It was a good idea, just bad execution on the part of the Montreal Canadiens. With Sean Monahan out, the Habs started Kirby Dach at center against the Los Angeles Kings on Dec. 10. Losing 2-0 early, head coach Martin St. Louis changed things up, eventually reuniting him with his usual linemates, Cole Caufield and Nick Suzuki.
You understand why St. Louis did what he did. He had to get something going, as the Habs were getting outplayed in general and outshot 23-15 after two periods. And, to be fair, the change did seem to inject some life into the Habs, with Caufield soon ringing one off the post that the referee thought had gone in, but no dice.
Canadiens Lose to Kings
Unfortunately, the cameras weren’t fooled, even if everyone in attendance at the Bell Centre booed all at once at the official no-goal call, seemingly under the impression a screwjob was in the works. Ultimately, even though the Canadiens made it close, losing 4-2 at the final buzzer after an empty-net goal against, they still got outshot 35-22 in the game, perhaps suggesting it wasn’t a case of St. Louis taking too much time to make his changes.
After all, the Canadiens’ two goals come when they were already down 3-0. When the 3-2 go-ahead marker comes off a shot from a bad angle care of Caufield, you maybe deserve your fate if you’re the Habs. However, in this specific instance, the Canadiens shouldn’t make any knee-jerk reactions to what was one bad game. They have to continue to look at the big picture, and that means making certain decisions through the lens of the bigger plan, i.e., the rebuild.
Related: 5 Signs Canadiens Are in Fact Still Rebuilding in 2022-23
In this context, it means not rushing Monahan back. You need to protect your asset from further injury, with Monahan hypothetically worth a first-round pick at the next trade deadline. It also means giving Dach the opportunity to get some reps in at center, with the Canadiens having had acquired him to fill that No. 2 slot at last summer’s NHL Entry Draft.
That was before they acquired Monahan, though. Monahan has come to fill the role of insulation for Dach at center, giving the Canadiens the chance to play Dach at wing and bring him along slowly down the middle. All that to say, obviously plans changed then and plans can theoretically change now.
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However, now the Canadiens have lost more games than they’ve won at 13-12-2. They’re five points out of the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference (four points out of 15th in the East). So, reality should be setting in, as exciting as it would be for them to make the playoffs. One year after they finished last in the standings, they’re clearly not there yet.
Loss Not an Indictment of Dach at Center
To be clear, St. Louis did nothing wrong. It’s his job to win games and make the lineup, general manager Kent Hughes’ to ensure he’s got the right players to get the job done (or just the opposite in the case of a full-on tank). So, if the Canadiens aren’t getting anything going offensively in a game, St. Louis is obviously going to change his lines on the fly and go back to what’s tested and true, in this case a top line of Suzuki between Caufield and Dach.
However, the fact the Canadiens were down 2-0 and getting outshot is not necessarily an indictment of Dach at center, at least it shouldn’t be. It’s just as much an indictment of how well Josh Anderson contributes to that top line instead, and, seeing as Anderson has had statistical success playing with Caufield and Suzuki before, no one should read too much into one game, especially a game in which the Canadiens unluckily gave up two goals in less than 20 seconds and found themselves chasing the Kings early.
So, it’s just one game, just one game during a rebuild, in which the end results don’t really matter (or shouldn’t). If the Canadiens fail to make the playoffs, it shouldn’t be seen as the end of the world, just like the world didn’t end last season, which at one point was at risk of going down as one of the worst in franchise history. Instead, with the Canadiens generally in games until the end these days, this season should be seen as a stepping stone to eventual contention, regardless of where they finish in the standings.
Dach vs. Monahan
With an eye toward the future, the Canadiens should continue to play Dach at center when the opportunity to arises, for one example whenever Monahan isn’t available. That way, when Monahan isn’t available altogether, like at the start of next season after his contract has expired, Dach and the Canadiens will be one step closer to being a playoff-ready team.
There is a chance the Canadiens opt to re-sign Monahan instead of trade him, in which case playing Dach at center may not seem critical. However, even in such an instance, Dach is only going on 22 years old. He’s got the prime years of his career ahead of him. Monahan is 28, coming off multiple hip surgeries to correct ailments that badly limited his on-ice effectiveness for several seasons.
Monahan’s value in the here and now cannot be denied. His injury is probably the primary reason the Canadiens lost their recent game against the Vancouver Canucks, despite a 4-0 lead. However, he’s also seeking some semblance of job security with his next deal, and giving an unrestricted free agent term is risky under the best circumstances. His injury history combined with the actual holes the Habs have in the lineup, namely in net and on the right side on defense, are far from the best circumstances.
Dach’s Role to Play is at Center
The Canadiens acquired Dach for a specific purpose. Denying him the opportunity to play the role he was envisioned to, now, makes it harder for him to assume it when the Habs need him there. The wins shouldn’t matter. The Habs’ collective mindset should. The way they battled back from 3-0 down against the Kings to make a game of it proves they’re in it to win every game. They just need make sure everyone is on the same page with regard to winning a championship when the time is right.
St. Louis has little choice but to mix things up when the Canadiens find themselves in a similar situation. All the same, he should have little choice but to continue to start Dach at center in the hopes of continuing his development at the position. Keep in mind, prior to the point at which Dach first joined that line against the St. Louis Blues on Oct. 29, the Canadiens were just as successful as they are now overall for all intents at purposes, at 4-4.
There’s no disputing Dach being put on a line with Caufield and Suzuki has helped him. However, starting him at center here and there can’t really hurt, especially seeing as, heading into the game against the Kings, Dach only had two assists in his last six games. It can only help instead, looking at that big picture. The Canadiens can’t lose of sight of it.