On Friday night, we saw the kind of performance from Joel Armia that reminds you why he was drafted 16th overall by the Buffalo Sabres in 2011. Traded to the Winnipeg Jets as a piece in the Evander Kane deal, Armia probably fell short of the acquiring team’s expectations in the end. They ended up making him the casualty of a cap-motivated trade in 2018; you don’t give away a first-rounder unless you feel like you’ve already squeezed all of his potential. Still, it is hard to fault the organization for making a bet on him.
There is such a ridiculous amount of skill in Armia’s game. It only comes in flashes: when he is feeling particularly confident, when the opposition lines up just right, with the perfect amount of spacing between the players on the ice. But when it does, it’s a spectacle of one-hand pulls, toe-drags, backhand toe-drags, etc. Armia chains moves in an instant, evading pokechecks like it is a choreography he rehearsed a dozen times.
The sequence above didn’t end in a goal. Armia lost the puck to defensive pressure in the end, but not before going through three defenders himself. One of them he dangled twice. He cut inside from the wide lane with a first move, knocked back the stick of an opponent in the process, faked a shot to invite and beat a pokecheck, caught the puck on the opposite boards, and escaped toward the slot once again with a timely backhand move.
He has the handling skills of smaller, shifty forwards in the body of a long-limbed power forward. It kind of makes you think, right? Armia could be a design error.
Maybe the Finnish winger would have become a better player if you removed three or four inches from his frame. If he became lighter on his feet, more capable of bending his limbs to the optimal angle to create more speed, allowing him to become not just shifty of hand, but fleet of foot. Hypothetically, at a smaller size, he could better combine his above-average handling technique with elusive and even explosive skating moves, opening up a world of playmaking possibilities.
There aren’t only advantages to being taller and larger than the opposition, especially if a player’s identity clashes with his size, and especially considering teams develop players around that attribute. Armia probably saw himself as a skilled forward in his formative years, one who would solve defences primarily with his hands, but then he grew into his large frame and the hockey world started having expectations of physical play. And so, he learned to lay the occasional hit, protect the puck, and hold it against the wall while keeping attackers on his back. From time to time, you see a burst of confidence and his core tendencies resurface, as exemplified in the clip above or the one below, the first goal of the game.
This one was a bit of a combination of soft and hard skills. Supporting Nick Suzuki on the offensive back-wall, Armia shoved an opponent away to free the puck, caught it with one hand, threaded it around and then through another opponent, and then just missed his centre with a slot-pass. Fortunately, the puck bounced back to Suzuki who flicked to Tyler Toffoli for the goal.
This where you start seeing the limit of the thought experiment. As fun as hypothetically shrinking Armia is — it surely would have greatly influenced his career — the truth is that that there are other elements holding back his scoring more than just a lack of dynamic qualities and footspeed. While the two clips above illustrate his uncommon handling skills, you can also see issues of vision, pass execution, and precision.
He had great available slot options in both plays. He just didn’t register the position of his teammate and the open passing lane in time, too focused on his next handling move, on keeping the puck on his stick under pressure.
These critiques are fairly nitpicky, but top playmakers make reads faster than Armia. They focus their attention on the next possible passing lane, not on the next opponent, and scan the ice more frequently. They have a different mentality. Armia possesses the puck; Suzuki moves it.
Something else has to be said: Armia has generally become more than effective with his body over the years. He pushed an opponent off the puck to win it in the sequence above, but more than that, he enabled Suzuki to set up Toffoli by laying a purposeful, perfectly timed pick on an opponent. That screen gave Suzuki the extra bit of space he needed to complete the pass. It wasn’t until my second rewatch of the clip that I caught this play,
The winger is a free agent at the end of the season. There might not be money left for him in the summer, but if he does end up changing address, Montreal will miss him on certain nights. Not necessarily because of his flashes of handling skills, but because of the things he brings that don’t necessarily pop.
He has a knack for buying time for teammates to get in position along the boards, stealing and intercepting pucks with his reach, and a special talent for calming down the game. When he steps on the ice, hockey seemingly becomes low-event — valuable in certain situations. Armia can also act as the physical and defensive element of a more offensive line, a role that was more crucial before the arrival of Josh Anderson.
No matter what happens in the coming months, with this return performance against Calgary, Armia reminded everyone of his untapped potential, but even more so of the impact he can make in the lineup right now for a Habs team still trying to solidify a playoff spot.