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Nate Thompson brought stability to a makeshift fourth line

After being unimpressed with a handful of early auditions, Claude Julien finally found his man.

NHL: Montreal Canadiens at Tampa Bay Lightning Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

After all the pre-season games had been played in September, Claude Julien made his final roster decisions. He chose to cut AHL veterans Kenny Agostino and Michael Chaput in favour of Charles Hudon and Matthew Peca, hoping to get a bit of offence from the bottom trio and balance out a four-line formation.

The head coach wasn’t satisfied with what he saw from Hudon in the opening weeks. After a decent first full year in the NHL the previous season, with 10 goals and 30 points, Hudon had trouble getting much of anything going in 2018-19, even with the more offensive deployment the line was getting.

In November, Agostino and Chaput were brought back up as Julien shuffled his cards looking for a combination he liked. The coach decided to run with two different arrangements for his fourth line, using Chaput and Deslauriers against teams designed to work the boards on offence, and deploying Peca and Hudon versus opponents more likely to allow their offensive styles room to work.

Despite all the options at his disposal, Julien still couldn’t find a line he could rely upon. Deslauriers saw the most usage among the group, but even he dressed for just over half of the games.

Approaching the trade deadline, with several forwards in the top nine having career years and a playoff spot within reach, the focus for Marc Bergevin was on upgrading the fourth line.

That started on February 9 when the general manager acquired Dale Weise (along with defenceman Christian Folin) from the Philadelphia Flyers, while an attempt was made to send Agostino back to Laval, but he was snatched up by the New Jersey Devils. Weise was unable to rediscover the success he had in his first stint, and didn’t record a single point in the nine games he played in Montreal while posting underlying numbers similar to those of the players he was brought in to replace.

2018-19 fourth-line options

Player GP G A P PPG CF% SCF% xGF% OZS%
Player GP G A P PPG CF% SCF% xGF% OZS%
Kenny Agostino 36 2 9 11 0.31 56.7 53.6 53.0 59.4
Michael Chaput 32 0 5 5 0.16 51.9 47.8 49.2 50.0
Nicolas Deslauriers 48 2 3 5 0.10 50.0 47.6 48.2 54.0
Charles Hudon 32 3 2 5 0.16 48.6 47.7 47.8 55.5
Matthew Peca 39 3 7 10 0.26 45.0 40.4 41.5 52.3
Dale Weise 9 0 0 0 0.00 47.1 55.4 42.8 44.4
GP: game played, G: goals, A: assists, P: points, PPG: points per game, CF%: Corsi-for percentage, SCF%: scoring-chances-for percentage, xGF%: expected-goals-for percentage (based on shot types and locations for and against), OZS%: offensive-zone-start percentage (the percentage of end-zone starts in the offensive end) Stats via and Natural Stat Trick

(Side note: Agostino actually fared quite well in the role he was given.)

Two days after Weise was acquired, the Canadiens added Nate Thompson from the Los Angeles Kings by swapping a fourth-round pick for a fifth-round selection. The return for moving down just a few spots in the latter half of the draft initially seemed as underwhelming as the cost, with Thompson looking like just the latest failed attempt to have a low-percentage gamble pan out on the bottom trio. His stats with the Kings offered no reason to think he’d be the one to satisfy Julien’s requests.

Thompson’s numbers with Kings

Player GP G A P PPG CF% SCF% xGF% OZS%
Player GP G A P PPG CF% SCF% xGF% OZS%
Nate Thompson (LAK) 53 4 2 6 0.11 44.4 42.9 44.8 35.7

Perhaps the number that mattered most in this transaction was the offensive-zone-start percentage; Thompson had been given a harsh defensive deployment in L.A., seeing two shifts begin in the defensive zone to every one at the opposition’s end.

Julien treated his new centre the same way he had been by the Kings’ coaching staff, matching his OZS% in his stint in Montreal. But the head coach saw his new charge be able to stand under the burden, all while matching or even exceeding the performances of the personnel he had been juggling all season long.

Thompson’s numbers with Canadiens

Player GP G A P PPG CF% SCF% xGF% OZS%
Player GP G A P PPG CF% SCF% xGF% OZS%
Nate Thompson (MTL) 25 1 6 7 0.28 50.5 51.2 48.4 36.6

The day after Thompson was acquired, Chaput was placed on waivers, then assigned to the AHL once he had cleared. Peca, Marc Bergevin’s main free-agent signee from the summer, dressed for just five games after Thompson was brought on board. Thompson played 25 of the Canadiens’ final 26 games of the season, immediately becoming the everyday fourth-line centre (other than a few temporary promotions to cover injuries) as the Canadiens attempted to earn a post-season berth.

For Julien, who prefers to run a fourth line that can be trusted with defensive duty and provide energy, and yet was forced to give all of his previous options balanced or favourable zonal deployments, he finally had a player to fit his game plan.