Canadiens’ Future at Center Looks Bright

The Montreal Canadiens have had a problem getting a top center since Saku Koivu left the team in 2009. In the last few seasons, through drafts and trades, they have filled their cupboard with young centers.

Saku Koivu
Saku Koivu (Image: French Kheldar)

Now they are in a position where they are deep down the middle, with a few of those players showing signs of being that top center that has eluded the team for over a decade.

A Decades-Long Problem

The last center the Canadiens had that could be considered a top-line center was Vincent Damphousse. He was the last player for the Canadiens to score 40 goals in a season and had three seasons of 90 points or higher. Since he was traded to the San Jose Sharks at the 1998-99 trade deadline, the Habs haven’t had a center come close to those types of numbers. The most since Damphousse was Koivu’s 75-point season in 2006-07.

Vincent Damphousse, San Jose Sharks, NHL, Toronto Maple Leafs, NHL Draft
Vincent Damphousse (Dave Nelson/Flickr)

Of course, the game has changed since the 1990s, and scoring isn’t what it used to be but the metrics to be a top center haven’t changed. A top-center still needs to be a high scorer, win faceoffs and be good defensively. In the past 25 years the Canadiens have had good defensive centers with average stats, but they have never really had depth down the middle.

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With players such as Koivu, Tomas Plekanec, and David Desharnais as their first line centers, the team spent years, even decades, being considered weak down the middle. To this date, the Habs don’t really have a solid top-line center, but that could change soon.

The Bergevin Era

In 2012, Marc Bergevin was hired as the 17th general manager (GM) of the Canadiens. In the last eight drafts he has picked 18 centers, four of those in the first round. This is a big change in the method of drafting than in the previous eleven years, where the other GMs were trading and signing centers like Scott Gomez, Robert Lang, and Mike Cammalleri.

Related: Top 5 Draft Picks in the Bergevin Era

To compare, from 2000 to 2011, the Habs drafted 20 centers and only one in the first round. Bergevin took the approach that he couldn’t get a top center without giving up too much and deviating from his “build through the draft” plan, so he decided to try to draft one. So far there have been more misses than hits in his method, but the hits could pay off big time for the Habs.

Marc Bergevin Montreal Canadiens
Marc Bergevin, Montreal Canadiens, 2019 NHL Draft (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The big reason Bergevin decided to throw as many darts at the board as possible to hit a bullseye is that he feels that trading for a top center is too hard. Not too hard in the sense that he cant do it, but too hard because he doesn’t want to give up too much for one. He has been trying to build through the draft since he was hired, as he drafted a center he thought would be his main guy in 2012, Alex Galchenyuk. Even though he had a 30-goal season, Galchenyuk didn’t work out, but that didn’t stop the GM from drafting 17 more centers between then and now.

The Start of Something Better

Seeing that he wouldn’t be able to get high-end centers through trades or free agency, Bergevin decided to look at young centers that could develop over a few seasons to go along with the ones he drafted. In 2016, the Canadiens traded Dale Weise and Tomas Fleischmann to the Chicago Blackhawks for a young forward named Phillip Danault.

The little-known Danualt was drafted by Chicago in 2011 with the help of the Habs’ GM when he was a scout for the Blackhawks. Since then, Danault has become one of the best 5-on-5 two-way centers in the league and last year finished seventh in voting for the Selke Trophy for top defensive forward.

“Phillip Danault is a young and gifted player who will be part of our core group of young forwards for many years to come. I am very pleased to have him join our organization. As a member of the Blackhawks management group, I was instrumental in the selection of Phillip in the first round of the 2011 NHL Draft.

Marc Bergevin on acquiring Phillip Danault

The following summer, the Canadiens pulled off a blockbuster trade by acquiring Jonathan Drouin for Mikhail Sergachev. Drouin was brought over in hopes to become a top center, but this didn’t work out, and the next season Drouin was moved to the wing to make way for another player brought over in another blockbuster, Max Domi. Traded for Galchenyuk in the summer of 2018, Domi, like Drouin, was a winger turned center by the Habs, but had more success at the position.

Montreal Canadiens Jonathan Drouin
Montreal Canadiens’ Jonathan Drouin (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes)

The blockbuster moves to acquire centers wouldn’t stop there as three months later Bergevin traded captain Max Pacioretty to the Vegas Golden Knights for winger Tomas Tatar and a first-round draft pick and center Nick Suzuki. This would be the start of something better down the middle.

The Future is Getting Brighter

In the 2017 and 2018 drafts, the Habs drafted eight centers with Ryan Poehling and Jesperi Kotkaniemi both selected in the first round. Poehling was the 25th overall pick in 2017 out of the NCAA – he made a record-breaking debut by scoring a hat trick against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the final game of the 2018-19 season.

Kotkaniemi was drafted third overall in the 2018 draft – this was looked at as a reach, but Canadiens’ management felt he was their guy, and at only 18 years of age, made his debut in the 2018-19 season scoring 34 points in 79 games. Although both players were sent to the Laval Rocket to work on their game this season, the expectations are still high that they both could be full-time impact centers for the Canadiens in the near future.

Related: Maurice “Rocket” Richard: More than Just a Game

With the acquisitions of Danault, Domi, and Suzuki and drafting of Poehling and Kotkaniemi, for the first time in almost a quarter of a century, the Habs could have a strong, deep team at the center position. Danault, Domi, and Suzuki are already proving their worth in the NHL. This gives the Habs a new issue, but a good one, that is Poehling and Domi will probably be moved to the wing once Kotkaniemi is ready for the NHL.

Jesper Kotkaniemi Montreal Canadiens
Jesper Kotkaniemi, Montreal Canadiens (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

These moves would be made so the Canadiens don’t waste their talent on lower lines. This also gives them a position of strength when it comes to trades – they now can afford to trade away a center or two to improve other areas of need. Either way you look at it, the Habs future at the center position looks very bright indeed… I hope they can afford shades.