Centre depth has been an issue for the Habs for quite some time now. However, their moves in recent years have quickly turned that position from a weakness to a strength.
Signed: Phillip Danault, Max Domi, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Matthew Peca, Nate Thompson
Domi had a tough season with Arizona in 2017-18 and as a result, expectations were low when he got to Montreal, especially since they were asking him to switch to the middle full-time. He responded with a career year across the board and established himself as a legitimate (and productive) top-six centre as he surpassed the 70-point mark. It has been a while since a Montreal centre did that.
Speaking of pleasant surprises, Kotkaniemi more than held his own, for the most part, in his rookie year. He quickly staked his claim to a spot on the third line and played a surprisingly reliable two-way game. That helped him earn some rope from the coaching staff when his offence started to dry up. Kotkaniemi showed flashes of offensive brilliance at times and with an offseason to bulk up and work on his game, he’ll be expected to provide that on a more consistent basis next season.
Danault continues to be Montreal’s best two-way centre. His improvement over the past few seasons has been incremental but steady. He’s now well above average at the faceoff dot. He showed some chemistry with Tomas Tatar and Brendan Gallagher which allowed him to pick up 41 assists in 2018-19, more than his previous career high in points. Even if there isn’t much improvement left in his game, he’s certainly an important part of Montreal’s attack.
Thompson was brought in from Los Angeles in a midseason deal to shore up the penalty killing and win some key faceoffs to take the pressure off Danault. While he didn’t bring much else to the table, he did do those two things well enough to earn another contract. He may not be an every-game player next season but he’ll play a useful role. Peca’s signing was a surprising one as the Habs paid a fairly hefty price to get him in an effort to add speed and skill to the fourth line. He did bring those elements but it didn’t translate to much success. At this point, he looks like a candidate to be on waivers in training camp where that contract could help him make his way to Laval.
Needs Assessment: Low – There’s a case to be made that the Habs could be better off signing a centre like Matt Duchene and shifting Domi to the wing. Short of doing that, it seems unlikely that GM Marc Bergevin will be doing much work at this position in the coming weeks.
Signed: Jake Evans, Lukas Vejdemo, Ryan Poehling, Nick Suzuki
RFA’s: Michael McCarron
AHL Free Agents: Phelix Martineau
Evans had a nice rookie season. They eased him in early on but as players started getting injured, he was quickly moved up and spent most of the second half of the season on the top line. The results were a little erratic (particularly in terms of his production) but he made considerable strides in his all-around game throughout the season. There are legitimate questions about his overall NHL ceiling but it’s looking more and more likely that he can be an NHL player. He’ll be at or near the top of the recall list at some point in 2019-20.
Vejdemo’s first season in North America wasn’t as strong. Despite having three full professional seasons under his belt (making him one of the more experienced players on the roster), he was a role player for quite a while. He showed some improvement in the second half before an injury ended his season prematurely. Considering he’s already 23, time is already starting to run out and playing time could be tough to come by next season.
McCarron performed relatively well after clearing waivers in training camp and was showing some signs of offensive progression before shoulder surgery ended his season prematurely. As a result, he’s on the bubble of receiving a qualifying offer from the team. If he does return, he probably won’t be seeing quite as much ice time as he did last season. Martineau looked overmatched for significant portions of his time with Laval. He could be back on another minor league deal but should be spending most of his time in the ECHL again.
A pair of rookies figure to play prominent roles if they can’t crack the roster in Montreal (the likely scenario at this point given the current composition of the roster). Poehling made quite the initial impression with a hat trick in his NHL debut (plus the shootout winner) but is more of a two-way player than a pure offensive threat. He could slot in as the top centre with the Rocket. Suzuki is more of a pure offensive threat and is coming off of a phenomenal postseason in the OHL to end his junior career on a high note. It’s possible that he could also shift to the wing, his likelier position in the pros, if they want to give both him and Poehling prime ice time right away.
Needs Assessment: Low – If McCarron is let go, it’s possible that they could look to add another centre in free agency. But Peca could potentially take that role as well. Short of an AHL-ECHL two-way deal or two, there isn’t much to do here.
The Habs have gone very centre-heavy over the last couple of drafts so there are a lot of different players on their list of unsigned prospects. However, most of them are of the role player/question mark variety.
Jacob Olofsson’s first foray into the SHL wasn’t a great one. He was a regular player (on a bad team) but didn’t make too much of an impact and his performance at the World Juniors against his age group was also underwhelming. He has transferred to Skelleftea for the next two years and then will likely sign with Montreal at that time. The other second-round pick out of this group is Joni Ikonen. He didn’t play much due to an offseason injury but he made a considerable impact in the few games he played. After being a role player in his first year in the SM-liiga, he saw a lot of time in the top six when he did suit up and that should continue next season. That will probably be the year that makes or breaks his NHL future.
Cam Hillis appeared to be an under-the-radar pickup in the third round last year as a feisty pivot with some offensive punch. However, the production dried up which resulted in him being dropped to the fourth line at times before fracturing his collarbone on two separate occasions. Some graduations in Guelph (including Suzuki) should pave the way for more ice time next season but he’ll need to make much more of an impact to get a contract.
Another OHL pick from last year is Allan McShane. He didn’t deal with the injuries like Hillis did but his performance over the course of the year was a bit spotty while he shifted between centre and the wing. However, he had a very strong showing in the playoffs and there is cause for optimism that he’ll have a breakout 2019-20 campaign. The same can’t be said for Houde, whose initial selection in the first place was a bit disappointing. Despite getting extra ice time, he didn’t do a whole lot with it and remains a better fit as a complementary player than an impact one. Those types of players shouldn’t be getting NHL contracts.
Stapley was a pick I wasn’t a huge fan of back in June but it’s looking like a better selection now after a good freshman year in Denver. He’s still a couple of years away from being ready to turn pro but locking down a spot in the top six as a rookie is a good sign.
Needs Assessment: Medium – The quantity is here but how many of these players have legitimate NHL upside? Probably just Ikonen and Olofsson at this point and both of them have question marks. Yes, there is decent depth at the minor league level but another quality centre prospect in the organization certainly wouldn’t hurt.
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