Canadiens Potentially Set at Center After Strong Playoffs

The Montreal Canadiens may still lack that big No. 1 center, eight years into general manager Marc Bergevin’s tenure. It remains to be seen if they still need one though.

Kotkaniemi, Suzuki Help Lead Habs

The 2020 playoffs taught us many things from the Habs’ perspective. For example, the experience of having lost in the first round of the playoffs is somehow better than a shot at drafting No. 1 overall (apparently). Or that goalie Carey Price can still be a dominant player in this league (provided he’s well-rested).

More significantly, though? That Jesperi Kotkaniemi’s sophomore slump of a season was the outlier between it and his rookie campaign. He’s also finally poised to build on the success of the latter, after having proven himself capable of delivering in high-pressure series against the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers. Most significantly? That Nick Suzuki may have permanently hurdled him on the depth chart at the center position.

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

Admittedly, it’s not that much of a surprise considering Suzuki’s successful 41-point rookie campaign and Kotkaniemi’s well-documented struggles this past season. It is however incredibly impressive considering Kotkaniemi’s No. 3-overall-draft-pick pedigree and how Suzuki’s coming-out party coincided with Kotkaniemi re-establishing himself with authority these past playoffs.

The Canadiens effectively drafted Kotkaniemi in the remote hopes that he would live up to his No. 1 center potential. His skill set was never complete, but he’s taken great strides these past playoffs, with four goals scored in the 10 games. Even before the playoffs by adding muscle, and putting in much-needed work into his skating.

Who’s the No. 1 Center?

Put simply, Bergevin has put the Habs in a great position down the middle. There are far worse things than having a 5-foot-11, 201-pound Suzuki play above the 6-foot-2 Kotkaniemi (who’s only listed at 198 pounds) in the lineup more out of luxury than need. As Kotkaniemi has just shown, he’s fully capable of playing at this level. Suzuki arguably just to a greater extent.

Add the team’s current No. 1 center, Phillip Danault, into the mix and there’s no denying the Habs are in good shape. Danault may not be that aforementioned prototypical No. 1 guy, but as far as two-way play goes he’s the best of the bunch for now. Twenty-one-year-old Ryan Poehling potentially rounds out the foursome for next season, which is the truly exciting part. With exception to Jake Evans (24), who’s at the very least a capable depth option, Poehling is the eldest of the Habs’ next generation of centermen. Danault, for his part, is just 27 and still in his prime.

Phillip Danault Montreal Canadiens
Montreal Canadiens center Phillip Danault – (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

With one season left on Danault’s $3.083 million-per-year deal, 2020-21 is critical to the Habs. They have the chance to concretely assess the capabilities of Suzuki and Kotkaniemi, before deciding what to do with regard to Danault, who could theoretically command Jean-Gabriel Pageau money on the open market ($5 million, if not more). The outlook is good though, if these past playoffs are any indication.

The Case to Re-Sign Danault

Keep in mind, Danault would ideally slot in as the No. 3 center on a legitimate contender. Pageau slots in as the New York Islanders’ No. 3 guy right now. There’s no good reason the Canadiens cannot make a similar move and re-sign Danault to center their third line, even if over the course of next season Bergevin concludes that’s the only place they need him. Especially if that’s the case.

Consider the cap space the Canadiens have. Why shouldn’t Bergevin make a point of keeping center a position of strength for the Habs, if he has the means to? Now, consider how undeniably fair of a question that is to ask at this juncture… and how ridiculous it would have been to ask the same one just two seasons ago. Hell, two months ago, before Kotkaniemi’s re-emergence as a potential savior. He doesn’t have to go at it alone, which is the bigger reason for optimism, here.

Toronto Maple Leafs John Tavares Montreal Canadiens Jesperi Kotkaniemi
Montreal Canadiens forward Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Toronto Maple Leafs forward John Tavares – (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

There’s a well-accepted school of thought that teams should draft size and skill over skill alone. The Canadiens may not have that behemoth No. 1 center they’ve craved for literally decades to the point of reportedly coming this close to trading the farm for an in-decline Vincent Lecavalier. Nevertheless, the Habs have clearly got the skill part down, as evidenced by how well Danault, Kotkaniemi and Suzuki played these past playoffs. There’s also strength in numbers, though. They’ve got those as well. No. 1 may be a question mark at this stage, but multiple choice has its benefits.