With the draft now done and free agency largely settled, it’s time to dig back into our organizational depth series with a look at Montreal’s centre situation.
Signed: Jake Evans, Cedric Paquette, Nick Suzuki
RFA’s: Jesperi Kotkaniemi
UFA’s: Eric Staal
In Suzuki, the Habs have a young centre that is going to be a part of their long-term core. Whether he’s going to be a true number one or someone who’s better off as a number two remains to be seen but he’s clearly a key piece for the Canadiens both now and in the future. Offensively, I’m not sure he’ll score enough to be a top guy but he’s good enough in his own end to help make up for that which should get him top minutes next season.
I’m going to jump out of order and cover Kotkaniemi next. He’s supposed to be the other top centre of the future and while he has shown some flashes of offensive potential, he hasn’t put it together just yet. He’s also 21 so this isn’t an indictment of him either. At this point, no one really knows whether he can become a number one pivot so a bridge contract is likely.
Evans had a relatively quiet first full NHL season and now is poised to step into a bigger role with Phillip Danault going to the Kings. While he has shown some signs of being able to contribute more, asking him to settle into a full-time 3C role would be risky. They didn’t exactly give him any protection either in Paquette, a player who was on the wing primarily last season and whose style of play is better off on the wing. He looks like he’ll take the 4C role that Evans vacates to move up as things stand.
As for Staal, he was brought in before the trade deadline to give their centres a boost with Evans starting to struggle. We all saw how that turned out. Staal had some useful moments in the playoffs and with the state of the centre group, I don’t think they can close the door entirely on the possibility of a reunion, albeit at a much lower price tag this time around.
Needs Assessment: Medium – Can the Habs run with the four centres they have (or perhaps more accurately, three plus Paquette)? They could and GM Marc Bergevin indicated that it’s an option. But if they’re hoping to get to the playoffs again – and the moves they’ve made so far suggest that is the plan – going with this group is asking for trouble. At a minimum, a 3C that pushes Evans down would help but someone that could push Kotkaniemi for the 2C spot would certainly improve their postseason chances.
Signed: Laurent Dauphin, Jean-Sebastien Dea, Cam Hillis, Lukas Vejdemo
RFA’s: Ryan Poehling
UFA’s: Joseph Blandisi
AHL Contracts: Peter Abbandonato, Jean-Christophe Beaudin, Brandon Gignac
AHL Free Agents: Liam Hawel
Dea is someone I expected the Habs to sign a couple of years ago but they quickly got a deal done this time around. He’s not someone I’d want to see on a recall for any extended period of time but as far as top AHL centres go, he’s a good one to have.
Dauphin and Vejdemo are two-way pieces that aren’t going to light up the scoresheet (Dauphin’s run on the top line came to an end when Dea signed) but can be quality pieces that log a lot of special teams time and play important roles. I wouldn’t be shocked if Vejdemo winds up on the wing to see if he shows some improvement there to bolster his NHL chances but he’ll have to get through waivers first to get back to Laval.
Hillis looked overmatched at times with the Rocket last season and it’s not a case of him being too young for the level. This would have been his rookie campaign even in a normal year. With limited playing time likely to be available with a fully healthy lineup, he’s someone I’d like to see sent down to Trois-Rivieres.
Poehling is an option in Montreal; no, I didn’t forget about him. But I don’t think he has shown enough to be a 3C with the Canadiens and putting him on the fourth line playing nine minutes a game when he can play twice as much in the minors isn’t ideal from a development standpoint. Considering how little time he has spent in Laval, he’d benefit more from a bigger role to start and if he plays his way into a recall, great. He’ll get signed at some point and it wouldn’t surprise me if it’s a deal similar to the one Evans has with a two-way salary in the first year and a one-way salary in the second season.
I was a little surprised to see Blandisi go especially since he came up just short of full veteran status but they have restocked with more AHL deals than usual to help offset his loss.
Among the AHL contracts, Beaudin is the likeliest to have an impact with the Rocket. He’s coming off a nice season with Binghamton and is someone that can slot comfortably into the bottom six, either down the middle or on the right wing. Gignac and Abbandonato are likely to shift back and forth between Laval and Trois-Rivieres. I wouldn’t be opposed to bringing Hawel back to play with the Lions but with the emphasis on Quebec-born players, I guess that one is off the table.
Needs Assessment: Low – Dea, Dauphin, and Vejdemo are a decent group and if Poehling comes back, they’ll be well-stocked in terms of impact players while Hillis and Beaudin will see action as well. They could always use more depth but they’re in pretty good shape here.
In recent years, the Habs have drafted quite a few centres with varying timelines. Here’s a quick rundown of those prospects.
Jan Mysak is the one fans are probably the most familiar with and he wound up spending the season in Laval and, by the sounds of it, there will be a one-time amendment that could allow him to stay. I don’t think he should go back to the Rocket even if he could. He has a lot that can be improved upon in junior and he’ll get a lot more ice time there than in Laval. In terms of his long-term prospects at centre, I think he’s someone that’s heading for the wing; it’s a better fit and in terms of Montreal’s depth chart, a switch probably helps him more than staying down the middle.
Brett Stapley has had a nice college career so far though injuries limited him last season. He’s a year away from needing to sign and at this point, I think he has done enough for a contract. I’m not sure he’s going to be able to play in an ideal role (not good enough offensively for the top six, not good enough defensively for the bottom six) but he’s worthy of a longer look.
Oliver Kapanen was one of Montreal’s more intriguing picks from last month’s draft. He has a good all-around game and profiles as someone that could fill a middle-six role down the road. Riley Kidney, selected one spot ahead, has some offensive upside but is a couple of years away from turning pro. The other full-time centre from this draft class is Xavier Simoneau. He’s eligible to turn pro now but it sounds like the plan is to have him play out his junior eligibility. I don’t think he has legitimate NHL upside but he may be able to help in the minors for a few years which would be a good return on a late sixth-rounder.
Jack Smith had a really disappointing post-draft season in the USHL. While there was going to be a transition period making the jump from high school hockey, he wound up being a limited role player. Now there will be another transition as he goes to Minnesota-Duluth. He was a tools pick and those take time but they can’t be counting on much from him at this time.
The last bit of that can also be applied to Jacob Olofsson who could just as easily have been put in the left wing edition as he played both roles last season. His development has gone backwards since then to the point where he willingly accepted a demotion down a level and he still didn’t play that well. I don’t want to write him off entirely but it’s heading in that direction.
Needs Assessment: Medium – There are some players here with NHL upside, albeit limited in some cases. There is a distinct possibility that no one in this group becomes a top-six player with guys like Mysak and Kapanen being better fits on the third line. That’s fine from a depth perspective but a bit more upside in the prospect pool would be nice. Of course, if Suzuki and Kotkaniemi become the top two centres for the long haul with the Habs, the need for an impact centre prospect would lessen somewhat. The urgency to upgrade will be known over the next couple of years as those two show what they can (or can’t) handle.
(Before the draft and free agency)