When free agent Matthew Peca was signed to a two-year contract by the Montreal Canadiens on July 1, many thought it was simply part of a summer face-lift for the Laval Rocket. Marc Bergevin changed that when he addressed the media hours later, stating his belief that Peca would play in Montreal this coming season.
That would seem to be a positive, given the organizational need at centre. Yet, while the Canadiens are far from strong down-the-middle, they have created something of a log-jam.
Barring any further acquisitions, it’s unlikely Jonathan Drouin is moved to the wing. He’ll take up one of the top-six slots, and is joined at centre ice by Tomas Plekanec, Phillip Danault, and Jacob de la Rose — that is, assuming the latter two are brought back after being tendered qualifying offers.
The addition of Peca, and Bergevin’s insistence that he’ll be playing with the Canadiens, poses a bit of a dilemma given that none of these players are waiver-exempt. Assigning any of them to the minors means a high risk of losing them.
Drouin, Danault, and the returning Plekanec are, for all intents and purposes, locks. While you could make the argument that Plekanec’s declining play may move him in and out of the lineup throughout the season, he’s at no risk of losing a spot in the league as a whole.
That leaves a single spot for either Peca or de la Rose, and a decision for the Canadiens’ coaching staff. So what, exactly, will they be choosing between?
Jacob de la Rose
De La Rose is a known commodity for Claude Julien. The youngster has been trusted with defensive responsibilities since his debut in the NHL, winning a full-time gig in the league for the first time in 2017-18. While he has had success in short stints, there should be some concern about how he has fared in the role overall.
Given the praise de la Rose has received for playing tough minutes at his age, it may come as a surprise to some that the team more-often tended to struggle when he was on the ice last season.
His play negatively affected the Canadiens’ possession numbers, as his -2.49 relative CF% would indicate. A relative SCF% of -0.96 also illustrates that the team gave up more scoring chances during his shifts.
You might think this could be explained by his deployment. As a matter of fact, that’s really not the case. Both Plekanec and Danault had a lower percentage of starts in the offensive zone, and carried out their duties against a higher quality of competition.
So, what exactly do the Canadiens have in de la Rose?
The young centre is a valuable asset, to be sure. One that the team would hate to lose to a waiver claim. He works hard and has been leaned on heavily in defensive situations in seasons past, when the sample size was smaller.
He has not, however, shown an ability to make a positive impact over the course of a full season. This past year saw de la Rose given more offensive opportunity than ever before, and while his point totals increased, they were far from glowing.
As long as Plekanec and Danault are features in the lineup, the presence of de la Rose may be a redundancy. The offensive zone is not where he has made his living, and if that’s where he’ll be used, the Canadiens may be better served looking to someone else.
It’s difficult to say what Peca can bring to an NHL team, given that he has spent the majority of his career in the AHL. Whether he is that “someone else” for the Canadiens remains to be seen, but he is the alternative they’re currently looking at.
While Peca is two years older than de la Rose, he has consistently fared better offensively at the minor league level.
As we can see in the chart above, Peca produced more primary points than did de la Rose, despite playing fewer minutes in 2016-17, the last time the pair played in the same league. The gap is far wider when you look at last season’s data, as Peca’s primary points nearly double from 1.095 to 2.014, despite actually playing fewer minutes.
We should, however, take into consideration both team strength and age. The Syracuse Crunch have been a superior team overall when compared with the Canadiens’ farm clubs, meaning Peca has had more help. Peca is also older, though he did perform better offensively than de la Rose at the same age.
His NHL career is too small a sample to really draw anything from. He did score five points in 10 games for Tampa Bay last year, which is a nice bit of trivia, but it’s difficult to say that he’ll continue on at that pace.
What we probably can say is that Peca brings at least a bit more offensive upside than does de la Rose. He has a better history of offensive production, but was unable to nail down an opportunity to showcase it at the NHL level in a deep Lightning organization.
Even if the gap isn’t all that profound, Peca is likely to be a better fit stylistically with the types of wingers de la Rose found himself spending time with last season. That isn’t to say that de la Rose has no place on an NHL roster, but simply that the Canadiens currently have players who do what he’s best at better.
Ideally, the Canadiens could keep both on the roster and alternate them in and out of the press box as they see fit. That doesn’t seem likely, though, as the club is also dealing with an overabundance of middling wingers.
This may be a decision that comes down to the wire at training camp, or could turn into a situation that becomes more clear as trades are made throughout the summer. Ultimately, your conclusion on this may depend on what you think the Habs need more out of their fourth centre — an extra offensive punch, or a player with the potential to be a steady hand.
While there isn’t much harm in giving Peca a shot to prove himself in the big leagues, it’s also risky to roll the dice on losing De La Rose. He may not have shown much last season, but the potential on both sides of the ice may still be there.
For Julien and his coaching staff, though, having a variety of options is never a bad thing. As we’ve heard Bergevin say before, the decision is not theirs to make. Rather, it’s the players themselves who will sort these problems out, through their play on the ice.