While training camp in 2018 brought about a lot of uncertainty and questions about roster construction, the 2019 variation seems to be much the opposite in Montreal. At least comparatively speaking, the Canadiens roster heading into camp seems to be much more locked in, save for a few battles for spots on the fourth line, and bottom defensive pair.
Montreal has completely overhauled the fourth line group in the last six months, leaving it a far (better) cry from prior years. Gone are the AHL level players like Michael Chaput and Kenny Agostino, Tomas Plekanec is retired, and Nicolas Deslauriers was traded to Anaheim for a fourth round pick.
Still lingering from the start of last year are Charles Hudon and Matthew Peca, both of whom are looking to prove the previous year was a fluke and that they have more to provide. They’ll face competition from three players acquired over the course of last year, with Dale Weise, Nate Thompson, and Jordan Weal, the latter two of which prompted the major turnaround last season with their strong defensive play.
Then finally there’s the new addition of Nick Cousins from free agency and the addition of Ryan Poehling to the mix, entering his first full professional season. Needless to say it is a crowded space and with actual options available this year, Claude Julien will be able to shape his fourth line into whatever he might want it to be.
Before we jump into breaking down the players battling for spots I am making an executive decision on two of them, Jordan Weal is almost guaranteed to make the Montreal roster, and Ryan Poehling will be best served starting the year in Laval. For Weal it’s a matter of him being able to play all over the lineup and in many roles. I fully believe he’s going to be the catalyst for the bottom six throughout the year. As for Poehling, it isn’t a lack of faith in his talent, but more that he would be best served playing big minutes for Joel Bouchard rather than nine to ten minutes a night in the NHL right now.
Nick Cousins (With Arizona): 81 GP 7G, 20A
The newest member of this group, Cousins was a low risk, moderate reward signing in the first week of July by Marc Bergevin. His numbers look pretty solid for someone who will likely be attached to the bottom six/fourth line for the year in Montreal, but require some context. Namely that two of his most common linemates were the offensively inclined Alex Galchenyuk and Clayton Keller. While playing with Galchenyuk especially, Cousins received a huge boost in offensive zone starts, offering him an easier deployment than he was a part of before that. He brings the ability to generate on his own however, creating shot attempts and entering the zone well, meaning Montreal can do more than just dump the puck out when they’re icing their fourth line.
Given his contract, and what he brings to the table it seems very likely that Cousins is going to be on the opening night roster right now.
Dale Weise (With Montreal/Philadelphia): 51 GP 5G, 6A
I think a lot of Canadiens fans had an optimistic view of Weise when he was traded to Chicago a few years ago. He netted a return of a top line centre in Phillip Danault, and one of the top prospects in the organization in Alexander Romanov. When he returned to Montreal in a trade this year, many hoped it would bring back the Weise of old. The sticking point on that is under Claude Julien, Weise did not get the deployment he had under Michel Therrien, and was a healthy scratch more often than not.
It will be tough for Weise to unseat many of the guys in front of him, especially given that many of them can play both centre and on the wing, it seems more likely that we’ll see a lot more of Dale Weise, Laval Rocket forward, than Dale Weise, Montreal Canadien this season.
Nate Thompson (With LA/Montreal): 78 GP 5G, 8A
Thompson was brought in to take a crack at the fourth line role alongside Weise and Nicolas Deslauriers. The trio struggled at first but with the addition of Jordan Weal to the team, as well as adding Artturi Lehkonen to the mix for a little while, the fourth line took off.
Thompson isn’t flashy, he goes out there to win faceoffs, get the puck out of the zone, and then change to give the other lines a chance to create the attack off of that. Beyond the face offs and time on the penalty kill Thompson is limited in his role which makes him an ideal candidate as the 13th forward. He’s easy enough to shelter a bit, win faceoffs when called upon, and then get off the ice, but asking him to do more than that might do more harm than good now.
Matthew Peca: 39 GP 3G, 7A
Peca was brought in last year during free agency to add to Montreal’s new look, speed based attack, and on paper it looked like the right call. Peca had done well on the offensive side of things in Tampa Bay (small sample size of course), and had put together a consistent AHL career as well. With Tampa’s depth he was expendable, so Montreal signed him for two years, and hoped that high skill, high motor player would be what they needed.
It was not to be however, as Peca did bring the speed, but not much else along with him during his first season in Montreal. Defensively he wasn’t able to keep up, and offensively he wasn’t able to provide what was needed of him consistently. Peca has the dubious distinction of having nearly everyone he played with improve once he was off the ice.
It was not just fourth line pieces either, Peca had chances to play higher up in the lineup, and still struggled to be a viable contributor. Much like Weise he could very well find himself in Laval this year unless his game has turned around and made him a more consistent option for Claude Julien.
Charles Hudon: 32GP 3G, 2A
It has been a long road for Charles Hudon in his Canadiens career, originally a fifth-round pick he made it into the pro ranks after a solid career in the QMJHL. He began to light up the AHL while battling injuries, and had many fans calling for him to get a real look at the NHL level. In his rookie year he put together a decent 30 point campaign on a lottery-bound Canadiens team, and seemed primed for another step forward last season. However a tough preseason, and the acquisition of Joel Armia pushed him down the lineup, where he struggled on a cobbled together fourth line.
While Nicolas Deslauriers and Michael Chaput are hardly top options to surround a younger player with, Hudon is as much at fault for his poor showing as anyone else. Penalty issues, and defensive miscues cost him in the eyes of his coach, and it is hard to earn back that trust when every game you play is of the utmost importance for a playoff spot.
The good news is that despite what seemed like a tearful goodbye at locker clean out day, Hudon was brought back and given a vote of confidence by his GM. Now it’s up to him to try and earn back his lineup spot, and alongside some new look players there is every chance in the world he might do so as well. If not, there is likely a team looking for a solid depth option depending on how the preseason shakes out.
There are a few other names I haven’t mentioned and that is primarily due to the fact I think they’re all likely bound for the Laval Rocket, barring any crazy happenings in the preseason. Michael McCarron, Phil Varone and Riley Barber are going to be a part of what should be a ridiculously deep roster in Laval, adding veteran experience to a heavy influx of youth. McCarron primarily is the point of interest as it looked like he had gotten back on track as a prospect before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury.
He could be a surprise in camp if he keeps his focus on what makes him effective, instead of fighting when given the chance. While both Barber and Varone have lit up the AHL, they haven’t been able to crack an NHL roster full-time, and that doesn’t seem like it’s going to change now, and that’s just fine. Having Nick Suzuki and Jake Evans play with established vets like themselves is only going to help their development right now.
So as it stands right now, I have the Canadiens fourth line shaking out right now as some combination of Nick Cousins, Jordan Weal, Charles Hudon and Nate Thompson. This of course can change in an instant, and likely will. The combination of Cousins and Weal already makes the fourth line more viable in the modern NHL, and should cover some of the flaws that both Hudon and Thompson have.
Time will tell, but it is a nice feeling to be in a position where players will have to earn every bit of ice time they get.