On Feb. 9, the Montreal Canadiens went toe-to-toe with the Toronto Maple Leafs in an exciting 4-3 overtime loss. The pace was fast, defense looked ‘optional’ during stretches of the game, and it left everyone wanting more come April.
Well, almost everyone.
One of the key takeaways was the poor play of the Canadiens’ fourth line. For the trio of Nicolas Deslauriers, Michael Chaput and Matthew Peca, it was a night to forget.
Despite limited ice time, (5:53, 7:53 and 8:07, respectively) the fourth line was chewed up and spit out by the Maple Leafs. Each of them finished the game with a minus-two rating and head coach Claude Julien was forced to roll three lines for a large part of the contest.
This wasn’t the first game where the fourth line had a poor outing, but due to the importance of the game, it magnified an issue that has plagued the Canadiens all season. It is imperative that you have four productive lines come playoff time. With the Maple Leafs being a potential first-round matchup, the fourth line of the Habs needs to be addressed.
Previous State of the Fourth Line
Several different combinations of Deslauriers, Chaput, Peca, Charles Hudon and Kenny Agostino have primarily made up the fourth line. Deslauriers is a big body who plays a very physical game. Chaput and Peca are smart defensively and skate well. Hudon and Agostino are highly skilled offensively but can sometimes be defensive liabilities.
Depending on the matchup, Julien can deploy the three players he feels fit the game plan best. If the Habs require additional scoring, they can slot Hudon and Agostino onto the fourth line. If they require more size and a physical presence, Deslauriers is the likely choice.
Having these options should be advantageous for the Canadiens. Unfortunately, these players haven’t been able to consistently perform, and the fourth line has become a liability when they are on the ice. The five players have a combined minus-33 in only 10:57 of average ice-time.
The poor play of the fourth line is not lost on Julien. Arpon Basu of The Athletic quoted Julien earlier this month. “At the end of the day we’re looking at, I guess, different views of a fourth line because when the trade deadline comes around, we’ve got to be more or less satisfied with what we have and what we want to go with…So we’re really looking at all the different options there.” (from ‘Claude Julien is making it painfully obvious he wants fourth-line help before the trade deadline’, The Athletic – 2/5/19)
Shaking Things Up
General manager Marc Bergevin heard Julien loud and clear and made some significant changes to the Habs’ fourth-line personnel. His first order of business was trading David Schlemko and Byron Froese to the Philadelphia Flyers for winger Dale Weise and defenseman Christian Folin.
Weise was expected to report to Laval, but Agostino was placed on waivers (later claimed by the New Jersey Devils) and Weise was promptly recalled. Bergevin followed that up with acquiring Nate Thompson and a 2019 fifth-round pick from the Los Angeles Kings in exchange for the Habs’ 2019 fourth-round pick.
The final move was placing Chaput on waivers to make room on the roster for the new additions, which he cleared. Two trades, only two days apart, has completely overhauled the fourth line of the Canadiens.
The New Look Fourth Line
Andrew Shaw or Paul Byron will play on the fourth line with Thompson and Weise when the Habs are completely healthy. Byron is currently on injured reserve and one of Hudon, Peca or Deslauriers will play on the wing until his return.
Weise had the best seasons of his career with the Canadiens. He scored a career-high 29 points in 2014-15 and became a local favourite with his hard-nosed style of play. He was unable to surpass the 20-point plateau in his two previous seasons with the Flyers and never quite seemed to fit in. Weise is thrilled to be back in Montreal, and contributing offensively will help, of course, but his strong defensive game is why he was acquired.
On changing stalls, Dale Weise says, “I could be in the bathroom in this rink and I’d be happy to be here.”
— Eric Engels (@EricEngels) February 12, 2019
Thompson is defensively responsible and strong on face-offs. The Canadiens are struggling to win draws and Thompson will have an immediate impact, especially in the defensive zone. Thompson’s 53.1 face-off win percentage this season puts him just behind Phillip Danault (53.4 percent) for the team lead.
Whoever plays on the wing until Byron’s return will benefit greatly from having Thompson and Weise on their line. The fourth line will be given every opportunity to earn more ice-time and this will have a positive impact on the rest of the lineup.
The reduced minutes will keep the top players rested and that is important for the relentless forechecking style of play of the Canadiens.
What was once a position of weakness for the Habs can now be considered one of strength, or, at the very least, dependability. Bergevin should be commended for the moves he has made and now Julien should finally have what he has been asking for – the ability to roll four lines.