By Bob Trask – At the moment, the Montreal Canadiens have a full roster of 23 players with three players (Joel Edmundson, Mike Matheson and Emil Heineman) on the injury reserve list. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. The Habs are running with 15 forwards and only 6 defensemen on their roster. One injury to a defenseman, even short term, or the flu bug could throw the situation into disarray. In addition, Edmundson seems to be inching closer to being ready.
It is obvious to even the most casual of observers that decision time is approaching for Kent Hughes. But who goes and who stays as players come off the injury list.
The return of Edmundson would leave the Canadiens with seven defensemen on the roster and that is the preferred number for most NHL teams. An argument could be that Chris Wideman has been the least effective recently but his salary cap hit is only $762,500 and that is an ideal figure for a 6th or 7th d-man on an NHL team. When Matheson returns the picture changes again but that might not be for another 4-6 weeks. In the near term it seems unlikely that any major changes will be made on the blueline.
The starting centers for the Canadiens in the game against the Blues were Nick Suzuki, Sean Monahan, Christian Dvorak and Jake Evans. All played well even thought Evans had a tough night in the faceoff circle winning only 9% of his draws. Switching Kirby Dach to right wing on the Suzuki line seemed to work and in the short to intermediate term he may continue to play there. That leaves the Canadiens with four centers plus a couple of guys like Dach, Rem Pitlick and Michael Pezzetta who can play there in emergencies. That is as solid and deep a lineup as the Canadiens have iced at center in a long time and I don’t see any of them going anywhere in the near future.
The picture begins to get more complicated when analyzing the wing positions. In the team’s first nine games, Martin St-Louis has not been hesitant to switch his wingers from the left side to the right side so I won’t differentiate between right and left wing. If the Caufield – Suzuki – Dach line stays intact – and maybe it should for a while – that only leaves three positions available on each wing plus a couple of extra forwards for a total of eight positions available.
Slafkovsky looked good in his return and it looks more and more like he will stick with the NHL team. Gallagher and Anderson are unlikely to go anywhere. That leaves five open spots. The remaining candidates are Evgenii Dadonov, Hoffman, Drouin, Armia, Pitlick, Pezzetta and Heineman.
Starting with the most obvious, Heineman is likely to return to Europe when he comes off the IR. Two things would have to happen to change that. An active player would have to be traded or injured AND Heineman would have to show enough to earn a shot at a job. What is more likely is that he would be sent to Laval for a short rehab stint before heading across the Atlantic for the remainder of the season.
Michael Pezzetta differentiates himself from a few of the other contenders in that he brings and element of sandpaper to the lineup and he has played center in junior. Those two factors combined with his cap friendly contract make him a keeper.
Armia also provides some size and muscle that Hoffman, Drouin and Dadonov don’t. At the same time, Hoffman has been playing some decent hockey even if it doesn’t show up on the score sheet. Having said that, I would be hesitant to use him on the point on the PP. He is a shooter first and there a better positions to use shooters than there.
All of this brings us to Drouin and Dadonov. While it’s still early, neither has lived up to my expectations and it feels like one of them will have to go soon – and maybe both. I really thought that under St-Louis, these were two players who could benefit the most. It hasn’t turned out that way yet and time is running out.
The decisions made by Kent Hughes upon the return of Joel Edmundson will be a reflection of his and coach Marty St-Louis’ vision of the team. It may be far different from what I have outlined here or it may be close. Only the braintrust of the Canadiens knows that answer, and it’s an answer that will be revealed to us with ongoing roster moves. It is also a vision that will be constantly updated as some players exceed expectations and others fall short. As always is the case with NHL rosters, the situation is a fluid one.
What seems to be the case is that a forward will lose their roster position when Edmundson returns, if he returns in the coming days. The situation would be entirely different when Matheson returns if the rest of the defense corps is healthy. That would leave the Canadiens with eight defensemen on the active roster – one too many for the liking of most coaches and GMs. But we will leave that discussion for another day, closer to the time when Matheson returns.