The Montreal Canadiens announced before the first of their two Super Bowl weekend matinees that Carey Price would be in net for both games.
No question they are still going for it, even though ‘it’ is about a 22-8 record to close the season to make the playoffs. ‘It’ is one heck of a run, but you can’t succeed without trying, so try they must starting with the Florida Panthers.
The Panthers are one of the teams they have to pass to earn that playoff spot, so this was a four-point game. Montreal put together likely their best game of the entire season earning a 4-0 win over the Panthers.
- It’s been a difficult season. The Canadiens are all but mathematically assured of missing the playoffs four years out of five. That’s discouraging but if you can find pieces that can make you not just a little bit better, but a lot better along the way, then it’s not as horrendous as it feels. Enter Nick Suzuki. What this 20 year old has done in his rookie season is the single biggest reason right now to feel good about the future. He’s the best added piece that they have found in a long time. He has five assists in his last three games. He’s moved into fourth in rookie scoring. Suzuki is excelling at every challenge put in front of him. No one had Suzuki as their second-line centre just over halfway through the campaign, but that is where he is excelling. Not only important that he is winning face-offs, but also, away from Max Domi, he is looking strong defensively as a centre. The Habs have had one go-to line for two seasons, but their second line was always streaky; not reliable. It has cost them as opposition coaches focused on that one line knowing no one else would punish them. The Canadiens may have just found a second line to rely on. Suzuki at centre with Ilya Kovalchuk and Joel Armia on his wings. Admittedly, it is extremely early in the experiment, but for the first two games together they have been dominant. Suzuki scored a gorgeous goal on a 2-on-1 thanks to a terrific pass from Armia. Kovalchuk was the talented decoy to Suzuki’s left. It’s not been the easiest of seasons, but they have definitely added a piece in Suzuki.
- Have they added a second piece? That’s a provocative question at the moment. Kovalchuk was without a doubt brought in to get the job done this year. He was not in the equation for next season, but averaging a point-per-game so far, is Kovalchuk earning a look for next year? On the surface, the answer is no. He’s a UFA for next season, and he can fetch a draft pick right now. The better he does leading up to Feb. 24, the higher the draft pick he is worth. Could it be as high as a first? Highly unlikely, but you never know who feels desperate. You never know. Experts are continually surprised what desperate GMs will give up to keep their jobs. Kovalchuk at a point-per-game pace would be an attractive acquisition for a team on a playoff run. What about Montreal though as a destination with a thought toward next season? He would have to be inked before Feb. 24. It would make no sense to let him die on the vine without a guarantee for next year. If he won’t sign, then you must trade. The popular refrain is to trade Kovalchuk, then get him back. This sounds good in theory, but the player leaves to continue his life. He may find success on his new team who now are more interested in him. He may realize that he can’t just play well in Montreal still, but everywhere except Los Angeles. Life goes on, and that’s not good to get a player back that you gave up on. Kovalchuk has to really increase his value in Montreal right now, and if the line with Suzuki continues to be this dominant, that would be the trick towards that end. Bergevin would have dreams of two top lines that he could rely on every night. That changes everything. It is going to be interesting to watch, and we’re all looking for something interesting in February considering the standings aren’t providing much drama.
- One could see the value of two strong lines watching Danault dominate the game with Tomas Tatar and Brendan Gallagher. Some days, not as many as last season, they are such a force out there. The Panthers only had 12 shots in the first two periods. The Corsi numbers were through the roof for the Habs in this contest. After two periods, the Habs were up 72 to 28 which for Corsi is dominating. Among the best were Danault and Suzuki. The best through two periods was Jeff Petry with an almost unheard of 92 Corsi. He assisted on all four Habs goals and was an absolute force. The two players who may be on the block Petry and Tatar sure did not play like they wanted to be forsaken here and moved along. They both put in some of their best work of the season.
