Canadiens’ Young Centers Will Fill Hole Left By Danault

The free agency window opened up wide this week, and the roster of the Canadiens changed significantly. New faces are Mike Hoffman, Cedric Paquette, David Savard, and Chris Wideman. Players that likely won’t return, although they haven’t signed elsewhere yet, are Tomas Tatar and Eric Staal. One player in particular that has signed with another team is Phillip Danault – the Canadiens’ top two-way center joined the Los Angeles Kings. This is a tough loss for the Habs, but they should be just fine without him.

Danault Signs in LA

Danault had been one of the Canadiens’ top centers for the past few years, mostly because they hadn’t had a true number one center. He was never a high-scoring center, but his two-way game is one of the best in the league, having been in the top 10 for Selke trophy nominations for best defensive forward the last three seasons. He never scored more than 13 goals as a member of the Canadiens and was never seen as an offensive-type player.

Phillip Danault Montreal Canadiens
Phillip Danault, former Montreal Canadien (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

It was leaked early in the season that Danault turned down a $5 million, six-year deal from the Canadiens. Danault started last season very slow at both ends of the ice, but as the season went on, he improved drastically and was once again a top shut-down forward. However, he still saw his minutes reduced as Nick Suzuki took on more of a top-line center role, so he decided to sign with the Kings. Danault’s agent Stephane Fiset mentioned that Danault signed in LA for only $500,000 more because he felt he wouldn’t play a more offensive role in Montreal.

Suzuki Is Ready for Increased Role

Suzuki has been molded over the past two seasons to become the Canadiens’ top-line center; his role as a two-way player increased as last season went on. He was given more penalty kill (PK) time, and as his defensive play grew stronger, he was given opportunities to match up against the opponent’s top lines. Although Danault was still the team’s top shut-down forward, Suzuki still got chances to prove he could do the job.

Nick Suzuki Montreal Canadiens
Nick Suzuki, Montreal Canadiens (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Since the bubble playoffs two seasons ago, Suzuki has seen his role on the Canadiens increase significantly. Not only did his minutes increase, but he has been used in all roles, whether it be even strength, power play (PP), or PK, and has succeeded at each. He is quickly solidifying himself as the team’s top center no matter the situation and clearly has full confidence in the Canadiens head coach Dominique Ducharme. Suzuki’s transition should ease some worries about losing Danault. Suzuki isn’t quite at the level Danault is defensively, but he is not far behind. Suzuki’s hockey IQ should quickly develop his defensive game and, with time, fill Danault’s shoes.

Evans Will See Increased Defensive Role

Jake Evans surprised everyone and quickly became one of the better defensive centers on the Canadiens last season. The 7th round draft pick from the 2014 entry draft has worked hard to get to where he is as a member of the Canadiens. A point per game scorer and former captain of the University of Notre Dame hockey team became a great two-way forward with Laval Rocket in 2018-19 after he finished school. He scored 45 points in 67 games with the Rocket and got a short stint in 2019-20 with the Canadiens, playing 13 games and scoring 3 points.

Jake Evans Montreal Canadiens
Jake Evans, Montreal Canadiens (Photo by Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images)

Evans would make the Canadiens out of camp for the 2020-21 season and, with his great speed and defensive abilities, became one of the better Canadiens defensively. This is a different take than how he played in the NCAA; while in college, Evans was more of an offensive player. In his first year with Laval, that all changed. Rocket then-head coach Joel Bouchard spoke with Evans and told him if he wanted to make the NHL, he needed to be better defensively, so that’s what Evans did. He worked on his defensive game, became the Canadiens’ fourth-line center, and found himself on the PK. With Danault gone, Evans and Suzuki will be relied upon to pick up the slack and help the Canadiens defensively.

They Will Have Faceoff Growing Pains

Suzuki and Evans will not be able to do what Danault could do defensively right away. Even though they both made huge strides last year in that department, they still have a lot to learn. Suzuki is probably the closest to Danault’s skill defensively, but his faceoff needs to improve; Suzuki was only 44% in the faceoff circle last season, down 2% from the previous season. Evans was 51% which is a lot closer to the 52.5% Danault had last season; the biggest loss for the Canadiens this season will be in the faceoff circle. Danault was the top faceoff guy for years and averaged 53.8% over his career.

Nick Suzuki Montreal Canadiens
Nick Suzuki, Montreal Canadiens (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Canadiens did sign some help with free agent Cedric Paquette who could help out on faceoffs. Paquette didn’t play at center much last season and is only 49% in faceoffs for his career; he does add depth but is not as reliable as Danault was in the faceoff circle. Jesperi Kotkaniemi is another young center for the Canadiens who had an inconsistent season in the faceoff circle; he was 47.9% for the season but had games where he was 80% and others where he was 15%. If he can fix his inconsistencies, he could end up being the go-to guy for faceoffs.

Big Season for Kotkaniemi

Kotkaniemi is entering his fourth NHL season – drafted 3rd overall in the 2018 draft, he hasn’t quite found his groove yet. He had a solid rookie season but then was plagued with injuries in his sophomore season. He showed signs last season of why the Canadiens drafted him so high, but his time in the faceoff circle was very inconsistent. Defensively, he is very solid with a career of 59.4% Corsi but rarely plays against opponents’ top lines, so it will be interesting to see how he reacts given a bigger role if he’s slotted as the second-line center.

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

In Kotkaniemi’s defense, he did play on 18 different line combinations last season and never had consistent linemates. This season, the Canadiens are very deep on the wings, and no matter what line he plays on, Kotkaniemi should always have good wingers. There should be no excuses this season for poor play. If given the second-line role, Kotkaniemi will finally get the chance to flourish and show the Canadiens that they drafted the right player.

Suzuki and Evans will be primarily depended upon to replace Danault’s defensive prowess. Neither one is at Danault’s level yet, but both could fill in quite nicely where Danault left off. Suzuki will provide solid defense, but he will be a top scorer for the Canadiens as well, something Danault lacked. Evans will be the foil to Suzuki: he won’t provide much offense but will be solid defensively. Kotkaniemi is the wild card: he has the potential to be both solid offensively and defensively. If he can find his game next season, the Canadiens will do just fine without Danault.

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