With the quarter mark recently passed, this second article focuses on the grade reports of the Canadiens forwards. This period ends with the conclusion of the February 11th game against Edmonton.
Players must have played in a minimum of three games to receive a grade.
Tyler Toffoli – Grade: A+
Stats: 14 GP, 9G, 4A, +5, 4 PIM, 2 PPG, 2 SHG, 1 GWG, 11 Hits, 3 Bks, 50 Shots
Grade Comments: It took a few games for Toffoli to hit his stride for the Canadiens but when that happened, he has become a deadly scorer for the team. After registering only one assist in his first three games, he then managed to score five goals and two assists in his next three games. There may have been extra incentive for him in those games against the Vancouver Canucks, his former team. After finishing the road trip against Vancouver, the Canucks visited Montreal, and Toffoli produced another three goals and an assist. Of course, he won’t keep that pace up against non-Canucks teams but there are still four more games to play against Vancouver in March this season and who knows what may happen in the playoffs. Tyler came advertised as a streaky scorer, but I have been especially impressed with his prowess on the penalty kill. He has excellent anticipation to break up the play and the scoring ability to hurt their opponents, as he leads the team with two shorthanded goals. It’s safe to say that no one thought Tyler would be Montreal’s leading scorer at this point of the season although many hoped he would be a solid contributor. When considering most of his regular strength ice time is on the third line, it’s even more impressive. Many fans and media have pointed out the comparison to former Hab Michael Ryder, who also wore number 73 and was a significant yet streaky goal scorer during his time in Montreal. I feel that’s a fair comparison, but who knows if Toffoli might enjoy a more productive point in his career for the Habs.
Nick Suzuki – Grade: A+
Stats: 14 GP, 3G, 9A, +5, 8 PIM, 1 PPG, 20 Hits, 18 Bks, Faceoffs 40.5%, 28 Shots
Grade Comments: Nick has risen to the challenge of becoming the team’s number one centre. After an impressive showing in last season’s playoffs where he tied for the team lead in scoring with Jonathan Drouin, Suzuki has continued to impress the coaching staff with his production. At this point, Nick is one point behind Tyler Toffoli in points. Although Suzuki had a strong scoring pedigree coming out of junior hockey, his defensive game has also been excellent since he arrived in Montreal last season. This season, he has been given more opportunities killing penalties and has excelled at that. He had a very consistent start to the season managing seven points in the first seven games. While that production tailed off a little for the last few games of this quarter, he still generated another five points in the next seven games. Nick’s hockey IQ is very high, and he puts that to great use by always reading the play correctly and rarely putting himself out of position.
Josh Anderson – Grade: A+
Stats: 14 GP, 9G, 2A, +5, 14 PIM, 36 Hits, 8 Bks, 1 SHG, 3 GWG, 39 Shots
Grade Comments: Anderson’s arrival is like a gift from the hockey gods to Montreal fans. I cannot remember the last time this team had a true power forward. Anderson has fit in seamlessly on the top line, playing primarily with Nick Suzuki and Jonathan Drouin. He loves to shoot the puck which helps make him a great addition to this line. What surprised me is his skating ability; he has better quickness and straight-line speed than I expected for a big player. As much as he relishes shooting the puck, he dishes out hard checks even more often and leads his team in that category. I do not see any issues from the shoulder surgery that he had to undertake last year. I understand better now why Marc Bergevin signed this RFA to a long term contract quickly after acquiring him.
Jonathan Drouin – Grade: A
Stats: 14 GP, 1G, 10A, +5, 8 PIM, 11 Hits, 2 Bks, 16 Shots
Grade Comments: Drouin has continued the success had as Suzuki’s linemate during the playoffs. Jonathan is a very instinctive player and along with Josh Anderson had developed strong chemistry with both linemates to start this season. Drouin led all teammates in assists for this quarter and he has been doing a great job of puck handling and carrying the play along with setting up his teammates. A minor criticism is his shot production, which has tailed off to an extreme. In the past few seasons he has averaged around two shots per game but this season his shots are about half that amount. in past seasons, Drouin has not been known for his defensive contributions to the game. However, this season I have seen significant improvements in that area. He may not garner votes for the Selke Trophy but he’s becoming more reliable in the other half of the ice. He may not yet be ready to take on penalty killing tasks, but there’s a much smaller chance he will have a defensive lapse as I have seen in previous seasons.
