Call of the Wilde: Montreal Canadiens dropped by Ottawa Senators 5-4 before All-Star break

The final game before the All-Star Game break found the Montreal Canadiens completing a back-to-back with the Ottawa Senators.

Ottawa completed the sweep with a 5-4 win.

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There have been some fairly good performances lately by individuals not getting much praise this season. Mike Hoffman is a good example. He has been absolutely wiring shots from the right face-off circle during this home-and-home series.

Finally, with five seconds left in the second period, one of the shots found the back of the net. That was his ninth goal of the season to go with a bundle of goal posts, as the Canadiens hit the post a whopping five times in the two games.

Another player not getting much ink, but playing nice hockey is Jesse Ylonen. On an outstanding Canadiens club that they are trying to build, it will not be easy to find a spot for Ylonen. He doesn’t seem to have top-six potential, but he could be a strong back-end player.

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If Ylonen can make sure that he is responsible defensively, there is enough offence in his game to win a spot in the back-six of a talented club.

Another player who could fight for a future spot on the back-six is Rafael Harvey-Pinard, who has played extremely well since his call-up. In this one, Head Coach Martin St. Louis bumped Havey-Pinard up to the top line halfway through the second period to play with Nick Suzuki, and it immediately the trio played with more spark.

In the third period, they really clicked with Suzuki making a brilliant pass to Harvey-Pinard to tie the contest briefly. After the Senators took the lead again, Montreal needed more Harvey-Pinard magic.

The man they call RHP picked up a loose rebound to score his fifth goal of the season in only seven games. He’s been outstanding since being called up from Laval.

It would completely send the wrong message to send him down when the club becomes healthy again. He’s been that good.

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The Canadiens are having difficulty starting well. Many times this season, the first period has been the worst period. In this one, Montreal trailed 2-0 after three minutes and 49 seconds. Claude Giroux and Tim Stutzle scored in 52 seconds early in the first and right away, Montreal was playing a much harder game of catch-up.

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The Canadiens were outshot in the first period 11-4. There have been some horrible starts for Montreal at the Bell Centre with the worst against the Kraken, when Seattle outshot Montreal 19-6 in the first building a 3-0 lead.

The Canadiens don’t have the firepower to come back from poor first periods. They can’t pick the second to find their better game.

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The more centres that you have on your team, the better. Centres can play wing, but wings can’t play centre. When the Canadiens are constructing their hockey club, they’re trying to do it by winning the middle of the sheet.

Right now, the Canadiens have two strong players at the centre position as top-six in Nick Suzuki and Kirby Dach. What happens, though, if an even more elite centre joins the club eventually after the NHL Entry Draft of 2023?

This year’s draft is the strongest in decades. The first six players that are chosen will be better than the first player chosen in many other draft years. This draft is that good.

If the Canadiens win the lottery, they would add to their elite lineup down the middle, Connor Bedard or Adam Fantilli.  If they don’t win the lottery, and maintain their position around sixth worst, they could draft Will Smith. He plays at the United States Development Program and is putting up numbers that equal the all-time gold standard Jack Hughes.

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Smith plays centre and is achieving a points-per-game average of nearly two. Last year, the third choice overall Logan Cooley had a points-per-game average of 1.3. Jack Hughes counted just over two points per game in his draft year.

All of this is passed on to make the case that whether it be Bedard, Fantilli or Smith, the Canadiens’ new centre will have the pedigree to be their best centre. They have the potential to be 90- to 130-point players, depending on who it is.

Simple math says there is a wonderful problem in the offing by 2024 or 2025, when the Canadiens’ top pick this summer is ready to shine at the NHL level. For argument’s sake, imagine Fantilli, Suzuki, and Dach as three centres and only two centre spots available.

It’s only two spots because the best players should be on the top-six of any club. It would be illogical to be giving Suzuki or Dach third line minutes and lesser talent to play with. The upcoming draft pick is likely to be the best centre on the club with the pedigree that these players have at the top of the draft.

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That leaves Suzuki and Dach — one will be centre and one on the wing on the first line. If one argued who goes where using only their play in the last month, Dach is on fire with eight points in his last nine games, and Suzuki has one goal in his last 19 games.

However, Suzuki could be tired with 22 minutes per night. He could also be missing his mate Cole Caufield. He also faces the other team’s best lines. He may also be injured. There are a lot of intangibles in the mix.

All season long, though, even when Suzuki was racking up big points, the better shot share analytics were held by Dach. Dach is a more natural centre. He carries the puck up from his own zone to exit the zone at a very high talent level. Dach also is strong at entering the zone with the puck, instead of dumping it in.

Dach, as they say, is a possession monster.

In points, Suzuki’s career high is 61. This season he is on pace to attain 62 points. He’s becoming consistent at a point level around 60 at the age of 23. His ceiling could be higher, of course, and everyone hopes it is.

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Dach’s hitting his career high in points right now, but from a lower level. He is two years younger than Suzuki. It’s difficult to know how much Dach will still grow his game, but this feels like a break-out season for a player drafted third who may just be living up to that high pedigree.

Both have played 50 games this year with Dach closing the point total 40 to 33. With 31 games left this season, it just might be that Dach passes Suzuki before this season concludes.

What an outstanding development for General Manager Kent Hughes. He acquired Dach from the Hawks for the 13th pick overall, and he may have just found a top-six centre for the next decade.

It’s a small sample. It’s recency bias. Hughes hopes that with a bigger sample size, the bias is real. Hughes said himself two weeks ago: “Long term, I see Kirby Dach as a centre”.

It is impossible to know exactly how this shakes out. Firstly, this summer’s draft has to go well for Montreal. If they don’t get a star centre who is available because the Canadiens draft 10th, this entire discussion becomes moot and both Suzuki and Dach will be top-six centres.

If they get Fantilli, then one of Dach or Suzuki will go to the wing to play with Fantilli, and the other player will centre his own line.

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All Canadiens fans should be doing is celebrating, because the arrival of Dach at a higher level only opens the possibility that the club could have an extremely good top six.  It is possible that the only two true wingers in the top-six will be Cole Caufield and Juraj Slafkovsky, with the other four having trained as centres. That’s a good thing.

It will take years to sort out.  All we have to do is wait for better days and see who has the highest ceiling by 2025.

Brian Wilde, a Montreal-based sports writer, brings you Call of the Wilde on after each Canadiens game.

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