Playoff Price, the four Clydesdales, Phil Danault’s shutdown line and Marc Bergevin’s free agency shopping spree are the usual suspects when lists of the most obvious reasons for last summer’s stirring Stanley Cup run are being compiled.
Sensible reasons, each and every one. But these aren’t the only explanations for an unheralded hockey team reaching the Stanley Cup finals for the first time in 28 years. From low-key, under-the-radar role players to newly minted stars doing what they do best and even young players managing to get their feet wet without drowning, the run was a total team effort.
If some of these players can apply what they learned last summer to the upcoming season, the Habs stand a decent chance of returning to the playoffs next spring.
For me, the unsung hero from the forward lines over the course of last summer’s playoff run was Joel Armia.
Head coach Dominique Ducharme had been forced to shuffle the deck mightily throughout an injury-wracked regular season, but once everyone was healthy, the fourth line of Armia, Corey Perry and Eric Staal gave the team productive postseason minutes from an unexpected source. Throughout the playoffs, this line was able to win the majority of its matchups and even contribute key goals at opportune moments.
Armia’s problems as an NHL hockey player are well-known: He’s not a perfect player, injury-prone and suffering through periodic bouts of inconsistency as well as not being the fastest of skaters. But what he does well, he does very well. A big man at 6’4” and 215 lbs., the 28-year-old Finn is a defensively responsible 200-foot player who can play both wings, kill penalties as well as anyone on the team and is an asset in the offensive zone with his heavy shot, underrated passing skills and solid work on the boards.
All of the good and very little of the bad was on display throughout the 21 games Armia played in the 2020-21 postseason. And his timing couldn’t have been better, scoring big goals against Toronto, Winnipeg and Vegas that led to key victories in all three series.
Armia’s five goals and three assists was solid work for a fourth-line winger in these playoffs, but it appears both the GM and the head coach see more good things to come. Bergevin signed his UFA winger over the summer to a somewhat surprising four-year deal that carries a $3.4M cap hit; throughout training camp, Ducharme played Armia with Jake Evans and Brendan Gallagher on what will apparently be the Habs’ new shutdown line.
The line has the potential to be a good one. If Armia can stay healthy and keeps taking regular shifts with linemates of this quality, there’s no reason he can’t score 20 goals in an NHL season for the first time. Especially with Evans – another under-the-radar playoff performer – setting the table for him.
Evans’s playoffs were cruelly cut short by Mark Scheifele’s concussion-inducing charge, just as he was scoring his first and only goal of the playoffs into an empty net in Game 1 of the Winnipeg series, but the short, seven-game sample gave a glimpse of how well his strong defensive game might play out in a larger role.
Watching the 25-year-old Toronto native with Armia and Gallagher during the preseason mostly confirms that perception, despite Evans being in line for the shutdown centre job only because of the departures of Danault and Jesperi Kotkaniemi. But it’s obvious Bergevin likes what he sees in Evans or he wouldn’t have signed him on October 3rd to a generous three-year contract extension that carries a cap hit of $1.7M.
While Evans has already had to deal with concussion issues early in his career, his only real on-ice concern is what his eventual NHL production might look like. He’s already shown he’s a defensively responsible player with good speed and faceoff abilities, but how much offence he can produce at the NHL always stirs up debate.
I think the worries are overblown. Evans averaged about 40 points over his final three seasons at Notre Dame and produced at about the same rate while adjusting to the professional game over two seasons in Laval. He’s put on some weight and is a noticeably better skater than he was in his NCAA days. If Evans can stay healthy for the bulk of the season, he might come close to 40 points this year. If not, I think he has enough offence in his game to reach that level by the time his extension kicks in.
And while Armia and Evans may have flown comfortably under the radar last summer, Cole Caufield might as well have skated the entire playoffs with a neon sign flashing over his head. But not only did the undersized rookie fail to wilt under the spotlight, the glare actually seemed to raise his game.
Playing right wing on the first line with Tyler Toffoli and Nick Suzuki, Caufield, just 20, had a very good playoffs, collecting four goals and eight assists in 20 games, with a number of his points coming in crucial moments of series-deciding games.
If preseason action was any indication, Ducharme liked what he saw from the Toffoli-Suzuki-Caufield line last summer and is looking forward to starting the season with them as his top line. Any worries about a Caufield scoring regression are probably misplaced – just showing up and playing a full season should net this elite young sniper 20 goals. And if things fall into place right away, 30-plus goals wouldn’t be out of the question for the Calder favourite.
There aren’t a lot of sure things when projecting a young hockey player’s future, but a 40-goal season for Caufield before the age of 25 seems like a good bet to me. It will be a lot of fun watching this world-class offensive talent prove his doubters wrong, yet again.
If Caufield had his coming out party during the Stanley Cup run, Russian rookie defenceman Alexander Romanov’s postseason could best be described as a necessary stage of a work in progress, as he played in only four of the Canadiens’ 22 playoff games. For better or worse, the coaching staff had seen enough of his play throughout the regular season to think he wasn’t quite ready for the pressures of prime time playoff hockey.
They may have been right. Even in his finest postseason hour – Game 4 of the Stanley Cup final in Montreal – Romanov’s seeing-eye shot from the point that gave the Canadiens the lead in the third period was soon followed by a defensive error that allowed Pat Maroon to score the tying goal for the Lightning.
But what most Habs fans look back on most fondly from Romanov’s work in the playoffs was perhaps when he flattened Vegas defenceman Alex Pietrangelo in front of the Canadiens net in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Semifinal. It was what we’d been seeing from him all season and a sign that he had enough confidence to keep playing his physical game when the stakes were at their highest.
The coming season will be an important one for Romanov. There’s some indication that the coaching staff would like to move him up higher in the lineup, which is probably not a bad idea, but pairing him with a defensive-minded partner like David Savard makes the most sense, development-wise. Some see Savard as a Shea Weber replacement, but I see him – at least for this season — in a more useful role as Romanov’s mentor.
These are just four of the Montreal Canadiens players who took the ice during last summer’s Stanley Cup playoff run. Each went through different experiences and contributed to the cause in different ways.
But they all had one thing in common – each player gained invaluable experience through helping the team find success under difficult circumstances that is likely to pay off in the future.