The Montreal Canadiens have drawn against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round of the NHL playoffs. Now, odds are that the Habs are going to lose to Toronto, but the same thing could have been said about the Penguins and the Habs last season.
With the Montreal Canadiens becoming healthy and getting a nice rest before their first playoff game on Thursday, there are going to be some tough decisions for Dominique Ducharme. There are some definite locks, the line of Tomas Tatar – Phillip Danault – Brendan Gallagher will be on the team, whether together or apart. And Nick Suzuki and Tyler Toffoli have and probably will continue playing in the top 6.
In the bottom 6, Paul Byron, Jake Evans, Artturi Lehkonen and Corey Perry have played their way into solid depth pieces that should be in the lineup for game 1. Defence is a similar story, with Shea Weber, Ben Chiarot, Jeff Petry and Joel Edmundson a solid top 4.
That leaves some interesting pieces on the fringes, where it is not certain if they would be playing in game 1 or not. The new guys have either struggled (Eric Staal) or not stood out enough to definitively earn a spot (Erik Gustafsson and Jon Merrill). Then, there are the youngsters.
Unlike Suzuki, Jesperi Kotkaniemi has not taken a step forward this year, and has found himself down in the depth chart. Cole Caufield has played really well in his first 10 games, scoring 4 goals and 1 assist. That would be about 32 goals in a full 82-game season, but also a terribly small sample size. Alexander Romanov has played well as a rookie bottom-pairing defenceman, and I think that without the additions of Gustafsson and Merrill, he would be a lock on that bottom pair.
These are some tough decisions, and it really does put into perspective the dichotomy of the Montreal Canadiens. There are guys like Weber, Staal, Perry and Carey Price, who need to win now if they are going to play. Then, there are players like Gallagher, Tatar, Toffoli and Anderson, who are in the middle of their primes. They still have years to go in their career, but this is as good as they are going to get, and they are staring down the insurmountable summit of Father Time.
Then, the next level below the prime guys, Kotkaniemi, Caufield and Romanov. They are good now but are going to get better in the future. If you are going to play these guys, you are going to have to deal with the problems that come with playing young players. You are going to get some mental mistakes, cracking under the pressure and generally playing worse than the more experienced players.
But it is not just about now. Drafting players is only one part, you then have to help them develop properly. The NHL is chock-full of stories of wasted potential and poor development. Kotkaniemi has many people wondering if he is going down that path. After being picked third overall, he made the Canadiens’ roster that year and played well as an 18-year-old rookie. The next year, Kotkaniemi struggled mightily and was even sent down to play in Laval, in the AHL.
Developing players is a delicate balancing act of giving the players enough time in the NHL so they can play and grow better, but not throwing them to the wolves and destroying their confidence. There is no easy answer.
It would be easy to give the kids sheltered minutes in the playoffs and see what happens. Or, make sure that everyone knows that there are no expectations, and give them the run of the place and see what happens (a.k.a the Ottawa Senators approach). But, thanks to the older guys on the roster, there is going to be pressure to win now. Not to mention the fanbase.
Merrill or Gustafsson would probably give the Canadiens a better chance to win against Toronto over Romanov this year, but would it be best for Romanov’s development? What is the most important thing, winning now for the veterans or developing the youngsters correctly?
If Caufield and Kotkaniemi are playing in the playoffs, who are they pushing out? Gallagher, Tatar, Danault, Suzuki, Toffoli, Anderson, Evans, Lehkonen, Byron, Perry and Armia are all close to locks on the roster. That is 11 of the 12 spots on the forward corps. Who do Kotkaniemi and Caufield push out of that?
Evans, Byron and Lehkonen might have the most precarious spots on that list, but they had a great game to clinch the playoffs for Montreal.
Caufield and Kotkaniemi would also have to compete against veterans Staal and Frolik for spots. Staal has not been good as a Canadien, but he has the pedigree of Stanley Cup Champion and has not been taken out of the lineup yet for some reason. Caufield played well in the 10 games so far, and played well in the playoffs in college, but is it too early to depend on him for offence at the biggest stage?
Ultimately, there is no easy answer. It is coming to the point where the reset is going to have to change. There has to be a decision whether to sell the farm to win now or get rid of the veterans to build up the young players, also known as a rebuild. The problem? Price and Weber’s contracts are nigh unmovable, and Montreal would have to give up a lot to move them.
What is the right way, what is the wrong way, and what way will Bergevin and Ducharme go with? Time will tell, but it should be a fun series either way.