For years, the Habs have been seeking quality depth down the middle. They finally have it in Montreal although their prospect pool at that position isn’t quite as strong as it has been recently as a result.
Signed: Phillip Danault, Jake Evans, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Nick Suzuki
RFA’s: Max Domi
What a difference a few years can make. The Canadiens have gone from trying to convert wingers to centres to potentially needing to do the opposite.
Let’s look at the top youngsters first. Suzuki’s rookie season was a strong one aside from the final month where he had clearly run out of gas. The break from the pandemic was very beneficial for him and he came back even better. Now with a better feel for the NHL game, Suzuki should make a strong push for one of the top two spots down the middle next season. Kotkaniemi’s case is a little tougher to call. Yes, he played well in the playoffs but he struggled mightily for most of the year. Has he done enough to go 1-2 with Suzuki? I don’t think so. I think he starts on the third line again next season, especially if they want to try to roll three semi-offensive lines.
That would put Danault back into the spot he has largely filled over the last couple of years, anchoring one of the top two lines and from a chemistry perspective, it wouldn’t be shocking to see him back with his usual wingers in Tomas Tatar and Brendan Gallagher. His defensive game is starting to garner some recognition league-wide and gives him a high floor from a usefulness perspective. Even if he isn’t scoring (and that happens with some frequency), his defensive ability makes him a crucial part of this group.
As things stand, Evans is probably the fourth centre for next season; at the very least, he would go into camp as the favourite for the spot. He still has another year of waiver exemption which could be enough to have Montreal sign someone else for that spot (Nate Thompson probably shouldn’t be ruled out entirely as an option). His recent deal was a no-risk move, giving him a bit of security and the Habs a cheap option to fill out their roster. He’ll be part of the team on a regular basis before too much longer.
Then there’s Domi. A year ago, he looked like a key cog in the future core after a 72-point season. This year didn’t go as well and now there are questions about his fit, especially if Danault winds up getting an extension at some point. He doesn’t want to play the wing but if he wants to stay in Montreal which at least seems to be the case (don’t interpret an agent change as trying to get traded), he may have to shift there in the short term. He’s two years away from UFA eligibility and is eligible for salary arbitration. This will be an interesting case to follow and the fact he’s in this situation is a testament to how sharply Montreal’s fortunes at centre have changed in such a short period of time.
Needs Assessment – Low: Two decisions have to be made here. Is Domi still a part of the core? If yes, then re-sign him and be done and if not, then look for a trade in a move that probably wouldn’t bring an NHL centre back the other way. The other is if they want a veteran to push Evans or leave that spot open for him. Not much else needs to be done here.
Signed: Joseph Blandisi, Laurent Dauphin, Cam Hillis, Ryan Poehling, Lukas Vejdemo
RFA’s: Aaron Luchuk
AHL Contracts: Liam Hawel, Kevin Lynch, Samuel Vigneault
AHL Free Agents: None
Poehling’s first professional season wasn’t great. Even with the qualifier that being shuttled back and forth a few times to and from the NHL didn’t help, his performance was disappointing. Still, he’s heading into his second pro campaign so he’s far from being a write-off. He could battle with Evans for a spot with the Habs but it’s also possible he’s shifted to the wing on a long-term basis, especially if Danault gets an extension or Domi signs a multi-year deal.
Dauphin took a while to get going after being acquired but before the pandemic hit, he was one of Laval’s best players to the point where he was about to be recalled before things were shut down. He’s not an ideal front liner in the AHL but he slots in well as a second or third centre. That’s where Vejdemo should be at this stage of his development but it hasn’t happened. Instead, he showed he can be a good checker but a lack of production is really limiting his upside. I could see him getting a bit of time on the fourth line in Montreal and I can also see him being thrown in a trade. If he stays, he’s probably on the third line and possibly on the right wing.
Blandisi is someone that should be on the top line although he didn’t get that chance in what was very limited action after being acquired. Instead of trying to sign a veteran free agent that can be a top player in Laval and hold his own as a recall, he may be the player earmarked for that role and certainly has the experience for it. Like Poehling and Vejdemo, it’s also possible that Blandisi winds up on the wing given the Rocket’s depth down the middle and the dearth of it on the wings.
After an injury-riddled post-draft season, Hillis was able to stay healthy and showed why the Habs drafted him early in the third round. He’s someone that probably needs to start higher than the fourth line which could help shift one of the veterans over. Time in the ECHL on the top line shouldn’t be ruled out entirely either.
Luchuk doesn’t warrant much consideration. He was acquired from Ottawa to match contracts in the Matthew Peca deal and that’s about it. It’s a safe bet that he’s non-tendered and released next week.
As for the AHL deals, Lynch proved to be an important player for Joel Bouchard who moved him up and down the lineup including the top line with Kotkaniemi late in the year. In a perfect world, he’s on the fourth line on a regular basis. Vigneault has been a serviceable depth player for a few years and should be in that role again with Laval. Hawel clearly made a positive impression back in rookie camp even though he was cut. At this point, he’s probably ECHL-bound based on the people ahead of him on the depth chart but he’s an intriguing prospect at the very least given his size.
Needs Assessment – Low: Considering a few players are probably going to have to shift to the wing already, there isn’t much that needs to be done here.
As a result of graduating Kotkaniemi and Suzuki over the last couple years with others like Poehling turning pro (and now Hillis next season), the cupboard isn’t quite as stocked as it once was. However, the two that they do have feature a bit of upside.
Jacob Olofsson is never going to contend for a scoring title but he’s not as weak in the offensive end as Swedish compatriot Jacob de la Rose and the two were often compared when de la Rose was in the organization. He’s actually getting some experience on the wing this season so he may not be long for this article in next year’s series but there is bottom-six upside here. Stapley probably is headed for a similar type of role but he’s a different player stylistically – a little quicker and better offensively but not as strong in his own end. Between the two, if they got one NHL player out of them, they’d be happy.
Needs Assessment – Medium: With Suzuki and Kotkaniemi looking like Montreal’s top-two centres for a while yet and others in the system with some upside, this isn’t a huge need. But centres are hard to come by and they’ve turned most of what they have into pros already. They could stand to add two or three at the draft.