At the start of the 2021-22 season, the Montreal Canadiens hoped that Cole Caufield and Nick Suzuki would be able to pick up where they left off. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, that plan has not materialized. Suzuki, while not thriving by any measure, has managed to endure, parlaying his situation into a debut All-Star Game appearance. Caufield, on the other hand, has enjoyed much less success.
Deprived of arguably the Canadiens’ only playmaking centre, Caufield has bounced up and down the lineup — even playing for the Laval Rocket for a time. Unable to find sustained chemistry, the rookie sniper has struggled to establish a rhythm, and while Trevor Zegras’s pre-season prediction of 40 goals was always tongue-in-cheek, Caufield would likely be the first to admit that his current tally of one is shocking.
The season, however, is not yet over, and finding proper linemates for Caufield has to be a major priority for the Montreal coaching staff moving forward. Fortunately, they may have recently created something promising.
The line of Caufield, Ryan Poehling, and Artturi Lehkonen was first assembled on December 14 for a game against the Pittsburgh Penguins, staying together for the next game two days later against the Philadelphia Flyers before being broken up because Lehkonen was placed on the COVID-19 list. Across these two games, the trio put up very impressive statistics over 17 combined minutes at five-on-five: 67% shot-attempt share, 68% shot share, 80% scoring-chance share, 100% high-danger-chance share, and 78% expected-goals share.
Moreover, these positive numbers exceeded the performance by the rest of the team by some margin.
After a three-game interruption and a COVID-necessitated pause, Lehkonen dressed for the Canadiens’ return to action against the Boston Bruins. However, it was not until the game after (versus the Chicago Blackhawks) that the Lehkonen-Poehling-Caufield trio was reunited. If there was any rust, they didn’t show it, putting up their best performance of the three games in their seven minutes of five-on-five ice time: 92% shot-attempt share, 88% shot share, 100% scoring-chance and high-danger-chance share, and 94% expected-goals share.
Like before, this performance also stood out from the rest of the team.
In addition to their small but notable on-ice accomplishments, another argument in favour of this trio is that it bears similarities to the Tyler Toffoli-Suzuki-Caufield combination that worked so well in last season’s playoffs. In both scenarios, Caufield is supported by two forwards who can play off the rush and the cycle. In both scenarios, there is another shooting option (Lehkonen and Toffoli) to draw attention away from the first-choice sniper. The one discrepancy is that Poehling does not have the playmaking prowess of Suzuki, but that is not something that the Canadiens can resolve in the short-term without a cloning machine.
The one potential problem with this trio across this short span is the same problem that the Canadiens have had for a long time: their dominance has not translated to goals. Across three games, the Lehkonen-Poehling-Caufield line has been on the ice for one goal for and one goal against. Hardly a damning indictment, but with players like Toffoli, Josh Anderson, Brendan Gallagher and Paul Byron potentially making returns over the next month, it is possibly something that a goal-starved coaching staff could use as an excuse to break up the line.
That would be a mistake. Combining Lehkonen, Poehling, and Caufield makes sense on paper, and thus far has made sense on the ice as well. The Canadiens would be well-served to give this line a fair run, whether for 10 games, 20, or even the remainder of the season. In addition to possibly giving Caufield some much-needed stability, any chemistry that develops between Poehling and Caufield could have considerable long-term benefits.