On Thursday night against the San Jose Sharks, the Montreal Canadiens shuffled their lines around. The most notable change was putting Jonathan Drouin with Max Domi, rejoining the team’s two most talented forwards on the same line. They stopped played together for an extended period of time in January (from “Canadiens coach reunites Max Domi and Jonathan Drouin on same line,” National Post – 10/23/19), which eventually led to Drouin’s decline in production at the end of last season.
The line, completed by Joel Armia, showed some positive signs in the first game together, particularly at the end of the second period. The team was down 4-1 but with 13 seconds left, Domi made a play that led to Armia scoring his fifth goal in eight games.
The Canadiens arguably having the best depth throughout their lineup than they’ve had in years. It begs the question of whether the Canadiens should load their best talent on one top line or divide it evenly throughout the lineup. The latter is what they’ve done since the beginning of the season, albeit with mixed results.
The coaching staff will give that combination a few more games before evaluating it, but the Canadiens need to create this true first line.
Adding Up Skill
When a team has at least one highly-elite player that can drive a line by himself, there is less of a need to load up all the talent on one line. When that elite player makes those around him better, he sustains that line and whichever player he can create good enough chemistry with will be productive.
Since the start of last season, Danault, Tomas Tatar and Brendan Gallagher have been the Canadiens’ top line in the depth chart (from “Canadiens’ top line continues to click on offence and defence,” Montreal Gazette – 10/22/19). Danault has remained a reliable two-way player, Tatar had a resurgence and Gallagher remained a workhorse and attained a second 30-goal season in a row. However, their style of play is unorthodox compared to the NHL’s best top lines.
Together, they do not share the level of creativity that players from the league’s best lines possess. Domi and Drouin are the Canadiens’ most talented players better suited to overcoming opponents with skill. The ability to make great plays and find each other on the ice in creative ways is what makes a noticeable first line in the NHL.
They were the team’s top two point-getters until their split, with the reason being a short dry spell (from “Julien may split up Max Domi, Jonathan Drouin if they’re not more productive,” The Kingston Whig Standard – 1/10/19). If the coaching staff is more patient with them this time around, they could give the Canadiens an extra boost for the team currently showing inconsistency. As other teams send their top players against Domi and Drouin, it gives room for depth players to play against more favourable match-ups.
Leaving Room for Others
When Drouin and Domi are playing on separate lines, it makes opposing players less worried about Domi and Drouin’s respective linemates since they know that the greater threat on those lines is those two. When they are together, the opposition needs to adjust its strategy to take away time and space from two skilled players instead of one.
That means the lines lower in the depth chart can play a certain strategy that better suits their style of play. Those players can play a more grinding or cycling game, something a player like Drouin may not be as strong with. Playing alongside established players like Domi and Armia is an experience he can more closely relate to with his experience in junior and what got him into the third overall position in his draft year. That would feed into his confidence and make him the player the Canadiens need him to be.
Likewise with Domi, playing with depth players such as Artturi Lehkonen and Nick Suzuki or Jordan Weal can allow him to do only so much on the ice. Although Domi enjoys having the puck on his stick, those players’ ability to finish or retrieve a loose puck leaves something to be desired.
Considering the fact that Drouin plays on the wing and the Canadiens trust Domi as a centre, there is very little reason that these two should not play together consistently. Adding in the consideration of ice-time, that has been a topic of discussion surrounding Drouin (from “Don’t believe Jonathan Drouin’s ice-time numbers, Canadiens coach says,” Montreal Gazette – 10/21/19). Having him play with Domi will erase any doubt while giving the Canadiens a greater chance to win games.
They may not be the best at defensive play but a good coaching system can fix that. Having a third player who can efficiently backcheck and cover the defensive zone like Armia can would create an efficient top line to lead the Canadiens’ offence. It is now on Drouin and Domi to take their game to the next level.