Extra Pieces in the Habs Puzzle

Eggs Bennett Issue 21-04

September 15, 2021

You know we’ve reached the “grossly under-stimulated phase” of the NHL off-season when Alex Galchenyuk to the Habs is circulating in the rumour mill.

But that’s where we find ourselves, and there isn’t enough Voltaren in the Jean Coutu Warehouse to make that pain go away.

I could be convinced that Bergevin is determined to make one of his first-round picks work out in Montreal, but you’ll need to work harder to convince me that Galchenyuk is the guy on his radar. Even if Chucky’s time in Montreal hadn’t gone the way it did… even if he didn’t burn through five teams in the three years since he left… the reality is that the Habs really don’t need another winger.

This is not another article about line combos.

We’ve all read a million of them and let’s be honest – everyone not named Dom Ducharme is just guessing. It’s a fun exercise but I’m not creative enough to give you lines you haven’t already seen. A lot of attention has been given to whether the Habs have too many NHL-ready forwards on their roster. When trying to assemble the forward lines puzzle, some see extra pieces that don’t seem to fit. This raises a question of whether we can expect Bergevin to make a deal before the puck drops on the regular season.

The centre depth is probably not Bergevin’s pride and joy at the moment.

Bergevin would have preferred to keep Phillip Danault around for the right price. But that was never going to happen, and he had likely accepted that before fans had. The GM would also probably have liked to add Christian Dvorak without enduring the nasty business of losing Jesperi Kotkaniemi to an offer sheet. But here we are.

In the NHL centre pool we have Nick Suzuki, Christian Dvorak, Jake Evans and Cedric Paquette. The AHL centre options are Ryan Poehling and Lukas Vejdemo.

Ryan Poehling is the guy who benefits most from Kotkaniemi’s departure. Poehling was strong in Laval last season and will get more rope to show what he can do In Montreal with Dvorak in the line-up than would have been likely with Kotkaniemi. Dvorak is not exactly a wily veteran, but he is more proven at the NHL level.

If Poehling impresses, Bergevin will not mind one bit having Paquette as a 13th forward to provide veteran insurance. If Poehling looks like he would benefit from more seasoning, that veteran insurance becomes the fourth line centre.

Some of those line combo articles we’ve read have Jonathan Drouin at centre. Let’s add that to the “under-stimulated” file. I’m someone who thinks Drouin can still be very effective for the Habs, but not at centre. That experiment was torturous for everyone. If you like pain that much, I’d recommend a stroll in your Birkenstocks down the rue Sainte-Catherine sidewalks where those steel posts are sticking up ready for you to run your bare toe into. I speak in hypotheticals, of course.

If Bergevin would like to increase Danault’s feelings of vindication, or prolong Tom Dundon’s revenge glee, throwing Drouin back into a centreman role might be the way to do it.

Ducharme himself has confirmed that if the season began today Drouin would be a winger. Enough said. In the event of an outbreak of a centreman stream of COVID-19 in Montreal, both Drouin and Mathieu Perreault are wingers who have played centre. Paul Byron did it last year. But the bottom line is I’m not seeing any excess down the middle for the Habs.

Assuming Poehling makes the team out of camp, the Habs will have five centres on the roster.

Thanks to last off-season, the depth on the right wing is solid.

In the off-season before the 2020-21 season, Bergevin traded Max Domi for Josh Anderson, gave Brendan Gallagher a new contract, and signed Tyler Toffoli as a free agent. Cole Caufield was added late in the season from college and earlier this summer, Joel Armia was given a new deal. That’s depth.

In the NHL right wing depth pool we have Caufield, Gallagher, Toffoli, Anderson and Armia. From the AHL, the only legitimate right wing option is Jesse Ylonen.

There is a valid question about the number of right wingers on the Habs roster – Ylonen should get very comfy in Laval. There are things worth noting here. Toffoli, Anderson and Armia all demonstrated they can play on the left wing as needed. If you don’t count Caufield’s entry level contract, the cheapest guy is Armia at an AAV of $3.4M. This ultimately translates to overpaid depth, but not necessarily more puzzle pieces than can find a home.

Without moving anyone to the left side, which they will, the Habs have five right wingers who will make the NHL roster.

The left wing leaves me with some questions.

Leaving aside the likelihood that one of the right shots will play left wing, the left side is a little less inspiring than the group on the right.

In the NHL left wing pool we have Jonathan Drouin, Mike Hoffman, Artturi Lehkonen, Mathieu Perreault and Paul Byron. There are no legitimate left wing options to be promoted from the AHL beyond emergency call-up.

Some things jump out here immediately. Paul Byron begins the season on LTIR. If one of the right shot guys lands on the left wing as we expect, Perreault becomes the 13th or 14th forward.

As much as Galchenyuk may make an ideal 13th forward, the Habs don’t really need one. Of course, some of those who have Chucky coming to Montreal also have no place for Drouin in their line combos. At the end of last season, I believed we had seen Jo play for the Habs for the last time. Management has said he will be back, but there is so much unknown about the situation that no outcome would be shocking.

Assuming there is no trade and that Paul Byron begins the season on LTIR, the Habs have four left wingers. That is a total of 14 forwards, and two players who have an AAV under one million dollars as the 13th and 14th guys. It’s probably the exact number Bergevin would like to have. If everyone is healthy when Paul Byron returns, there will be decisions to make to manage the cap, but that’s a bridge to be crossed on another day.

The issue for the Habs puzzle is not the number of pieces, but whether they can all fit together properly.  

As I said, the suggestion of too many wingers comes about as a result of fans and pundits trying to build line combos. When you try to do so, some parts get a little tangly. These are the ones that stand out for me:

  • I’m not convinced that Poehling, Paquette or Evans can be more than fourth line centres for the Habs this coming season. Much depends on whether the kids can take a significant step in their development.
  • It’s unclear how the Habs will use Dvorak. If they try to recreate the Danault line and over-utilize Dvorak in a shutdown role with top wingers, offensive production from the line may be limited.
  • The Habs have a lot of right wingers, and one of their best left shots prefers to play right side.
  • Speaking of Mike Hoffman, I’m very curious to see how he will be deployed by a coach that promotes a five-man unit playing together for 200 feet.
  • I’m not convinced Perreault was added for the press box. I like the idea of playing him with one of the young centres, but the other guys are overpaid to be healthy scratched.
  • There are many questions surrounding Jonathan Drouin. He’s a creative playmaker for the best group of finishers the Habs have iced in a long time. In the time between the Ducharme hire and the personal leave, there was reason to believe we could see the best of Drouin. But questions remain.

The Habs may well make a trade before the season starts. But if they do it won’t be because of having too many forwards. Rather, to use a Blue Rodeo reference, in this past off-season they’ve been torn apart and put back together, and now it feels like a couple of pieces are in wrong.  

During training camp, coaches and management will decide whether the puzzle pieces can be made to fit together. Until then, we continue guessing about the line combos.

Published by Lori Bennett

Hockey is my hobby. I love a respectful hockey chat or debate, but it stops being fun if we're jerks.

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