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- January hasn't been a kind month for Lars Eller. He has just 12 points in 44 games, his lowest PPG average of any month.
There has been much discussion about the Habs and their play over the past several games. With Tuesday's shutout over Carolina being the exception, Montreal had previously turned in quite a few bad or worse performances. One commonality from most of those games was the absence of blueliner Raphael Diaz. What happened to make him fall out of the lineup completely?
Since being named to Switzerland's Olympic team on January 6th, Diaz has suited up just four times in ten games (including being scratched on the day he was named to the Swiss squad). Worth noting is that when he does play, his ice time really hasn't dropped from his season average beyond the odd shift here and there so it's not as if the coaching staff doesn't have any confidence in him all of a sudden when he is in the lineup. He isn't getting benched in-game for dumb mistakes or for disciplinary reasons, or sat late regularly like Douglas Murray. Yet, Diaz all of a sudden has fallen off the radar.
It's no coincidence that his recent stint in the press box (five games and counting) has coincided with the return of Nathan Beaulieu to the lineup. In general terms, Diaz is thought of as a mobile defender who can play on the second powerplay unit and at this stage of his development, Beaulieu's strengths are similar. If I had to guess, I'd surmise that the coaches are looking at this the same way and are trying to assess if Beaulieu can adequately replace Diaz in that regard on a longer-term basis. Is that the right way to be looking at it though?
One area of Beaulieu's game that still needs a lot of work is his defensive play. Accordingly, he has yet to see a second of ice time in his ten games this season which puts him in a tie with George Parros and a few other call ups. Diaz, on the other hand, sits third on the team in SH TOI per game on a penalty kill unit that finds itself in the top-5 in the NHL. A good chunk of the PK time that is vacated when he is out of the lineup has fallen to Andrei Markov and considering how tired the Russian rearguard has looked lately, that's not a good thing.
Part of the defensive system calls for everyone to block shots, especially the defencemen. This is another area that Diaz excels in as he already has thrown himself in front of 100 shots, good for third on the team and second in blocks-per-game. Another area of interest is limiting turnovers which 'Player 61' also does somewhat well; of the seven blueliners up all season, only Murray has fewer giveaways which can be attributed to the fact he has played fewer games and doesn't handle the puck often (and that's a good thing).
This isn't to say that Diaz isn't without flaws though. As we all know, he isn't particularly physical which doesn't help in terms of clearing the crease or holding/pinning the puck along the boards. He also hasn't been productive at all on the powerplay, two assists in 56+ minutes of PP ice time simply isn't going to cut it, even if most of those minutes are playing alongside 'offensive juggernauts' in Francis Bouillon and Josh Gorges. This is a big argument in why Beaulieu is getting Diaz's spot on the third pairing, especially with the man advantage as a whole scuffling like they have for several weeks now.
That all said, there isn't enough of a case to justify Diaz's consistent removal from the lineup, at least not to the degree we've seen in recent weeks. He is much more well-rounded of a player than Bouillon or Murray while Markov could use the odd night off as well and a rookie like Beaulieu isn't going to be an every-game player either. There is certainly room for Diaz to play on a regular basis which is a far cry from where he seems to be in Michel Therrien's rotation at this particular moment. Yes, the powerplay is struggling but that alone isn't enough justification to keep Diaz, a steady player who can help in several other facets of the game, out this often. Here's hoping he gets back in sooner than later. The Habs will be better off when he does.