Of the three lineup changes that Dominique Ducharme made on Monday, the one to sit Jesperi Kotkaniemi was the most controversial. However, with the lineup composition they were seeking, it was the right one.
This isn’t intended to be a hit piece on Kotkaniemi by any stretch. He has had a decent playoff performance, scoring some timely goals and has even been better at the faceoff dot than he was during the regular season. He has more than held his own while averaging nearly 14 minutes a night. For someone that just turned 21 today, that’s pretty good. But it’s not his performance that saw him become a healthy scratch but rather the intended lineup composition.
Josh Anderson is miscast on the third line. The trio of him, Kotkaniemi, and Paul Byron felt like somewhat of a misfit line, the leftovers so to speak. Anderson is Montreal’s highest-paid forward in the playoffs (Brendan Gallagher’s deal starts next season) and having him with the leftovers doesn’t make a lot of sense, especially with his style of play not exactly meshing with Byron and Kotkaniemi. He needed to be moved and it should have been tried before Game 4.
At the same time, Tyler Toffoli has gone quiet. Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield are working well together but Toffoli seems to be the odd one out which isn’t ideal for your top scorer during the regular season. He needs to be more of an offensive focal point and while flipping him and Anderson could have worked, dropping him down the lineup and lowering his ice time wouldn’t have been ideal.
The end result is that Anderson takes Toffoli’s place and Toffoli moves to Gallagher’s line, giving them a second offensive threat. That shifts Artturi Lehkonen down. The combination of him and Byron lends itself towards being a checking line. Who’s a better fit to centre that line? It’s Jake Evans and it’s not particularly close.
That leaves the fourth line to mess with and there’s a case to be made to play Kotkaniemi over Eric Staal. One is the future while the other is probably in his last week as a Hab. (And if we’re looking at faceoff play, Kotkaniemi has been better there as well.) But Staal has fit in quite well on the fourth line, one that plays at a much slower pace. Kotkaniemi is a bit more of an up-tempo type of player and while I think he has some upside at playing a harder, grind it out type of game, he doesn’t have a lot of experience there and a must-win game in the Cup Final is a tough place to try to experiment. The Armia-Staal-Perry line works and I can understand not wanting to mess with it.
The question then becomes should Kotkaniemi play on Wednesday? Ducharme’s early indication is that there will be no lineup changes but there is some risk to keeping the current combinations, particularly the Anderson-Suzuki-Caufield trio which will be targeted by Lightning coach Jon Cooper as the one to line up their top line against. Suzuki is good in his own end and Caufield works hard (he has exceeded my expectations defensively) but has been exposed a few times while Anderson is known for making some untimely gaffes.
Where am I going with this? I can see a scenario where Ducharme would want to revert back to the previous lines and that’s a bit trickier to do with Kotkaniemi out of the lineup. If he felt there was a possibility of needing to do so, there’s a better case to be made to sit Staal; Kotkaniemi could start on that line and if they need to make that third trio more offensive-minded, he can move up and Evans can go down to the fourth unit. It doesn’t sound like that will happen but that’s where I’d lean.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi is going to be a big part of the Habs moving forward and that should be clear by now, especially with the contractual uncertainty surrounding Phillip Danault later this month. But that doesn’t guarantee him a spot in the lineup either. This is a small step back but let’s not overthink this. For Monday’s game, Evans was the better fit with how that line was designed and Ducharme didn’t want to mess with the fourth line that has had a knack for some timely goals. That’s all this is, not a sign of things to come or a sign of frustration with his performance.