Any pessimism that may have been lingering around after a 71-point season in 2017-18 seems to have vanished into thin air. An electric pre-season featuring some of the faces of the future has given Montreal Canadiens fans hope once again.
The Habs played the Toronto Maple Leafs’ B team at the Scotiabank Arena on last Monday, wiped the floor with them, and moved to 4-1-0 on the pre-season campaign. Though the rivals down the 401 did exact some revenge on Wednesday night, we saw a glimpse of the future.
The sudden resurgence of excitement and furore is perhaps not so much of a surprise. After all, drafting and picking up key young pieces for the future of the franchise is something which, from a transactional point of view, doesn’t even come close to generating the same enthusiasm as watching these players take to the ice in a Canadiens uniform.
A lot of the focus of said delirium seems to be coming from one particular area of the ice; an area which the Habs have ironically struggled badly with the last few years. Looking down the middle, Claude Julien has some really tough decisions to make moving forward, but it could be considered the proverbial ‘nice problem to have.’
A young centre core featuring the likes of Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Nick Suzuki, and Ryan Poehling, along with Max Domi, Phillip Danault, Matthew Peca and Jacob de la Rose who are 25 and under is becoming a logjam. With such dynamic and skilled players in the system, it is easy to let your thoughts drift towards the attacking third of the ice and what kind of numbers the aforementioned guys can put up. Yet the case can definitely also be made that these guys can develop into great all-around centres, i.e. ones who know how to keep the puck out of the net as well as put it in. That’s something which is fundamental for prolonged success in the National Hockey League.
Kotkaniemi was the third overall pick from the 2018 NHL Draft, and a player that many Canadiens supporters consider to be the number-one centre moving forward. Of course, in the short term there is a bit of a dilemma regarding the 18-year-old Finnish star as well, though the general consensus seems to be that Kotkaniemi will be given a nine-game spell in the big league before perhaps being sent back to Finland to continue his development.
With Kotkaniemi, you’d have to be blind to not see why people are building so much hype. He is without doubt one of the brightest prospects in the entire league, and everything we have seen during the pre-season points toward him being a pure natural hockey player in terms of attributes, but arguably most importantly in terms of his mindset.
Hannu Laine, a 20-year veteran of the Habs’ scouting system, broke down the stengths of the Finn. ”His vision, playmaking. He can make plays in traffic. He thinks the game so quick and has such quick hands. And, he’s not just an offensive guy. He can play defence, too. He also likes the physical game. We know the character and the work ethic that he has, so he’s just going to get better and better.”
With Jesperi, there are no overly complicated plays. Sure, he is absolutely capable of making a watching crowd gasp with his stick-handling or in some cases more unusual pieces of trickery (see the video below), yet one thing we seem to be sure about is that he has the capacity to make the right decision at a given moment 99% of the time.
Kotkaniemi is a pretty creative handler. pic.twitter.com/KTBhnxjnkr— David St-Louis (@RinksideView) September 25, 2018
Defensively, Kotkaniemi has shown himself to be a more-than-capable battler in his own zone. His positioning and intelligence are what make up the bulk of this, but his ability to battle down deep and make it difficult for opposing forwards is a skill that is only going to be beneficial moving forward. Several times during this pre-season, Kotkaniemi has shown his willingness to get down and dirty, to make effective plays to help out his own blue-liners, and has then shown seamless transition into centre ice and the attacking zone due to his seemingly faultless puck-carrying skills.
Kotkaniemi will apply pressure on the boards, he will engage with opponents, he will backcheck during rushes, he will use his stick to eliminate passing lanes, and he will look to create turnovers to start the transition game. After nine games in the NHL, in which he will come up against a couple of two-headed monsters when the Habs face the Maple Leafs (Auston Matthews and John Tavares) and the Pittsburgh Penguins twice (Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin) within that spell, he can head back to Finland to continue fine-tuning his body by adding muscle, filling out and rounding his skill set. Sounds like a plan.
With Nick Suzuki’s addition this summer, a player who went 13th overall to the Vegas Golden Knights in the 2017 NHL Draft, and was acquired along with Tomas Tatar in the Max Pacioretty trade, Habs fans have another dynamic offensive piece to get extremely excited about. In his 2016-17 draft season Suzuki scored 45 goals and 96 points in 65 games for the OHL’s Owen Sound Attack, and increased that to an even 100 last year.
Attack GM Dale DeGray told the London Free Press that while the goals were great, “Suzuki passes the puck like no one in this league,” and it is fair to say the speed, creativity, and intelligence already demonstrated at all levels by Suzuki provoke genuine debate that he could give Kotkaniemi a run for his money in the battle for that 1C role in the future.
Nick Suzuki recorded a hat trick last night in one of the most dominant performances I've ever tracked. He led his team in nearly every major category, most by a large margin.#Habs pic.twitter.com/J77RfAbshc— Mitch Brown (@MitchLBrown) September 30, 2018
Defensively, Suzuki could fittingly be described as a terrier, one who is more than willing to battle for pucks in both his own end and in the neutral zone. His forechecking ability is good for his age and will only get better, while the same can be said about his faceoffs. Like Kotkaniemi his transition from defence to offence is done with speed and precision.
Suzuki was twice a winner of the William Hanley Trophy as the OHL’s most sportsmanlike player. Other notable winners of that award include Wayne Gretzky (1977-78), Kirk Muller (1982-83), Brian Campbell (1998-99), and Connor McDavid (Erie 2013-14). No pressure then.
Then of course there is Ryan Poehling, a 19-year-old centre who was drafted 25th overall by the Canadiens in the 2017 NHL Draft. Poehling, from Lakeville, Minnesota, racked up 31 points in 36 games for St. Cloud State in the 2017-18 National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC) season. Of course, we haven’t seen him in action in pre-season season play, as NCAA rules prevent him from participating in a professional setting.
The USA U20 junior international has an interesting offensive game. Poehling tends to rely more on battling in front of the net, looking for rebounds and tip-ins rather than relying on a booming shot. He has demonstrated good vision, and will always look for that additional pass rather than taking a bad-look attempt, meaning he is always looking for the smart play. Oh, and his stick-handling isn’t half bad either.
Goal of the year candidate from Canadiens prospect Ryan Poehling pic.twitter.com/B8lgZeu5eR— Spittin' Chiclets (@spittinchiclets) March 5, 2018
But what is perhaps most fascinating about the former Lakeville North High star is his defensive game, which is considered to be one of the best around in his age group. Poehling has shown his ability to read the game incredibly well, and much like Kotkaniemi and Suzuki, he is always looking for ways to generate turnovers and win back possession to get play moving in the right direction. Standing at 6’2”, he is also willing to put his body on the line both by blocking shots and by deploying an aggressive forecheck, while battling on the boards is something that is almost considered second nature.
To cut all of that shorter, what Habs fans have here is three players to be extremely enlivened over in terms of their attacking upside, hopefully for years to come. However, it doesn’t stop there. In order to win consistently and compete for the big prize in the NHL, a well-balanced and effective central core is an absolute necessity. What the Canadiens are building is a middle that is made of steel and will be damn hard to crack. As an opponent, you will never have an easy shift, and that’s exactly how it should be.
Forget the ‘two-headed monster.’ If managed right, the Canadiens could be building a three-headed monster, and we should all be electrified by that prospect.