Montreal Canadiens young centres are going to be key to team success.
Montreal Canadiens teams were lacking depth on centres for nearly two decades. After trading Pierre Turgeon and Vincent Damphousse in the late 1990’s, the Habs were constantly weak at the pivotal position.
There was a brief reprieve during their centennial season when Saku Koivu, Tomas Plekanec, Robert Lang and Maxim Lapierre provided nice depth down the middle, but an injury to Lang after 50 games left them relying on Glen Metropolit for offence from the third line.
Koivu and Lang were gone the following season and the Scott Gomez era was ushered in. Shortly after that were the years of trying to make David Desharnais into a first line centre. Finally, within a few months in 2018, general manager Marc Bergevin decided to take a couple of risks to try and address the position for the long term.
Following a difficult 2017-18, the Habs had the third overall draft pick. Most draft ranking or wannabe GMs (me) predicted the Canadiens would take Filip Zadina or maybe Brady Takchuk. Both players are wingers, but they were the consensus second and third choices behind Rasmus Dahlin and Andrei Svechnikov.
Instead of bowing to public pressure, Bergevin chose to draft centre Jesperi Kotkaniemi instead of Zadina or Tkachuk. Kotkaniemi was ranked slightly lower than the two wingers on almost any draft board, but Bergevin elected to address the more important position of centre by taking a big centre from Finland with the third overall pick.
About three months later, the Canadiens were gathered in Montreal getting set for training camp. There were rumours all summer long about Max Pacioretty being available and Bergevin finally pulled the trigger on a deal.
The Habs captain was moved to the Vegas Golden Knights for Tomas Tatar, a second round pick, and the jewel of the deal, centre Nick Suzuki.
In one offseason, Bergevin had acquired two terrific young prospect centres and completely changed the fortunes of the position that had been lacking for so long.
Fast forward two years, and the Canadiens have gone from the the fourth worst record in hockey to Stanley Cup hopefuls. Their fortunes in the upcoming 2021 season largely hinge on the play of Kotkaniemi and Suzuki.
When the Canadiens returned to play last summer in the bubble, Suzuki and Kotkaniemi took on roles on the top three lines while Max Domi was demoted to fourth line centre duties before moving up the lineup to play the wing.
When Domi was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets for Josh Anderson, Suzuki and Kotkaniemi’s roles as top three centres became permanent.
When the Canadiens opened training camp this week, Suzuki was on a line with Jonathan Drouin and Josh Anderson, while Kotkaniemi was between Tyler Toffoli and Joel Armia.
The productive two-way line of Phillip Danault, Tomas Tatar and Brendan Gallagher remains in tact, and will likely take on the toughest matchups most nights. It will be up to Suzuki and Kotkaniemi’s lines to take advantage of easier matchups and make the Habs a tough team to play against.
There really is no margin for error for either young centre. With Domi gone, the Habs fourth line centre will be Jake Evans. He has 13 games of NHL experience and isn’t ready to step into a third line role. Ryan Poehling had two points in 27 NHL games last season and is next in line down the middle.
So, either Suzuki and Kotkaniemi are productive in their roles, or we will start to see Jordan Weal playing third line centre in no time. With all due respect to the Habs forward, if he’s the third line centre, the team immediately looks much less dangerous.
When the team was practicing their power play, the two young centres were once again in prominent roles. Suzuki was on the first unit, playing down low on his off wing. This would open up options for him to get Weber the puck up top, Toffoli in the middle or Drouin on the his off wing.
The second wave of the power play had Kotkaniemi on his off wing as well. He is a creative player that should be able to find Gallagher on the back door, but hopefully he is using his shot more and simplifying things was he has big Josh Anderson in front of the net on his unit.
We have seen where the Habs end up when the only forward line clicking all year is the Danault, Tatar and Gallagher trio. They simply aren’t good enough to make the playoffs without plenty of depth scoring behind that line.
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It is going to put Suzuki and Kotkaniemi in the spotlight to provide offence. If they do, this team will be in the postseason for sure and have a chance against any Canadian team in a playoff series. If they don’t produce, the Habs will be on the outside looking in when the playoffs begin.