The Montreal Canadiens wouldn’t be here right now without Joel Armia. That’s no exaggeration either. His two-goal performance in Game 5 against the Toronto Maple Leafs in Round 1 helped right the ship for the Habs, down 3-1 in the first-round series at that point.
As a result, with 7 points in 11 games this postseason Armia has effectively entered Rene Bourque territory, but in the best way possible as a legitimate playoff hero. True, the Canadiens gave up a three-goal lead in that game, winning on Nick Suzuki’s overtime winner. Regardless, there’s a case to be made that, without Armia spotting the Habs two goals to start, they don’t even earn the chance to hold on for dear life. As a result, there’s a case to be made that the Canadiens should re-sign Armia, a pending unrestricted free agent.
Armia vs. Danault vs. Tatar
It might not even be an issue, were the Canadiens not faced with a situation in which Phillip Danault and Tomas Tatar are also pending UFAs (along with Corey Perry, Eric Staal, Erik Gustafsson, Jon Merrill and Michael Frolik). Under those circumstances, it would be easy to imagine Armia being the odd man out, especially with the salary cap set to stay neutral at $81.5 million.
Everything else being equal, if the Canadiens could re-sign one of those two top forwards, Danault would have the edge as arguably the team’s top center. That doesn’t mean Danault re-signing is a slam dunk, considering he went on record saying he’d want to continue to play an offensive role. With the emergence of Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi down the middle, that’s becoming less likely. To be fair, on a team where Armia is a supposed fourth-liner, it’s clear no matter on which line Danault would ultimately play, he’d get his chances.
However, considering Danault reportedly rejected a five-year, $30 million offer, there are no guarantees either way (from ‘Phillip Danault et le CH sont-ils si loin d’une entente,’ La Presse, Jan. 22, 2021). With Jonathan Drouin potentially having played his last game with the Canadiens, general manager Marc Bergevin may have another $5.5 million in cap space with which to play, though. And, if Drouin leaves the organization, one would expect Bergevin to try his hardest to retain at least one prominent, local Francophone talent.
Add in the accolades Danault’s received for his defensive performance this postseason, especially compared to that of Tatar, who’s been healthy-scratched, and it’s a relative no-brainer. The same obviously goes for Armia, including his impact during the regular season. Based on his career up to this point, Armia realistically tops out as a 0.5 point-per-game player, which is admittedly underwhelming considering his just 28 years of age and status as a former first-round pick back in 2011. So, the 14 points in 41 games he scored this season are all the more disappointing, until you consider his impact away from the puck.
It’s probably no coincidence that a penalty-kill unit that struggled all season, finishing at a 23rd-ranked 78.5%, improved drastically upon Armia’s return from COVID-19. Once he came back, the Canadiens only allowed seven goals in 43 opportunities (83.7%) down the stretch, which included the final eight games of the season without Shea Weber, the Canadiens’ most-used penalty killer. In the eight games Armia missed due to COVID, the Canadiens allowed five goals in 23 opportunities (78.2%).
Armia the New Bourque?
More to the point, the Canadiens are a league-leading 90.3% on the penalty kill during the playoffs with Armia playing 2:08 per game shorthanded (compared to just 1:31 during the regular season). Armia has also scored two of the Canadiens’ three shorthanded goals these playoffs, both coming in their Game 3, 5-1 victory over the Winnipeg Jets in Round 2.
Granted, neither of which were Paul Byron’s highlight-reel, on-his-knees Game 1 game-winning goal against the Maple Leafs. However, that’s effectively Armia in a nutshell. You don’t really notice him, which is a good sign considering his actual role. Assuming he doesn’t command too much of a raise relative to his current $2.6 million hit, Armia is a bargain.
It’s all the more of one considering Bourque had a hit of $3.33 million during his tenure with the Habs… which began almost 10 years ago. Adjust for inflation, and Armia’s cost-effectiveness is undeniable. Bourque’s tenure of course also coincided with the Canadiens’ last trip to the third round, when they came up short against the New York Rangers. During that run, Bourque scored eight goals and three assists in 17 games, including a clutch hat trick in Game 5 to help force the deciding Game 6.
There are no guarantees that this time will end differently, only that Armia will continue to bring during the regular season… whichever team for which he plays. Hopefully it will still be the Canadiens.