- This was likely the best mix of lines the entire season long created by the head coach. The third line was Max Domi looking very good with Artturi Lehkonen on his wing. That’s a good mix for Domi to have such an intelligent player with him on the wing to cover for his aggressive forays at times. The other side had Jordan Weal who will no doubt be replaced by Jonathan Drouin when he returns. That’s three extremely good lines. Once again, the issues with the club are not on offence. This team when healthy was fifth in the league in scoring. They are tops in the NHL in shots, and second in high danger chances. The issue is defence. Nothing bad to say about the offence when it is clicking. They just need to solve that goals-against woe that has seen them anywhere from 20th to 30th in the league.
- Lost in a dominating performance on Saturday afternoon was the play of Carey Price. He made a clean cut breakaway save in the first period on Jonathan Huberdeau when it was 1-0. If he doesn’t make that save, it could have been a different day.
- It was a stellar day for the Montreal Canadiens. No need to fill this section with nitpicking. When the COTW first started figuring out the math for the Habs playoff chances, they needed 27 and 10 to achieve 97 points which is the likely point total that it will take. They now need to conclude the season with a 21 and 8 finish to achieve 97. It’s still very much a long shot, but they’re trending in the right direction. That’s the math. Make of it what you will.
Before the contest, the Habs sent Jesperi Kotkaniemi down to the minors. This was the right call, and there can be no debate. Kotkaniemi is only 19 years of age and has already played in the NHL two seasons. There is no doubt that he has an NHL career in front of him, but his development is best served with the puck on his stick. It was said in a special Call Of The Wilde on Thursday that one can not get better without the puck on their stick a lot. Doing is how you learn in the world; not watching other’s do it. Kotkaniemi needs a lot of ice time in all situations in Laval. He needs to be on the power play. He needs to be on the first line for the Rocket. He needs to be playing 20 minutes every night.
Ryan Poehling should follow Kotkaniemi to the minors as he is also not seeing the puck a lot at the NHL level. Poehling will not improve his stick skills either skating up and down the wing without the puck. He also won’t obviously improve them either being scratched from the line-up Saturday. Nick Suzuki does not need to go to the minors as he is able to achieve his goals in terms of puck possession. Suzuki is attempting and succeeding all of the moves in his arsenal already, so the only reason he needs to go to the AHL is to help them make the playoffs in a lost season in Montreal.
You see, where you should play depends on how you are able to develop. How you develop depends on what you can achieve at the level you are playing. Kotkaniemi and Poehling were able to make a certain set of moves and plays in Finland and at Saint Cloud State. They now need to make the same set of moves at the AHL level. When they can achieve that in Laval, then, and only then, are they ready to play at the NHL level. You need to dominate at each level, then graduate from it.
This is the process of learning in all endeavours. You don’t get a PhD before you get a masters before you get your first degree. This does not indicate anything significantly bad for these two players. It’s a natural progression. Let it happen. Be patient. Poehling is 20. Kotkaniemi is 19.
Look at Casey Middlestadt in Buffalo. He was sent back down which was the right call by Buffalo as he was no developing. Look at Kailer Yamamoto in Edmonton as he was not ready, but developed beautifully in the minors. Look at Leon Draisaitl in Edmonton as he played a half of a season before they realized that he was not developing properly, but look at him now. Not everyone is Connor McDavid. Let them learn. Let them feel the puck on their sticks trying things that they have done before.
It’s all good. This is how development works. Kotkaniemi and Poehling should both develop for the next 30 games in Laval, and maybe even some of next season too. They’ll be nothing wrong with that. The trend these days is to ask a lot of these high draft picks, and it feels like many are not getting a chance to hone their skills in the NHL. Some succeed, but many flounder, and would be better served to spend time dominating at a lower level.
Look at the top choices in the draft this season. Are Jack Hughes, Kaapo Kakko and Kirby Dach being best served right now playing in the NHL? The following seven picks in last year’s draft are likely learning more not playing in the NHL right now and being on the ice all of the time in their lower levels and able to keep honing their skills at 18. There will never be one blanket answer here, but a case by case basis for all players. For Kotkaniemi and Poehling, the answer is clear and obvious if you step back from it: They need the puck on their stick to develop their stick skills.