Montreal Canadiens: Joel Armia And The End Of The Marc Bergevin Era

MONTREAL, CANADA - APRIL 06: Joel Armia #40 of the Montreal Canadiens celebrates a short-handed goal during the second period against the Washington Capitals at Centre Bell on April 6, 2023 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)
MONTREAL, CANADA - APRIL 06: Joel Armia #40 of the Montreal Canadiens celebrates a short-handed goal during the second period against the Washington Capitals at Centre Bell on April 6, 2023 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images) /

Joel Armia is a name most Montreal Canadiens fans would like to forget about in the grand scheme of things. It’s hard to believe that a player the Habs essentially got for free, now sees his tenure with the team end in a very similar manner. With Montreal placing Armia and defenseman Gustav Lindstrom as part of final roster cuts, where they expectedly cleared.

To call Armia’s performance with the Canadiens the past three seasons underwhelming would, well, quite frankly be offensive to things that are actually underwhelming. More than that, Armia is the perfect archetype for a player who can dazzle you one second and leave you tearing your hair out the next. Coming into Montreal as an interesting and promising former first round pick, former Habs GM Marc Bergevin got Armia as compensation from the Winnipeg Jets in exchange for taking on injured goaltender Steve Mason’s contract.

Having been taken 16th overall by the Sabres in the 2011 NHL Draft, Armia never found ice-time in Buffalo barring a one-game audition and was soon shipped to Winnipeg in yet another failed attempt to acquire a quote unquote “Star player”, that being, controversy laden forward Evander Kane. Going into the 2011 Draft, Armia had been one of the more intriguing prospects on the board, having put up remarkably impressive offensive numbers in the Finnish SM-Liiga considering his U-20 status. Posting 18+ goals in each of his three seasons with Assat Pori, the offensive potential Armia showed is something that has followed him his entire career, unfortunately with little if any consistent results.

Coming into a Jets team that was in the midst of an identity crisis and a still-rebuilding phase under coach Paul Maurice, Armia got over some early offensive struggles and had settled into a decent two-way contributor by his third season, posting 12-17-19 totals with a +3 rating over 79 games. Showcasing a solid touch around the net, a decent shot, and surprisingly soft hands for his size, it was clear that Armia had the potential to settle into a larger top-six role, and this was something  Bergevin took note of going into the 2018 off-season.

At that time, the Jets had undergone a complete 180 in terms of their trajectory, after former fifth round pick Connor Hellebuyck quickly emerged as one of the best young goalies in the NHL, leading the Jets to a 52-win season and a Conference Finals Appearance. With Mason’s contract suffocating the team’s cap and limiting their options, all Bergevin had to give up was ECHL defenseman Simon Bourque in return, who never played for the Jets in any capacity, having now emerged as a top defenseman in Austria. Armia was obviously the main piece coming back, and Winnipeg didn’t mind giving up a bottom-six player who would’ve struggled to find a larger role anyways.

Well, a larger role is exactly what Montreal gave Armia, and after some promising early returns, things just kind of fell off into what they are now. That being, Armia heading to the AHL’s Laval Rocket. Much like another former top prospect in Lars Eller, Armia’s tenure in Montreal was admittedly a victim of a team and a culture that was ever-shifting as a product of Bergevin’s “rebuild from scratch each off-season” approach, plugging holes year after year without fixing any of the foundation, until it, well, crumbled.

After an up-and-down tenure with the Montreal Canadiens, the demotion of Joel Armia to the Laval Rocket marks the end of the Marc Bergevin era.

2018-19 saw Armia serve a similar defensive two-way role on a Habs team that rode Max Domi and Carey Price to within a few points of a playoff spot, posting 13-10-23 totals over 57 games.

Prior to the NHL’s season suspension due to the Covid-19 Pandemic in 2019-20, Armia was on pace for a career year, having seemingly emerged as a consistent and reliable offensive option in the Canadiens top-six. Posting 16-14-30 totals over 58 games, this put Armia on pace for his first 20-goal and 40-point season, something he unfortunately hasn’t come close to reaching since.

The past three regular seasons for Armia have been a struggle, failing to post more than 7 goals or 7 assists in any given season. While he did play a big role in the Canadiens miraculous Cinderella Run to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2020-21, it was more as a bottom-six defensive option than anything, forming a solid trio with Eric Staal and Corey Perry on the Habs fourth line, posting 5-3-8 totals over 21 games.

While I would like to say that the past two seasons have had some bright spots here and there for Armia, that just simply hasn’t been the case, barring a random and completely unexpected hat-trick he posted towards the end of last season. Ultimately though, this wasn’t enough to keep him around in Montreal going into the beginning of 2023-24, so the question remains, what do the Canadiens do with Armia now?

In spite of the occasional and I mean occasional bright spot, Armia has largely looked like a player who, when he chooses to play, can be a dominating presence on the ice. The issue is, he rarely, if ever, chooses to play, putting on his best David Blaine impression by disappearing before your very eyes on the ice for minutes, if not games at a time.

This makes the once-in-a-blue-moon hat tricks more frustrating than anything truly productive, and it seems the Canadiens front-office has started to agree, after a long period of forcing Armia into a lineup when he did little if anything productive on both sides of the puck.

At a $3.4 million AAV cap hit for the next two seasons, Armia isn’t your typical waiver-wire player, though has largely played like one since the end of the 2021 Playoffs. In Laval’s season opening two-game series against the Abbotsford Canucks, Armia potted two goals and an assist and was a defining factor in Laval being able to keep the games competitive (in spite of an extremely rough first outing from goalie Jakub Dobes).

In terms of his performance in Montreal however, it’s clear Armia’s head hasn’t been fully in the game for quite some time. Two games in Laval are two gams and I’m still going to be skeptical regarding Armia’s potential until he finds the consistency he seemingly lost under the couch cushions years ago.

At the end of the day, Armia is still Armia, and he’s shown that, when he wants to play, he can dominate. At his peak in Montreal, it was nearly impossible to knock Armia off the puck along the boards, and, should he choose to put even a slight amount of effort in in Laval, Armia, in my mind, could do absolutely anything he wanted.

At his peak Armia is a type of player who can lead the AHL in scoring, and he’s shown (albeit not in years) the ability to be a big-game performer, again when he wants to be. I personally think it’s the end for Armia in Montreal (ditto the much maligned Bergevin era) but with a strong season in Laval, who knows what could happen ultimately.

Realistically, the only team I can see taking a chance on him via a trade or otherwise is the financially-strapped Arizona Coyotes, but even then, I’d be surprised. It’s just yet another example of the gradual downfall that has been Armia’s tenure with the Canadiens, one I think personally, has met it’s end with a whimper, not a bang.

As 2023-24 gets underway, the Montreal Canadiens are slowly tying up the loose ends of their roster as they prepare for the start of the season, but for every prospect like Matias Norlinder looking to make their mark, we have yet another former prospect in Joel Armia, who is now becoming familiar with the all-too-treacherous, waiver wire.

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