Centre has been a position of need for the Habs for a long time now. On the plus side, they are starting to accumulate some depth at the position in the minors and amateur ranks.
Signed: Jonathan Drouin, Byron Froese
RFA’s: Jacob de la Rose, Phillip Danault, Logan Shaw
Drouin’s first season with the Habs was somewhat of a disappointment. While it’s fair to attribute some of his struggles to learning to play down the middle in the NHL, there were a lot of times where he simply looked disengaged. Given the lack of options they have at this position, he’s safely pencilled in to remain at centre but if they could add at that position this summer, shifting him back to the wing wouldn’t be a bad idea. Considering they’re not likely adding two top-six pivots though, having him as a second-line option would be an acceptable compromise.
Danault is the lone restricted free agent of any consequence that Montreal has to deal with this summer. He has held his own in a top-six role but most would acknowledge he’s a better fit on the third line. This is where it’s going to get a little tricky for the Habs. It’s hard to walk into an arbitration hearing saying that they view him as a bottom-six forward when he has hardly spent time there the last two years. If they can improve their situation to the point where is a third liner though, I doubt they’ll be too upset if they have to pay a bit of a premium with him in that role.
As for de la Rose, he looked better when he was off the fourth line. Unfortunately for him, that’s probably the role he’s looking at to start next season. He has done enough to warrant another qualifying offer but he’ll need to show something in 2018-19 or risk getting surpassed on the depth chart.
Froese wasn’t supposed to be a regular with the Habs last year but he did enough to earn an early recall and did just enough to keep his spot. In a perfect world, he’s in Laval next season. Shaw held his own after joining Montreal midseason and can eat some minutes from time to time. He’s a pure depth player that is a toss-up to see whether or not he’s qualified – they could do better than him in a reserve role but they could also do worse.
Needs Assessment: Really, really, really high – At some point, something has to give. The centre position is far too important to keep throwing up stop-gap measures in the hopes that making mere incremental improvements will be good enough. They’re fine on lines three and four but they need two top-six centres if they’re still iffy on Drouin’s ability to play down the middle. I think most would settle for adding one but even that has proven to be difficult in recent years.
Signed: Alexandre Alain*, Daniel Audette, Jake Evans*, Michael Pezzetta*, Lukas Vejdemo*, Hayden Verbeek*
RFA’s: Michael McCarron
UFA’s: Adam Cracknell
AHL Free Agents: Thomas Ebbing, Niki Petti
* – Will be entering their first AHL season in 2018-19
Let’s start with McCarron. He didn’t have a good year. His production went down, his penalty minutes went up, and he did next to nothing with the Habs on his recalls. He has to clear waivers this coming season but that doesn’t seem to be too much of a risk at this point. At this point, McCarron is a fringe player in the organization.
Audette was one of the few players to show some improvement with the Rocket last season. He wasn’t on the top line very often which actually was better for him as he is better off in an exploitative role. Unfortunately, he could potentially line up as the number one for next season and if that happens, Laval is in trouble.
Cracknell meshed quite well with veteran Chris Terry on the top line and the two became one of the more threatening duos in the AHL. He adapted well to being shifted down the middle to the point where it was surprising that he didn’t get a look on Montreal’s fourth line. He’s certainly worthy of keeping around.
As for the newcomers, Evans is the most notable. He is coming off of a strong college career and the Habs gave him a contract equivalent to a first-round pick to get him signed. It’s unrealistic to think he’ll jump in on the top line right away but he should start in a middle-six spot. Vejdemo had a bounce-back year in Sweden and showed a little bit of offensive upside. However, he’s more likely to be a checker moving forward and will likely be deployed as such next season. It wouldn’t be surprising if he’s shifted to the wing to get him onto a higher line next season.
Alain, Pezzetta, and Verbeek aren’t going to be guaranteed spots for next season, especially if they bring in some more depth up front as they likely will. Alain, as an offensively-talented forward, makes little sense in a fourth line role so starting in the ECHL where he can play a more all-around game makes sense. Pezzetta could conceivably play as the pugilist (likely on the wing instead of at centre) while Verbeek’s speed makes him a playable fourth liner right away but again, more playing time (albeit at a lower level) would also be beneficial. Ebbing didn’t fare particularly well when he was in Laval’s lineup and it’s unlikely he’s brought back, especially considering the three CHL newcomers.
Needs Assessment: Medium – The depth is there but how much of it is really able to make an impact? There are a lot of complementary pieces and while that’s nice to have, it would also be nice to see Laval be competitive, something that won’t be the case without some additions. Whether it’s Cracknell or someone else, a top-six centre is needed to slot the rest of the players into roles that they’re more appropriately suited for.
While he’s not a number one centre of the future, the Habs have a centre of the future in Ryan Poehling. Their top pick last June had a strong sophomore campaign with St. Cloud and showed his offensive potential more regularly than he did in his freshman year. He’s already halfway through his college career and is going to move quicker than a lot of longer-term college selections. A strong junior season could have him becoming a candidate of being a late-season addition with the Habs.
Joni Ikonen’s post-draft season didn’t go quite as well as Poehling’s. He left Sweden to go back to play in his native Finland in the SM-liiga and while he played a regular role, production was hard to come by. He fared better against age-comparable competition at the World Juniors and Four Nations Cup which leaves some cause for optimism but he’s still a ways from being in the NHL picture. Suffering a knee injury that required surgery and a six-month recovery window as he did last month is only going to delay that further.
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