January 12, 2023
Volumes have been written about the perfect formula to build a winning team in the NHL. Former Habs GM Marc Bergevin had a philosophy of building from the net out, a model we watched ebb and flow over a decade. Hockey analyst Pierre McGuire has a “7 player profile” that he has developed based on conversations with Scotty Bowman. Brian Burke wrote about his model in Burke’s Law.
Montreal Canadiens reporter Brian Wilde has his own formula – win the middle, win the game. This article considers how the Montreal Canadiens can do just that.
2C x 4 = Ws
I have a theory that builds on the “win the middle” concept. We know that, generally speaking, a player who is developed at centre can be converted to a winger with relative ease, while the opposite is not true. It stands to reason that building a forward group with multiple players who can play centre brings more flexibility and broader skill set to a team.
As I’m writing this, the top teams in the league have more than four centres listed. Toronto (7), Boston (7), Carolina (6), Vegas (9), and Dallas (8) all have a buffet of players that can fill the pivot role. My theory is that the strength of the team is connected to how flexible they can be in their forward group.
More precisely, having more quality centres allows for greater flexibility without diminishing quality. It impacts how easily the team can replace an injured centre, and how many wingers are playing every night with the more complete skillset of a centreman. The last two teams to win the Stanley Cup each iced seven players who could play centre if called upon.
My theory is that a team building to be a consistent contender should drive toward two centremen per line. Ideally each line would have an offensive-minded centre and a 200-foot centre, but that might be getting too cute. My formula is simple: 2C X 4 = Ws.
Where do the Habs stand?
Remember at the start of the season when some suggested the Habs were “clogged” at centre because of the decision about whether Sean Monahan or Kirby Dach would start on the wing? Good times, they were. My response at the time was that there is no such thing as too many centres in your forward group.
In my view, if Leon Draisaitl and Evgeni Malkin and Steven Stamkos can play wing when it suits the team, so can just about anyone else.
The Habs currently have five centres listed on their roster, and that’s counting the injured Sean Monahan, and Kirby Dach who is being used on wing. Jonathan Drouin is not listed as a centre – even though he’s played there – and with good reason. The goal is to have the traits of a centre more than the label. The tumble the Habs are taking revolves around their flexibility at centre ice.
Here is a step-wise approach to how the Habs can work within my formula of 2C X 4 = Ws to win the middle and win the game.
Commit to Kirby Dach on the wing.
In the absence of another option to complete the Suzuki-Caufield line, keeping Dach there simply makes sense. Suzuki and Dach are completely different centres, and each bring something important to the line. As a trio in development, this can become a dominant line for the next contention window.
Alternatively, Owen Beck may be an interesting option for the future to replace Dach there, depending on who is acquired in the weeks and months ahead. As of today, Beck looks like the best option to fill the third line centreman role for years to come.
The other option worth considering, after a fantastic performance at the World Juniors, is Joshua Roy. He has been developed as a left shot right winger, but he was drafted as a centre/wing. His play in Halifax confirms he has some of those pivot qualities that might well support Suzuki and Caufield.
Draft a centre in 2023
The Habs need to pick in the top five and on most draft boards there are several great centremen at the top. In a dream world that’s Bedard, but guys like Fantilli and Carlson are not to be overlooked and there are others on the board.
Drafting that high, HuGo will draft the best player available, but there is a very good chance that player will be a pivot. They will also likely have another chance or two in the first round to land another centre. In this draft, the Habs can add two NHL centremen.
Acquire Pierre-Luc Dubois
He’s a big, point-per-game centreman who switches to wing on a dime. He’ll be 25 in the summer and he wants to come home. Whether by trade, or a free agent signing in 2024, this makes too much sense to disregard.
Hughes has demonstrated he is willing to pay the price for the right assets, and it won’t surprise me if PLD is in the BBR by next fall. The only concern right now is whether he may have priced himself out of Montreal with his stellar season to date. It might be interesting to see the Habs spend on the top six for a change.
Continue to develop drafted centres at centre
Not every centreman in the formula has to be a top-six centre, or the prototypical centre for a particular line. But the skills acquired when developed at the pivot role pay dividends. The Canadiens have several centre prospects in development and there is no rush to move them to the wing, unless the skills of a centreman are clearly not evident.
Joshua Roy. Sean Farrell. Owen Beck. Filip Mesar. Riley Kidney. Oliver Kapanen. Jan Mysak. Xavier Simoneau. All drafted as potential centres. Not all will translate to the centreman position at the NHL, and some will not make it at all. But if developed at centre, those who make it can bring the skills of a centreman to the wing position.
Imagine a line up where the Habs ice Suzuki, Dach, Dubois and an elite centre from the 2023 draft in their top six, complemented by guys like Slafkovsky and Caufield. Imagine a third line of Beck, Roy and Mesar or a fourth line that includes Kapanen or Kidney or…
2C X 4 = Ws
In the quest to win the middle and win the game, the Montreal Canadiens are not as far off as we might think.