenty of playing time.
So there you have it. Not much different than last year sure, but this is essentially the team that took the Habs to their best first-half record ever -- before all the injuries hit. Why mess with a good thing? Besides, the UFA market isn't brimming with superstars. If any significant changes are to come, they would have to be via trade -- and we already addressed that unlikely scenario.
To come: crunching the numbers on the various signing scenarios.