By Bob Trask – When head coach Martin St-Louis put together the line of Nick Suzuki, Cole Caufield and Kirby Dach, he probably didn’t expect the line to show the immediate success that it has had. With that line in place, the old adage of “if ain’t broke, don’t fix it” should apply. But that has repercussions up and down the lineup.
The same could apply to the usage of Joel Edmundson upon his return to the lineup. He and Arber Xhekaj formed a relatively effective pairing against a big, physical defensive team. Yes, mistakes were made from time to time but the defense crew wasn’t physically dominated. In what I consider to be an unfortunate decision, Chris Wideman was re-inserted into the lineup at the expense of Jonathan Kovacevic.
Kovacevic has averaged almost two minutes per game on the PK and has shown an ability to win battles along the boards while making many safe plays to exit the zone. He has made the occasional gamble that hasn’t worked out but for me, the pluses outweigh the minuses. Wideman, on the other hand, is deemed to be a PP specialist that the team no longer uses on the PP and he is a liability in his own end.
This is supposed to be a season of evaluation and I would have preferred to see the Edmundson/Xhekaj combo get a longer look to facilitate that evaluation. Wideman can always be called upon if necessary but at this point it seemed a little premature to re-insert him into the lineup.
Considering these factors and a few others, there are some hypothetical lineups that can be put together.
Early indications are that the Canadiens may have put together the best first line the team has seen in a long time with Suzuki, Caufield and Dach. Rather than trying to strengthen the 2nd or 3rd lines by moving Dach back to center, it may be best to leave this trio untouched.
Sean Monahan has proven to be a solid addition to the lineup despite having little opportunity to develop any chemistry with his linemates while being bounced between wing and center. He is a big, talented center who seems best served playing with equally talented players. Putting muckers, grinders or floaters on his wing seems like a waste of his talents yet he draws those kinds of partners too often.
My first choice for one of Monahan’s wingers would be Juraj Slafkovsky. He is big, strong, talented and has shown flashes of offense that could be unlocked while playing with Monahan. Slaf has shown he can play either the left side or the right side and his final position could be determined by who the other winger on that line might be. We’ll circle back that after filling out the other two lines and the extra forwards.
When I watched Christian Dvorak, Brendan Gallagher and Josh Anderson playing together it struck me that all three were players with strong work ethic but who were not necessarily elite puck handlers. Neither Gallagher or Anderson are will suited to the type of game that Suzuki and Caufield play, but when flanking Dvorak the group seems to make things happen. It isn’t always pretty but they forecheck hard, create chances and often put opponents back on their heels. I would leave this line together with Anderson playing on his off-wing (the left side).
Jake Evans and Joel Armia would make up two thirds of my fourth line. Depending upon the opponent or their relative play, I would have Michael Pezzetta and perhaps Rem Pitlick patrolling the left side. The exact components of this line could be somewhat determined by any trades. If Pezzetta and/or Pitlick, for example, were part of a package deal, Rafael Harvey-Pinard could be a replacement for one of them. He has shown Gallagher-like energy and some scoring touch in Laval.
With a spot still open on the second line, the remaining candidates would be Jonathan Drouin, Mike Hoffman and Evgenii Dadonov. At this point none have shown to be an asset to the team. Perhaps another candidate could be Jesse Ylönen who continues to show year over year offensive improvement in Laval. Ylönen is not a big, physical player but playing with Monahan and Slafkovsky he wouldn’t necessarily need to be. He is one of the best skaters in the organization, has a terrific set of hands, good vision and a good shot. All of those attributes would seem to make him a good fit on the second line with Monahan and Slafkovsky.
Promoting Ylönen and maybe Harvey-Pinard would leave Kent Hughes with an surplus of forwards on his hands. These are assets that he would probably like to maximize in any trade situation but there might be another way of looking at it. Bear with me.
Hoffman was signed as free agent and didn’t cost the team any assets. If they got nothing in return for him it would be a break even. The acquisition of Dadonov enabled the Canadiens to unload Shea Weber’s cap hit. That deal would still be a win for Hughes without getting any additional assets in a trade involving Dadonov. The Drouin experience has been an unfortunate one and it might have to eventually be chalked up as one of those trades that just didn’t work out.
I am disappointed not only in Drouin but also for him; I thought he might thrive under St-Louis but that just hasn’t been the case and he has to be nearing the end of the rope that the Canadiens have given him. Because of their respective ages, Hoffman and Dadonov never figured into the medium to long term plans of the team. It would have been nice to turn both of those players into home-run trades (or at least solid singles) but the sun seems to be setting on that opportunity.
It is also important to note that losing any or all of these players for nothing would not be the end of the world. Keep in mind that it also opens up cap space for next summer’s free agent market.
The picture on defense looks more straightforward. The combo of Guhle and Savard on the first pair along with with Harris and Kovacevic on the third (or is it second) pair both seemed to be developing nicely with the occasional gaffe. Xhekaj and Edmundson brought a physical presence in their only game together with the rookie Xhekaj adapting well to playing on his off-side. The pair made mistakes in their decisions at times but there was also a certain chemistry developing.
At the moment, those are the pairings I would go with leaving Chris Wideman to be the swing man. He sets a solid example for the younger players on the team by bringing his positive attitude to the rink every day. And he is more than skilled enough to fill in as the #7 defenseman on the team.
Unlike the forward group, the pieces are already in place with no surpluses or gaps to address. It is just a matter of deploying the existing players in a manner most beneficial to the team. Of course all of this changes again when Mike Matheson makes is return to the lineup. At that point I could see Joel Edmundson being made available in a trade if a Cup-contending team sees a need for a physical LD – as Florida did with Chiarot last year.
|CENTER||LEFT WING||RIGHT WING|
|Nick Suzuki||Cole Caufield||Kirby Dach|
|Juraj Slafkovsky||Sean Monahan||Jesse Ylönen|
|Josh Anderson||Christian Dvorak||Brendan Gallagher|
|Michael Pezzetta||Jake Evans||Joel Armia|
|EXTRA FORWARDS:||Rafael Harvey-Pinard||Rem Pitlick|
|LEFT DEFENSE||RIGHT DEFENSE|
|Kaiden Guhle||David Savard|
|Joel Edmundson||Arber Xhekaj|
|Jordan Harris||Jonathan Kovacevic|
|EXTRA DEFENSEMAN:||Chris Wideman|
At some point changes will have to be made, particularly among the forward group. The three players who seem most at risk to me are Drouin, Dadonov and Hoffman and my expectation of any kind of tangible return is diminishing daily. If none of this group can be traded without throwing in a sweetener, waivers also become a definite possibility. A trade involving a defenseman could also be in the cards but that would likely be later in the year.
In the meantime, the Habs’ braintrust is undoubtedly looking at all the possible combinations as the crunch time for roster decisions approaches. Habs fans have more to watch than just the exciting style of play adopted by the team under Martin St-Louis – they can watch an organization continue to grow and develop. There are going to be some dizzying moments both on and off the ice.