First Line Vacancy – RW

Through the first 5 games of the season, the Montreal Canadiens have a more than respectable record of 3-1-1 and fans should be more than pleased with that result. But the result comes with a disclaimer. The first line of the Canadiens seems out of sync.

A glance through social media posts makes it clear that one topic is verboten and that is any critical analysis of Nick Suzuki’s play. But on a team that has dominated the opposition when it comes to 5v5 scoring, Suzuki is a -3. Yes, it is a poor statistic but it is still somewhat telling. Suzuki has one even strength point this season at it has come in OT in a 3v3 situation, so something isn’t working.

The problem lies, in my opinion, that Suzuki is only working with 2/3 of a line at the moment. He and Cole Caufield have always had amazing chemistry but finding that final piece to the puzzle isn’t something that the GM or coaching staff have been able to do… yet.

In the off-season, many were on the Rafael Harvey-Pinard bandwagon, a good player in his own right but not necessarily a fit with the way the Suzuki and Caufield play the game. His scoring stats last year dazzled but few paid close attention to his unsustainable shooting percentage that allowed him to reach those heights. What everyone should have been watching is whether RHP’s skillset was complement to the Suzuki and Caufield line. It isn’t. He has a place on the team but playing on Suzuki’s flank is not it.

Brendan Gallagher’s name has come up and it may come up even more with his quick start to the season. But Gallagher seems to have been thriving on the 11 minutes a game that has been allocated to him. Asking him to keep pace with Suzuki and Caufield for 18+ minutes per game is asking too much. Keeping him fresh has paid dividends, besides which, he seems to have developed a bit of chemistry with Tanner Pearson and Sean Monahan.

That also takes Monahan out of the equation for an even strength RW on the first line. Keep him on the 3rd line while also giving him PP and PK responsibilities.

Josh Anderson is another who has been tried as Suzuki’s RW with limited success. His bull in the china shop, shoot first mentality hasn’t added value to the first line. With Alex Newhook and Juraj Slafkovsky as linemates, we are beginning to see some chemistry develop. There’s a fit there but it’s not perfect and Newhook has been the weakest on the team when it comes to faceoffs. The potential to grow into a better line is there.

That leaves Jesse Ylonen, (currently playing on the 4th line with Jake Evans and Michael Pezzetta) along with Joel Armia as candidates to try on the first line. Neither one is likely to be the answer. Ylonen seems to have settled into a role as a defensively responsible 4th line player who can kill penalties and contribute on offense occasionally. I don’t want to dismiss the idea of Armia entirely but he seems to be a better candidate for a trade than a promotion.

So the vacancy remains.

The situation will be further complicated when Christian Dvorak returns in the next 10-14 days. That would leave the Habs with 5 centers. Does coach Martin St. Louis toy with the idea of pulling Monahan out of his successful role between Gallagher and Pearson freeing him up to play with Suzuki and Caufield, with Dvorak slotting in as 3rd line center? It’s certainly an option.

So is moving Newhook to RW on the 1st line with Monahan moving between Slafkovsky and Anderson. Or does Slafkovsky move to RW on the first line with Monahan and Newhook playing together on the 2nd line with Anderson? In my mind, Slafkovsky brings a more complementary skillset to the 1st line. Newhook could benefit from playing with Monahan, with a veteran taking more of the critical face-offs and Newhook getting his fair share, too.

Waiting in the wings is Joshua Roy and because he knocking on the door, it feels like the Canadiens are in no rush to find a long term solution to the vacancy on RW. General Manager Kent Hughes may feel that he already has a long term solution in Roy and simply needs a short term one as bridge to Roy’s eventual arrival.

If none of these options are palatable, it brings us to potential trades as a possible solution to the finding a fit at RW on the first line. What would that player ideally look like? Here are some attributes that the Canadiens could be looking for.

  • A physical player and a strong forechecker to dig the puck out for his teammates
  • A reliable defensive player who can come back hard and who excels at getting the puck out of the d-zone
  • A somewhat creative player who can use his offensively gifted linemates to create scoring chances
  • A player with an expiring contract on whom a long term decision can be made later in the year.
  • And finally, a player who costs little in the way assets in a trade.

Is that player a unicorn? A scroll through Cap Friendly tells us that he probably is

Whatever the outcome, unless the Suzuki line begins to click and create some scoring chances, Kent Hughes will be looking at ways to help his dynamic duo.

Caufield of Dreams – Build It And They Will Come

By JD Lagrange – The Canadiens have (finally) announced that they have agreed to terms on a new contract with winger Cole Caufield. The young prolific goals’ scorer will have at least 62.8 million reasons to smile over the next eight years! As predicted by yours truly, Kent Hughes has respected his team’s pay scale as Caufield’s $7.85 million cap hit is just below Nick Suzuki’s $7.875 million.

Selected 15th overall at the 2019 NHL Draft by the Canadiens, the 22 year old diminutive sniper has 53 goals and 84 points in 123 games so far in his young career, with a differential of minus -35. Since Martin St-Louis has taken over as the team’s head coach, Caufield has scored 48 goals in only 83 games. He was shut down last season with a shoulder injury, which he had surgically repaired.

A risk

No need to say, Habs’ fans are ecstatic at the news of this signing… and rightfully so. However, in spite of all of the excitement, this contract does not come without risks.

Let’s face it, the sample size is rather small here, and we’re not talking about his 5-foot 7-inches frame. Giving that much money over such a long term for someone who has only a season and a half worth of games under his belt and who suffered a major injury is a bit… unusual.

There is no doubt that Caufield can play hockey and if there’s one thing that he knows how to do, it’s to find the back of the net. But the questions remain about his sustainability, being able to not only play through an 82-games gruelling NHL schedule, but to stay healthy and keep producing at that pace.

Fans of his will claim that he can. The more pessimistic will say that he will not. The truth is that nobody knows for sure. Kent Hughes and the Canadiens’ management group are gambling that he will. There is a risk and all are well aware of it… whether they admit it or not.

What next?

With Michael Pezzetta recently re-signed for two years, there are three more prominent restricted free agents to re-sign by Hughes. Management must make a decision about offering a qualifying offer or not to Russian winger Denis Gurianov, who was making $2.9 million last season. Rafaël Harvey Pinard has opened the eyes of many people after being called up last season and he needs to be extended. The other one is Jesse Ylönen.

But beyond that, there could be a trade or two and none has more smoke than the one of the Winnipeg Jets’ center Pierre-Luc Dubois and his ties to the Canadiens.

The NHL Draft is set for June 28-29th so we still have a month of speculations ahead of us… at the most. In the meantime, rest assured that Hughes will be on the phone periodically with his counterpart Kevin Cheveldayoff, in Winnipeg, while preparing with his scouting team on whose name to call on the podium at the number five spot overall.

With the pieces left by previous management starting to come up through the system, and the moves and decisions from this current management group, the Canadiens are building something very interesting. Add to that the unusual approach by St-Louis, players are talking around the NHL and more and more will be considering Montreal as a prime destination… as they start winning.