Brendan Gallagher – Grade: B+
Stats: 14 GP, 5G, 2A, -1, 4 PIM, 18 Hits, 6 Bks, 1 PPG, 1 GWG, 48 Shots
Grade Comments: Gallagher’s role has diminished somewhat to start this season due to more prominent roles from the other two top lines. His line has garnered the second-most ice time at even strength situations and is usually the first line to counter the team’s top line. Gallagher still remains an uber-pest with Energizer bunny-like drive on every shift. His point production has tailed off somewhat, however, his goal-scoring rate is nearly the same since he’s currently on pace to score 29 goals over a full 82-game season. As mentioned before, the increased ice time to the other lines, especially the third line, is the likely explanation. With Brendan’s reputation on the ice comes a downside, as officials are very unwilling to call infractions towards him. So he attracts extra physical play from the opposition who by now know it’s unlikely they will be called for a penalty. There are times I would like to see Gallagher get more power play time since he has a good shot, will outwork anyone in the crease, and can capitalize on a rebound like no one else on the team.
Tomas Tatar – Grade: B
Stats: 14 GP, 4G, 4A, 0+, 6 PIM, 23 Hits, 7 Bks, 1 PPG, 1 GWG, 28 Shots
Grade Comments: Similar to linemate Gallagher, Tatar has had his role and ice time reduced somewhat to start this season. The past two seasons, his line has been excellent in possessing the puck. Advanced stats like Corsi (CF%) help illustrate this, and his number for this quarter is at 56.9% which is ranked 60th in the league. Among his linemates, Tomas is the scoring leader by one point over Gallagher. I have noticed Tatar playing a more disciplined brand of hockey this season since he was prone to taking bad penalties last season and especially in the playoffs. Hopefully, he can produce a little more offence this season.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi – Grade: B
Stats: 14 GP, 1G, 6A, +6, 4 PIM, 21 Hits, 7 Bks, Faceoffs 43.1%, 28 Shots
Grade Comments: Before Suzuki’s arrival, the hope was that Kotkaniemi would become the team’s number one centre. While I don’t believe that will happen due to Nick’s quicker development and rise into that role, there is no reason to believe Kotkaniemi won’t become the team’s future second-line centre. He has been improving his defensive game this quarter at even strength, and with Tyler Toffoli as his linemate, this “third” line is a legitimate scoring threat against anyone. Like Suzuki, Kotkaniemi is struggling at winning faceoffs. That is a very common trait for many young centres, and most of the elite faceoff centres in the NHL needed three to five full seasons before they improved in that part of the game.
Artturi Lehkonen – Grade: B
Stats: 14 GP, 2G, 2A, +2, 2 PIM, 23 Hits, 7 Bks, 2 SHG, 26 Shots
Grade Comments: For most of his career with the Habs, Artturi has been a third-line player. This season due to the added veterans to the top lines, he has been moved to the fourth lines. Although many would deem this a demotion, for the Habs its more a tribute to their depth. Lehkonen has provided great energy on the fourth line and that’s exactly the role the coaches want from him. His tenaciousness is very useful there to thwart the opposition in all three zones. He has also received more responsibility on the penalty kill, where his speed and quickness can be a benefit. Artturi surprised many of us by scoring two shorthanded goals, which is already a career-high for him in that department. He may be bumped up to the third line, to rejoin fellow Finns Armia and Kotkaniemi since that line combination has been effective the previous season.
Corey Perry – Grade: B
Stats: 8 GP, 1G, 2A, +2, 9 PIM, 9 Hits, 4 Bks, 13 Shots
Grade Comments: I was quite surprised to hear in late December that Montreal had signed Perry to a contract. Sure it was only a one-year, $750K deal but I was not sure there was much left in the tank for this veteran. Once he got into the lineup due to the concussion to Armia, he has really impressed me. Corey’s game when he was on top of the NHL was as a power forward who earned the Rocket Richard Trophy. Over the last few seasons, his scoring has tailed off but he had a very strong playoff run for the Dallas Stars during their drive to the finals last season. No other NHL team offered him a pro contract; only PTO contracts came his way. Luckily for the Habs, he has fit in very quickly as a bottom-six player. Perry reads the play like a smart veteran now, which helps him in all three zones. He still has a little meanness to his game but without taking too many penalties.
