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The Canadiens should consider using their draft capital for help at centre

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Montreal has just enough depth in the key forward position to remain competitive, but one injury could significantly impact that status.

Montreal Canadiens v Calgary Flames Photo by Gerry Thomas/NHLI via Getty Images

This trip out west was always going to be difficult for the Montreal Canadiens, but it doesn’t excuse their performance last night. They got completely outplayed.

Darryl Sutter hockey is nothing complicated. Calgary’s new coach installed his conservative system, a defence- or safety-first strategy that is very effective against an out-of-sync team like Montreal was last night. The Flames didn’t give their opposition any defensive breakdowns to capitalize on; they forced the Habs to make passes through defensive layers, and it proved almost impossible for them.

The Habs are better than what they showed in the past two games and they still have time to bounce back, line up victories, and climb the standings. If you weigh the early positives versus negatives of the Ducharme era, the scale definitely leans in the new coach’s favour. What is concerning, however, is the potential of injuries, especially to the centre line. Both Nick Suzuki and Phillip Danault went to the room during the game. Fortunately, they came back, but the team losing either of their top three centremen would be devastating.

It would mean a promotion for Jake Evans or Paul Byron. The first one fell off, his energy eroded slightly by the grind of the shortened NHL season, and the second isn’t a natural centre. He can play the defensive side of the position, but won’t simultaneously push the offence of a top-three line. Management could also call up one of Jordan Weal, Ryan Poehling, or Lukas Vejdemo, but those are more versatile depth forwards than clear NHL centres right now.

Is it time for the team to look for reinforcement via trade?

The deadline is about a month away, but the shorter season forces quicker decisions. We have to remember that most of the available players will require a 14-day quarantine to join the formation; a player acquired on April 12 will barely spend two weeks with the team before the start of the playoffs. Under those conditions, an early trade makes a lot of sense. It will maximize its value, while also helping safeguard the team from potential injuries.

I am not advocating for Montreal to go on a shopping spree. We rarely see big names traded at this point of the season, and the current cap situations around the league make a significant roster move even more unlikely this year. It doesn’t mean, however, that the team shouldn’t explore the option.

They have the draft capital: 14 picks in 2021, including a first-rounder, two second-rounders, and three third-rounders. Those selections won’t produce a prospect capable of helping Montreal in its current window, but will interest the selling teams around the league, many of which can already be identified.

The projections for the next class could change as many prospects haven’t played a game yet. The WHL is just getting started and the OHL has yet to announce a return date. A few of the top Canadian prospects who are currently playing aren’t doing so in a familiar environment. They’ve joined lower-tier European leagues where the playing style is completely different, making it harder to form an opinion.

There are NHLers to uncover from every selection, but currently the 2021 class looks like a weaker one. There is no front-runner for the first overall pick and many of the projected top-10 prospects would not have been selected as high in last year’s draft. From what I have seen watching the different Junior leagues, the talent also drops off earlier than in previous drafts.

If it’s still in their plans to contend for a playoff spot and advance in the playoffs — every sign points towards this — Montreal shouldn’t shy away from spending draft assets to boost its formation and prevent the wheels from falling off the wagon mid-course.