Grants Slant Vol. 1
October 3, 2019
By Grant McCagg
I have zero issues with what projects to be Montreal’s starting lineup for the season opener versus Carolina. That may be the first time in 45 years of backseat general managing that I can say that.
Yes; the disagreements go back to the Bowman dynasty years. Even then, in my youthful enthusiasm….I was invariably despondent each October when a rookie or three were passed over for defence-first journeymen like Jim Roberts, Rick Chartraw and Don Awrey.
This camp, though, I think they got it right. The right guys were sent to Laval, the right rookies earned spots in the opening night lineup, and, most importantly, the lines make sense.
Maybe I am finally growing up. Nah; that can’t be it. Montreal’s management group and coaching staff simply deserve kudos:
Nick Suzuki in a top-six role. Check.
Cale Fleury on the third defence pairing. Check.
Ryan Poehling off to Laval after a shortened camp. Check.
Nick Cousins the spare forward. Check.
No one lost on waivers. Check.
Suzuki was the key forward addition, and it looks like there will be no protecting Suzuki’s minutes – he could well be a 15+ minute guy from Game 1. The reigning OHL playoff MVP has won the hearts of the fans, media, and most importantly, his coaching staff.
He showed the Habs brass his smarts, versatility and defensive acumen from the drop of the puck at the rookie tournament until his overtime winner in the exhibition season finale. Suzuki can play right wing or center on any line and contribute to this team in all three zones.
Suzuki outplayed Jonathan Drouin in the exhibition season, and considering how Julien used him in all situations in preseason games, it would not be surprising if he ends up playing more minutes than Drouin on most nights. He starts on the second line with Domi and Lehkonen while Drouin lines up with Kotkaniemi and Armia.
Suzuki can take draws on his strong side and play center or the wing on both the penalty kill and power play. That makes him a valuable piece…and he’s never played an NHL game. Do not be shocked if Suzuki produces from opening night until season’s end and is under consideration for the Calder Trophy, an award no Montreal player has won since Ken Dryden wowed the hockey world in 1971-72.
Just like last season with Jesperi Kotkaniemi; no tough love for the kid Suzuki who showed everyone at camp that he can play any role the club asks of him. The Canadiens are icing what they think is the best lineup, and not erring on the side of caution going with NHL journeymen who won’t produce any noteworthy point totals.
That is a change in philosophy that can only help the team. Conservative Claude is loosening the tie a little bit; he is slowly but surely conceding that as the NHL adapts to younger more offensive-minded teams, the Canadiens need to keep pace. You aren’t winning a Cup with six Chris Kellys up front and a half dozen defensive defencemen.
Last year, it was puzzling that Hudon was kept on the roster over Michael McCarron, Nikita Scherbak and Jacob de la Rose, all who are younger, 6-2 or taller, and former top 40 picks. He was one of ten forwards under 5-11 on the roster, and didn’t bring any special dimension that would separate him from the other undersized forwards who were ahead of him on the depth chart. When was enough enough?
This year Hudon got sent down, cleared waivers, and was replaced by the 20-year-old Nick Suzuki. Suzuki is a taller, younger, smarter, faster and more skilled version of Hudon. In other words….better. Much better.
Hudon demonstrated in his numerous auditions in Montreal’s top nine why he has never scored more than 30 goals in minor pro or junior. His effort and smarts led to plenty of opportunities to score, but his downfall was in not being able to finish many of those scoring chances. His shot is simply not hard enough to beat NHL goalies with any regularity.
A character guy who competes, has good puck skills and above-average vision; there is lots to like about Hudon. When you are a fifth-line NHLer at 25 years of age, though, chances are that regular NHL duty is not in your future, certainly not on a team in need of some size up front.
An elite AHLer with not quite enough offence to play a top-six role in the NHL, Hudon is your classic ‘tweener. Hudon will likely garner a point per game in Laval and get a shot in another organization down the line, perhaps in Seattle.
Mind you; if he lights it up in Laval and the big club suffers some injury woes, there is always the possibility that he gets another callup. Chances are, though, that if any forwards are called up, it is likely to be ones that can be sent back down without clearing waivers…namely, Jake Evans and Ryan Poehling.
Both young centers showed some good things in camp. Evans has clearly improved his skating, and after a productive AHL rookie season, will be counted on to play a pivotal top-two center role on a team expected to challenge for a playoff spot for the first time in nine years.
The main bones of contention for a number of Canadiens fans would be Poehling not getting the fourth-line center role and Armia starting on the third line instead of Weal, who had an impressive training camp in terms of creating offence.
