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The distinction between the Canadiens’ top two lines has been blurred in the early season

After lacking top-end talent for many years, Montreal may be operating with two number-one lines in 2020-21.

NHL: JAN 20 Canadiens at Canucks Photo by Devin Manky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The buzz around the Montreal Canadiens coming into this season was that their newfound depth would allow them to create new ways to attack opposing teams. In a way that is very true; the Habs have been able to roll all four of their lines with regularity against their early-season competition. At the same time, the structure of the lines has remained very similar to last season, namely that the trio of Brendan Gallagher, Phillip Danault, and Tomas Tatar is still Claude Julien’s most trusted group.

As it stands, the main trio still leads the team in total ice time — at even strength and in all situations — but they’re closely trailed by the trio of Jonathan Drouin, Nick Suzuki, and Josh Anderson in those categories. Then a step below them are the third and fourth lines, which are only split by around two minutes. If we take a look at the usage for the start of the season, it appears that Claude Julien was rolling the lines fairly evenly on the road trip.

Tyler Toffoli and Suzuki have seen a jump in the recent games given the fact they were lopsided blowouts and Toffoli was chasing hat tricks. On the whole however, the balance is obvious, which allows Julien to manage his matchups in certain situations.

The above chart shows how exactly Julien deploys his forwards depending on the scoreline in the game. When the game is tied the lines all get rolled out regularly, save for the fourth line which is used in standard fourth-line ways.

However this is where an interesting trend emerges in terms of deployment for the Canadiens. When the team is trailing by a goal (the team has yet to be down by more), Julien opts for the more offensively-inclined Suzuki line. Given the immense chemistry between Suzuki and Drouin, it’s not surprising that Julien is trusting this line to help push his team back into the game when it’s behind.

If we go to the opposite side of things, when the Canadiens are up by a goal, the line Julien is trusting is the one centred by Danault. With how dominant Danault has been as a defensive pivot, drawing praise from players like Nathan MacKinnon, it makes the most sense that he would draw the defensive deployments.

It’s not just that Danault and his wingers are the trusted line when the Canadiens are leading, they also are leaned on to take a hefty portion of the defensive zone starts as well. What’s interesting is that Suzuki does also get a heavier defensive start number relative to linemates Anderson and Drouin.

So the picture has become a little more clear, but a true first line isn’t defined just by its zone starts or when they’re deployed based on the scoreboard. The Toronto Maple Leafs aren’t throwing out Auston Matthews to defend leads when they have John Tavares. So, let’s take a look at the quality of competition (QoC) of both potential top-line centres now to try to clear the picture some more.

Well, that both clears things up and doesn’t all in terms of which one is truly the top line in Montreal. Danault still sees teams’ top lines every single night, and did so on the road to start this season as opposing head coaches opted not to avoid that matchup. At the same time, Suzuki has also seen just as much of the opponent’s top line as Danault.

So the conclusion, at least in the early going is that, yes, the Tatar-Danault-Gallagher trio is still the Canadiens’ top line, but it’s not the only one, with Drouin-Suzuki-Anderson supporting them and getting their own major minutes. Given Julien’s nature as a coach, and the much larger sample size to draw from, it’s fair to say the Danault line is still the default number-one line, and will likely continue to draw in on the key moments as the season wears on.

However, the emergence of Suzuki as a legitimate top-line player has made it so the coach does not have to ask Danault and his wingers to be elite defensively and drive the offence as well. It’s likely the primary factor in the Canadiens’ early-season play as opposing teams now have to pick their poison when choosing how to match their lines. Beyond that, the rest of the formation is a “bottom six” in name only, as the line of Toffoli, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, and Joel Armia (or Corey Perry) has taken full advantage of the weaker competition it faces to start the season.

Shutting down the Canadiens isn’t just a matter honing in on the Danault line like in previous years. Teams now face a legitimate, deep forward group that can pick and choose the matchups depending on the situation. They can deploy units for defensive work, offensive work, defending a lead, or trying to earn one. The established top line is still going to have its hands full all year, but now there’s support to help them distribute the responsibilities.