Canadiens Need a Top Line Center

Thanks to the new playoff format for the 2019-20 NHL season, the Montreal Canadiens are in the playoffs. This may be cause for celebration, but they cannot overlook the fact that there is a glaring personnel problem – they lack a No. 1 center.

Related: Canadiens vs. Penguins Playoff Series: How Do They Match Up?

This article will highlight the issues that the Canadiens have at center, and ways in which they can address them. Now that’s not to say that the center position as a whole has been bad, because it hasn’t, but Montreal doesn’t have a No. 1 center. This is a position that is essential for making the playoffs under the regular format, and the Habs would have missed the playoffs in a normal season.

The Current Lineup:

The Canadiens are a squad loaded with second and third-line centermen, as three of their centers had over 40 points. The problem is that none of them had even 50 points on the year. Montreal’s closest center to 50 was Phillip Danault who posted 47 points in 71 games. He had a team-high plus-18 rating but his 47 points were only good enough to sit 36th in the NHL amongst centers. In that mix, there are 22 teams who have at least one center with more points than Danault.

Related: Canadiens’ Future Starts Now

Another center on the roster worth talking about is Nick Suzuki. Suzuki had a good rookie campaign as he tallied 41 points in 71 games played. The biggest problem with Suzuki this year is that he was a team-worst minus-15 on the season. It is only his first season though and he did finish sixth in rookie scoring on the year so he could very well end up being a future No. 1 centerman.

Phillip Danault Montreal Canadiens
Phillip Danault, Montreal Canadiens (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The last two centers on the main roster are Max Domi and Jake Evans. Domi was also sitting in the 40s in points with 44, but aside from the point issue he also has a contract issue. This season is the final year of Domi’s contract with an average annual value of $3.15 million per year, so he’ll likely ask for more. As for Evans, he was brought on the team sitting as the top point scorer with the Laval Rockets. He’s also young and has room to grow, but as it sits he’s certainly not the solution to the No. 1 center problem.

Potential Solutions:

The Habs are sitting on just $4.5 million of cap space right now so they may need to do some trimming of the roster in order to remedy the situation. There are three main ways the Habs can try to find a No. 1 center, which are the draft, a trade, or free agency. With the postseason about to start, making trades viable only after the playoffs, we’ll look at the draft and potential free agents that will be available.

Starting with the draft, if Montreal retains their current spot they will get the eighth overall pick. In that general area, there are two centers who could realistically fall to the Habs, those being Cole Perfetti and Marco Rossi. These two offensive powerhouses had over 100 points this year and were No. 1 and No. 2 in scoring through the whole CHL. The two of them are projected to go around picks seven and eight in the draft which would give Montreal a very realistic shot at one of them. These two are both very offensively gifted and as such could be prime first-line center candidates.

Saginaw Spirit Cole Perfetti
Cole Perfetti of the Saginaw Spirit (Credit: Saginaw Spirit / OHL)

It is also worth noting that a potential solution within the Habs roster is 2018 third-overall pick Jesperi Kotkaniemi. Now he has been floating in and out of the main roster this season, but he’s still very young and has plenty of room to grow. This season in Laval he’s been a point per game player with 13 points in 13 games played. Perhaps being sent down will ignite a fire in the young centerman that could propel him to a top-line center role.

Related: Canadiens’ Future at Center Looks Bright

As for the free-agent market this year, there are two potential candidates Montreal can look at. In the UFA section, we have Predators center Mikael Granlund. He may be having a rough season this year but he’s a player who’s been a 60-point center and was pushing 70. The 28-year-old Finn has a lot of good hockey left in him and could regain his game being put in a No. 1 role again. It is worth noting that Granlund has played the wing for most of his tenure with Nashville, however, it wouldn’t be a stretch to put him back at center, where he found success in Minnesota.

A great example of a centerman who was moved to the wing then back to center is Flames forward Elias Lindholm. He started as a center for Carolina then was moved to the right-wing spot in Calgary. Now back at centerm Lindholm leads the Flames in points this season, so it could very well happen with Granlund in Montreal.

A stretch in the RFA section is Islanders star Mathew Barzal. The 23-year-old has posted at least 60 points in every full season he’s played in his career, and had almost a point per game this season. Of course, it’s very likely the Isles would match an offer the Habs made, but it’s a possibility and as such is worth mentioning.

Mathew Barzal New York Islanders
Mathew Barzal, New York Islanders (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

It will be interesting to see how the series against the Pittsburgh Penguins will pan out for Montreal given their lack of a No. 1 center. While this can’t be remedied this season, it’s a potential quick fix that can happen for next season. I believe they should have a look at Granlund if they happen to get unlucky in the draft and not get a center in Round 1. This new offensive addition could turn this season’s negative goal differential into a positive one next season.

Related: Canadiens Prospects That Could Benefit From Proposed Playoff Format

What do you think? Do you believe the Habs are lacking a No. 1 center, and if so what would you like to see them do to fix it? Let us know in the comments below.