I get why Armia was kept on the third line. Familiarity and comfort for the teen who happens to speak the same language. Kotkaniemi’s most frequent linemate last season was his fellow countryman; so keep them together, and hope that Drouin and the Finns can develop some chemistry.
Armia is an upgrade on Weal defensively, and in a third-line role with two linemates not yet known for their ability to win puck battles in the defensive zone in KK and Drouin, it makes sense to have the defensively responsible 6-3 Armia instead of the 5-9 offensive-minded Weal on their port side.
There are not many bottom liners in the league with 20-goal seasons like Byron, so it may be one of the more opportunistic fourth lines in the league,
Weal is on the power play, and he’ll get some prime offensive opportunities. If you aren’t going to have a big, physical fourth line, then having one with three players who will be prime components on special teams is a smart alternative. Unlike the team’s fourth line in recent years, do not expect that trio to average less than ten minutes on many nights.
It’s not like Weal has been stuck in purgatory either. He and Byron should be able to create some offence thanks to their smarts, quickness and forechecking pressure.
In fact; in games where the team gets an early lead, all three will likely get more ice time than the Kotkaniemi line, and adding in his power play time, I would expect Weal to average 12 or more minutes of ice time per game. Thompson will be the club’s key faceoff man and a penalty killing staple. Byron is also a key to the penalty kill, and almost more dangerous shorthanded than 5-on-5. He can play on one of the top three lines in a pinch when the team needs an energy boost.
Poehling was the final cut in training camp. It’s easy to understand the hope of many fans that he would stick with the big team and win a roster spot. A former first-round pick, the WJC reigning MVP, a one-man wrecking crew versus Toronto in the final game of last season, Poehling will be an NHLer for a long time and bring more size to the lineup. It just wasnt going to happen this October, especially after he suffered a concussion.
One game versus a split NHL/AHL squad and 11 minutes versus an Ottawa team that may be the NHLs worst wasn’t a large enough sample size for him to supplant a ten-year veteran like Nate Thompson, one of the better faceoff men in the league.
Domi, Kotkanimei and Poehling are all below average in the faceoff circle at this point in their careers. Julien wants Thompson in the lineup for key faceoffs, defence, veteran leadership and penalty-killing tasks. When Danault is tired and there is a key draw in Montreal’s zone; Julien was not going to be comfortable with using centers who combined have played less than 200 NHL games at center.
The good news for the Canadiens is that they are upgrading their roster. Weal, Thompson, Suzuki, and Cousins are an upgrade over Chaput, Agostini, Hudon, and Deslauriers. Fleury, Folin, Chiarot and full seasons from Weber and Kulak are an upgrade over Alzner, Schlemko, Benn, and Ouellet. Kinkaid is an upgrade over Niemi. This team is better, but so are some others.
Florida, the Rangers and New Jersey are all expected to be appreciably better; they’ll have to be much improved to outpoint the Canadiens.
Lest we forget, Montreal finished ten points ahead of the tenth-place team in the conference. Presuming Montreal can match last year’s point total, the Devils would have to improve by 25 points to finish ahead. The Rangers would need an 18-point improvement. Panarin is a nice addition, but the Breadman, Trouba and the kids are only going to bring so much improvement; the Rangers still may be a year or two away from playoff contention.
The one omission from the lineup that may be felt most early on would be Andrew Shaw. He brought a physical edge to his play that may be sorely lacking in this undersized forward lineup, and that’s why it would not be shocking to see Michael McCarron added to the 23-man roster after he recovers from his groin injury and has a conditioning stint in Laval, likely replacing either Reilly or Folin on the roster.
The Canadiens were expected to keep 14 forwards and seven defencemen going into the season…Fleury’s surprising performance and McCarron’s injury may have changed the club’s thinking.
Fleury outperformed Christian Folin and Mike Reilly in camp, so starting the season with him in the top six was an easy decision. Right now, he gives the club the best opportunity to win. He has the physical skills, size and poise to stay in the lineup. There will likely be some hiccups, as is always the case with young defencemen, and he may not dress in every game if it looks like he’s running out of energy, or the mistakes start piling up.
There are reasons for optimism heading into the season opener. The club is relatively healthy, Captain Weber is ready to play 80 games, Price is sharp, the defence isn’t struggling unlike last September, and Suzuki looks like the real deal.
Game 1 goes tonight versus a Caroina team that edged out Montreal for the last playoff spot; that loss in Carolina in the final week was a heartbreaker, so this game is personal for both sides considering that the Habs signed Sebastian Aho to a rare offer sheet in the summer that forced the Hurricanes to match.
It should be a dandy game, and a dandy season. Buckle up Habs fans, and enjoy!Click here to order Grants Slant for the season!