The first of a five-game road trip for the Montreal Canadiens took place on Monday night. All five contests will be in Alberta.
With game one in Edmonton, the Canadiens looked to keep up their unusual success in shutting down Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. Montreal is still fighting to solidify their hold on a playoff spot and this one didn’t help as the Oilers skated to a 4-1 win.
Phillip Danault is not an exciting player. He will not thrill you. On a rush, he won’t even make you lean forward on your couch. But if you’re a general manager in the hunt for someone to manage Connor McDavid, Danault is your man.
Danault is an unrestricted free agent available to anyone in the league after this season concludes. You just have to think that some team in McDavid’s division that has been getting destroyed by the best player in hockey, is going to make an offer for Danault that looks ridiculous to anyone who does not know the game.
Danault in six games matched up against McDavid and also Leon Draisaitl has done better than any centre in hockey.
For 50 minutes, Danault was doing it again, before the flood gates finally opened. Marc Bergevin, Canadiens general manager, doesn’t want to pay big money for Danault. He can barely afford Danault because of a flat cap for next season and likely beyond. You don’t want to break the bank, but a top-five line in this league for the last three seasons is Brendan Gallagher, Danault and Tomas Tatar and you need to find a way to keep the line together. It’s just not a very good hockey team without that line together. That line is a more important core element than the two pieces that the GM believes are his core.
That brings us to one of those two pieces, Carey Price. He left the game after the first period due to injury. He did not remain at the bench for the rest of the contest either. There were two moments that could have been the reason. Price had his head rocked and it could have been a concussion, though he did not show any signs of it. He also stopped a shot with his high shoulder area around the collar bone, so it also could have been that. Neither looked serious, yet he did not return.
Jake Allen took over and was strong again as he has been this season. And as per usual, he got almost no goal support. It’s the story of his season. Allen leads Price in all goalie metrics this season, except wins. They just don’t score much for him.
After the NHL head coaches around the North Division figured out that to beat the Canadiens, you dump it deep and put pressure on the immobile defence, it’s been a difficult task for Montreal to score goals. The issue seems to be getting even worse. This was an extremely entertaining game with both teams bringing big energy, but that doesn’t mean the Canadiens had many high-quality chances. They really struggled to create anything.
The goal was Eric Staal just letting his skate do the work as he just put it in front of a cross-ice pass from Corey Perry. Jesperi Kotkaniemi had a powerplay chance with an empty net that he put in row 20. There really wasn’t much else offensively for Montreal. They’re just not generating chances. That’s the script for eight games now. Montreal in eight has only 12 goals. That doesn’t win many games.
Still though, with only five minutes remaining, the Canadiens were still in it, until the McDavid magic finally was unleashed on Montreal. McDavid picked up the puck at the blue line. He looked right at Joel Edmundson and Jeff Petry who were well-positioned to defend him. He didn’t hesitate at all. McDavid split the defence like they weren’t even there. Edmundson was completely turnstiled. That’s what amazing talent can do. They beat you. It’s what the Canadiens lack. They lack that elite game-breaker.
One of the theories of hockey is if you win the middle, you win the game. Without strong centres, there really is no way to compete as a top-tier club. Throughout the last 25 years, when we look at the engravings on the Stanley Cup, there are two styles of player who are always there: outstanding centres and two 30-minute horses on defence.
Without a first pairing on the blue line, and a dominant one or even two centres, history has shown us clearly that there is next to no chance of winning a title. Ryan O’Reilly is the only exception perhaps to the win the middle rule in the last 25 seasons. This is not to say that O’Reilly is not a strong centre, but he is not in the superstar mould as the rest of the winners of cups at the centre position.
NHL champions are a who’s who of the great centres in the game. Anze Kopitar, Patrice Bergeron, Jonathan Toews, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Nicklas Backstrom are recent dominant centres. Farther back we see Joe Sakic, Pavel Datsyuk, Peter Forsberg, Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and many, many more. Do your own search if you need to, but dominance down the middle is basically a must. Look at a cup-winning team and you will automatically remember the centre who got them there.
That brings us to the 2021 world of the Montreal Canadiens. Here are the goal totals of the Canadiens’ centres this season: Nick Suzuki has eight; Jesperi Kotkaniemi has five; Phillip Danault has four; Jake Evans has two; and Eric Staal has one with the club and three overall. There is no “win the middle, win the game” here yet with this group.
The future looks very bright for the kids, but this is not the time to think they are in the same category as the great names of champions with their names engraved on the cup. Wait patiently for a 20-year-old and a 21-year-old to keep growing.
Both Suzuki and Kotkaniemi are right on pace with some of the great centres in hockey at the same age. Only very special players like Crosby find any glory at 21. Mostly, every centre has growing pains and every centre learns the game over the years. Also, their bodies have to mature to find themselves with the strength to compete on equal footing.
This takes time, and nothing is happening that is magical until Suzuki and Kotkaniemi are ready for it. Be confident that they are preparing, because they are right on pace for something special. So not only be confident, be patient. The window for a better Canadiens team is not now, but the build continues. The better defenders are coming. The better centres are already here, but they need time.
The first step was even getting high-quality centres with strong potential. That took a long time, but it has been done. Now they need to mature.