After Claude Julien was forced to shuffle his discard pile of fourth-liners for two-thirds of the season, a trade with the Los Angeles Kings finally gave him his ace.
Perhaps not the card most people would put Nate Thompson’s face on, but with the team construction Julien had envisioned, the transaction allowed him to realize his plan of a top nine made up of skill and work ethic — which he’d had since the start of the year with the additions of Max Domi, Tomas Tatar, and Jesperi Kotkaniemi — with the reliable support of a centre who could survive the tough defensive matchups and help out on the penalty kill as well.
We investigated Thompson’s underlying numbers earlier in the week, seeing that the pending unrestricted free agent was up to the task thrust upon him by his coach, which you couldn’t say of the six other options used earlier in the year. To go along with his good possession and scoring-chance numbers, he was used just a few minutes less than Phillip Danault on the penalty kill in the Montreal Canadiens’ final 26 games, seeing the opposition score just three times in his 49 minutes of work. A 55.1% faceoff winning percentage during his stint helped his team out during the man disadvantage.
There’s little debate that Thompson was better than the fourth-line-centre options available through the first 58 games. In any of the past 10 years a GM probably wouldn’t think twice about bringing him back for another term. But Thompson wasn’t the final centreman added to the roster in 2018-19.
Montreal was able to ship out one of the early-season castoffs, Michael Chaput, to acquire Jordan Weal just ahead of the trade deadline. Weal was also effective in the faceoff dot, matching Thompson’s 55.1% success rate, though his skill set made him more of an offensive option, even helping to inject a bit of life into what was the NHL’s worst power play. (We’ll have plenty more to say about Weal on Friday.)
The biggest challenger to Thompson for the fourth-line spot may be a player who has only one game of NHL experience on his CV. It was a pretty spectacular debut for Ryan Poehling in that one game. With a hat trick in regulation and the game-winner in the shootout, he was the talk of town just days after signing his entry-level contract, and leaving little choice but for Canadiens fans to be hopeful for the future despite seeing their team left out of the playoffs for another year.
There were always some concerns about Poehling’s offensive game, but even back before he was drafted, after a good freshman season in the NCAA, he seemed destined for an NHL career. After besting a goaltender four times in his only game, and being one of the top scorers at the 2019 World Junior Championship, he answered quite a few questions about his offence during the year. He’s probably not going to score 20 every season, but in one game he just about matched the production Thompson managed in each of his previous five campaigns.
Poehling is ready to start his NHL career, and is signed for two more years at less than $1 million. Thompson’s $1.65 million deal is coming to an end, and Evolving Hockey projects his new deal will be somewhere in the two-year, $1.2 million range. The money is not a significant difference, but the age of the two options is: Poehling just turned 20 in January, while Thompson will be 35 when the 2019-20 season begins.
Julien won’t be able to bury Poehling in the defensive zone like he did Thompson, but already trusting Danault with defensive duties and seeing how effective Kotkaniemi was in all three zones as an 18-year-old, there are plenty of options who can distribute the burden, and all bring more offensive promise.
Thompson showed in his 25 games that he can be a helpful piece in the NHL, which was in doubt during his time with one of the league’s worst teams in Los Angeles. He should find another deal, but now that the Canadiens have a full complement of quality centremen — and Jake Evans and Lukas Vejdemo waiting in the wings in Laval — that fit may not be with Montreal.