Montreal Canadiens' Max Domi takes a shot during third period against the Arizona Coyotes in Montreal on Feb. 10, 2020.
Montreal Canadiens’ Nick Suzuki lines up for a faceoff during second period against the Arizona Coyotes in Montreal on Feb. 10, 2020.
Can you have too much of a good thing?
That’s the question confronting the Canadiens as they prepare for the coming season.
At this time last year, the Canadiens had gaping holes at centre and on the left side of the defence. Today, they have a surplus of talent at both positions and that poses challenges and opportunities.
Let’s the start by looking at the defence.
The left side has been bolstered by the much-anticipated arrival of Alexander Romanov from the KHL and the signing this week of unrestricted free agent Joel Edmundson.
With the additions, the Canadiens’ roster has seven left defencemen and suddenly the hole is on the right side, where the Canadians have only two proven NHL defenders — Shea Weber and Jeff Petry. This void was obvious during the playoffs when Victor Mete was moved to the right side to partner with Xavier Ouellet on the third pair.
There are a number of options to fill that third-line spot.
The Canadiens could move one of the left defenceman to the right side. Edmundson told reporters this week that he has played on the right side, but the Canadiens gave him a four-year deal and a decent salary to play top-four minutes alongside Petry.
Mete did the job during the playoffs, but it’s more likely Brett Kulak will get the first look as Romanov’s partner because the Canadiens will want the young Russian to have some veteran support. That’s another reason why it’s unlikely the Canadiens will turn to one of the three young right defencemen in Laval — Noah Juulsen, Cale Fleury and Josh Brook.
It will take some creative thinking to fit all the pieces together up front.
There are four centres — Phil Danault, Nick Suzuki, Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Max Domi — for places on three top three lines.
We have some idea of the Canadiens’ thinking if we look at the way the team lined up in the latter stages of the playoffs. Suzuki was promoted to the top line with Brendan Gallagher and Tomas Tatar, and Danault was relegated to more of a defensive role although he continued to play big minutes.
Kotkaniemi was on the No. 2 line although he played third-line minutes after Domi bounced around on the wing.
The Canadiens have bought into the idea that the underappreciated Danault is not a top-line centre, but there are good arguments for keeping the top line intact. For starters, they have great chemistry and they enjoy playing together.
And they are effective.
They play against the top lines in the NHL and they dominate those lines in terms of goals produced, shots on goal and scoring chances. Danault won 54.5 per cent of his faceoffs against the top centres in the league.
It’s possible that Suzuki would produce better offensive numbers if he was between Gallagher and Tatar, but what would be the trade-off in terms of defence? There has been a lot of talk about how Suzuki is responsible in his own end but, while conceding that plus/minus ratings are not always a reliable gauge, Danault had the best plus/minus rating on the team at plus-18; Suzuki, minus-15, had the worst.
The best solution would be to upgrade the talent on the wings. Half the problem would be solved if Jonathan Drouin played up to his potential and his inflated salary. Drouin appeared to be on the right track at the beginning of last season, when he put up 15 points in his first 17 games. But, after dealing with a concussion and an ankle injury, he finished the season with no points in his remaining 10 games. He showed signs of life in the playoffs, when he collected seven points in 10 games, and the Canadiens need more of the same next season.
The Canadiens do have cap space to sign a free agent or make a trade. There’s US$10 million available today, but there will be more when the Canadiens bury Karl Alzner’s contract in the AHL or buy him out. If they could find a right winger — like Patrik Laine who is being dangled by the defence-starved Winnipeg Jets — Suzuki has some playmates, Danault and his linemates are happy and the Canadiens are looking pretty solid.
There are two wild-card possibilities. Pint-sized University of Wisconsin-Madison sniper Cole Caufield needs more seasoning, but could turn pro if there’s no college hockey this winter. That possibility is less likely after the Big 10 conference reversed its decision not to play football.
And then there’s Ilya Kovalchuk, who was Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin’s latest reclamation project. We don’t know if he wants to return to Montreal and we don’t know how much is left in his 37-year-old tank, but he could help mentor the kids.
One player who is probably not happy is Domi, who will become a restricted free agent next month. He wants to play centre, but there is no room for him in the middle because the team is committed to developing Suzuki and Kotkaniemi and you’re not going to have a fourth-line centre earning US$3 million when seventh-rounder Jake Evans does a more than adequate job while earning minimum wage.
Some of those extra defencemen, Domi and a draft pick or two would be an attractive return in a trade.
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