Jake Evans – Grade: B
Stats: 14 GP, 2G, +1, 18 PIM, 27 Hits, 7 Bks, 1 SHG, 20 Shots
Grade Comments: To start training camp this season, there was a debate whether Ryan Poehling or Jake Evans would win the fourth line centre position. Poehling is a first-round draft pick which typically gives him a special status among prospects. But Evans is a more mature player that finished his college career then spent over one and a half seasons in the AHL developing his game. Evans won that competition and he has fit in well in this role. Evans is a smart hockey player, who is very good defensively while still chipping in a little bit of offence. One of his two goals was scored short-handed. He is second on the team with hits among the forwards, which is very good since he usually has one of the lowest ice times every game. His progress from a prospect to a solid NHL player is a tribute to the AHL coaching staff that helped develop him as well as the hard work Evans has put in. If he continues this rate of improvement, I will not be surprised to see Jake be promoted to the third line at some future date.
Joel Armia – Grade: B-
Stats: 7 GP, 2G, 3A, +6, 2 PIM, 7 Hits, 1 Bks, 1 SHG, 8 Shots
Grade Comments: Joel suffered from a slow start to this season in the first three games. He was barely visible but showed signs of life in the next game with a better showing where he provided an assist. In the fifth game of the season, he erupted with his best game as a Canadien with two goals and two assists, including a beautiful shorthanded goal. Unfortunately, he suffered a concussion late in that game, due to a blindside hit by Vancouver defenceman Tyler Myers. The NHL’s Department of Player Safety did nothing to penalize Myers, which make me wonder if there is a bias against Montreal within that office. Since that event, there have been similarly egregious blindside head hits to both Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Jake Evans, but again nothing was done by that NHL office. I thought the concussion lawsuit against the NHL by former players would be enough to get the league to review and re-adjust their rules regarding hits to the head. The NFL has made these types of rule adjustments successfully without taking the physicality out of their game, which is a common but misguided argument I have heard hockey pundits use to justify the status quo. Fortunately, in those two cases, Evans and Kotkaniemi were not concussed, this time. Armia returned to the lineup after missing seven games over a span of 18 days and has again been slow to return to his usual level of play. When Joel is engaged, he uses his size to protect the puck, and he is an excellent penalty killer due to his anticipation of the play. He has a good shot but needs to use it more.
Paul Byron – Grade: C
Stats: 13 GP, 0G, 3A, 2 PIM, 3 Bks, 10 Shots
Grade Comments: Paul has been a very versatile player all of his previous seasons with the Habs, able to step into any of the four lines when the need arises even though he is primarily a bottom-six forward. I am concerned that the last couple of injuries he has sustained, or perhaps even father time, has started to impact his game. Byron’s game is built on pure speed both in terms of acceleration and straight-ahead speed, making him one of the fastest skaters in the league and capable of generating a breakaway at any moment. This season I have rarely seen him put that skill to use. I hope this is not a case of a disgruntled veteran not happy playing on the fourth line. To me, his effort level has not been the same this season so I am hoping that picks up in the next quarter. Otherwise, there are taxi squad players waiting for a chance to get into the lineup, and Byron may be the player they replace, especially after he cleared waivers earlier this week.
Phillip Danault – Grade: D
Stats: 14 GP, 0G, 5A, +1, 10 PIM, 21 Hits, 7 Bks, Faceoffs 52.8%, 17 Shots
Grade Comments: Although the coach has relied on Danault for many defensive assignments through the first quarter of the season, some of those responsibilities have also been shifted to Evans and Suzuki. Danault has been the primary centre between Tatar and Gallagher for the past two-plus seasons now and the trio had been very good at gaining and keeping puck possession. Phillip’s offensive numbers have improved a great deal during that time, but I believe his wingers had much more to do with that. Phillip’s forte since joining Montreal has been his excellence winning faceoffs; at the time of this writing, that percentage was 52.8%. However, one interesting statistic I uncovered is that Danault’s faceoff percentage in shorthanded situations this season is only 43.2%. That is unacceptable for a player who is supposed to be the best at this skill on this team when it is needed the most. Although Danault has never been a big goal scorer, the drought he’s had for this season is starting to negatively impact him as his shot attempts are more hurried. Even in his first game of the season when Phillip had a breakaway attempt, he completely missed the net. It’s possible the contract discussions that started before the season began may have an impact on the mental side of his game. There are rumours he turned down a significant $5M/season offer from the team which appears to me to be generous and similar to other similar forwards in the NHL. The media have asked him and Marc Bergevin questions about this but both parties refuse to provide any details.