Canadiens’ Youth Front and… Center

Predicting the futur has been a topic in human kind for ages. Some will argue that it’s a possibility while most will agree that it’s impossible. Movies such as Back to The Future was a huge hit with their time machine. When it comes to pro sports, particularly in this case, the NHL, predicting the futur is what scouts and teams are trying to do. When drafting an 18 year-old, they’re not only comparing them to their peers at around the same age. They trying to predict where and when they will reach the ceiling of their development. And that’s no easy task. The Canadiens might have just found a way for their centers.

Most people around the NHL are praising Canadiens’ General Manager Marc Bergevin for his team’s early success this season. Rightfully so. Most people, however, are only focussing on the pieces he has added to his roster during the off-season.

True that the addition of Joel Edmundson on defense has allowed Brett Kulak to return to a spot he should be, on the third pairing. Trading from a position of depth at center to acquire a rare power forward in Josh Anderson is a great move. Signing Tyler Toffoli seems like winning the lottery at this point. The addition of Corey Perry is already paying off and Michael Frolik is patiently waiting his turn. Jake Allen pushed Charlie Lindgren to the Taxi Squad. Bergevin has added quality depth at every position, no doubt about it.

Impact of youth contribution

What people often forget to look at as a key contributor to Bergevin’s work is the impact of the team’s young players’ development. You have four young men with fewer than 3 years of NHL experience contributing big minutes for Claude Julien‘s squad. Three of those four players showed huge progress during the COVID Cup playoffs, prompting discussions amongst Habs’ management.

Nick Suzuki, Jesperi Kotkaniemi and even Jake Evans raised their game during the playoffs. And all three did it at a key position in the NHL, at center. Not only were these “kids” holding their own by keeping up, they were driving forces on their line. They faced none other than Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in the “play-in” series. In the second round, they faced Kevin Hayes, Sean Couturier and Claude Giroux. And they looked great!

Gaining experience

Further, Bergevin made the decision to sign Russian prospect Alexander Romanov and invite him to the bubble, knowing full well that he couldn’t participate in the playoffs. By doing so, it allowed the young Russian to do three things: get familiar with the players on the team, learn the system and get used to the smaller ice surfaces in North America. The Canadiens were pretty secretive about Romanov during playoffs, the focus being on the team. Julien let one key piece of information slip though, when he said expecting his young defenseman to be in the line-up from training camp.

Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Nick Suzuki

It is these four young men who convinced Bergevin to pursue the players that he’s traded for and that he signed as free agents. It is also these four young men and the team’s playoffs performance that help convince those free agents to want to sign with Montreal in the off-season.

Edmundson wanted to be in Montreal. Anderson was ready to show that his shoulder was healed. Toffoli mentioned the young centers as factors for wanting to be with the Habs. Perry and Frolik loved the team too. Allen, with his Montreal connection, even signed a contract extension to stay with the Canadiens, knowing full well that he’ll be backing up arguably the best goaltender in the world.

Center pieces

So far this season, the young centers are keeping with their progression and more. They have faced the likes of Matthews, Tavares, McDavid, Draisaitl, Horvat, Miller, Pettersson, Monahan and they have all looked good. At times, some will argue that they’ve done better than Phillip Danault, the only true veteran center on the team.

Phillip Danault7033+252.616:16
Nick Suzuki7257+241.017:36
Jesperi Kotkaniemi7145+550.714:05
Jake Evans7202+245.512:28

Suzuki, whom Drouin compared to Patrice Bergeron, has seven points in as many games playing the role of number one center. His linemates are doing great too. Drouin himself (8 points) and Anderson (4 goals) are benefiting from Suzuki’s solid two-way play.

Do we really need to talk about Toffoli’s production playing on Kotkaniemi’s wing, alongside Armia or Perry? KK has five points in seven games so far. We’ll let Toffoli do the talking here:

“KK is a really good forechecker, I feel like he’s really good on the puck and obviously that’s something that’s good for me….getting open is something I’ve always been really good at… I think the more his confidence grows, the more he’s going shoot the puck, score goals and continue to grow as a player.”

Jake Evans is the oldest of the three at 24, but he only had a total of 19 games (playoffs’ included) at the NHL level before the season started. Playing alongside veterans Byron and Lehkonen, he looks like a young veteran out there and Julien has full confidence in him.

There is a lot of hockey left to play in this season but things are looking up. The trust that Bergevin had in his young players, convincing him to “go for it now” is paying off. The reset of 2018 is paying dividends and it’s only the beginning, with quality prospects everywhere in the pipelines. What was the Canadiens’ biggest question mark seems to be one of their strengths as the middle is solid for years to come. Go Habs Go!

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