It’s a paradox. Even though the Montreal Canadiens are arguably at their the deepest at left-wing, there’s a good chance it won’t stay that way for long… like not even past next season.
Domi, Tatar Lead Habs in Theory
Technically speaking, two of the Canadiens’ top three scorers during the regular season play on the left side. Tomas Tatar led the Habs in scoring with 61 points, while Max Domi netted 44 points.
True, Domi scored most of those points at center, according to line data compiled by the University of New Brunswick. However, his time was split between center and left-wing during the playoffs. It’s a safe bet that trend skews more to the left side moving forward considering the Habs must weigh the development of Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi down the middle against Domi’s diminishing returns there.
Officially, the Canadiens believe Domi to be more effective as a center. However, it’s more a question of whether he’s more effective than Kotkaniemi, Suzuki and Phillip Danault or even Ryan Poehling and Jake Evans as a fourth-line center (considering Domi played between Jordan Weal and Dale Weise a fair bit during the playoffs).
While it’s a small sample size, the playoffs at least gave strong indication the answer is no. That’s not even just with regard to how Domi comparatively stacks up against how the Habs view their young centers for the future, but right now. Taking into account Domi’s defensive deficiencies, he’s probably better-suited to being played on the left side, at least for the Canadiens’ purposes.
Domi Is the Real Question Mark
It may be for the best considering the question marks surrounding the position as a whole. For instance, Tatar will be a free agent at the end of next season. So, he may not last the full campaign with the Canadiens if something goes terribly wrong and the Habs fail to compete for a playoff spot and general manager Marc Bergevin decides to take advantage of his projected value on the trade market.
It’s worth noting the bar has been set higher. Simply competing for a playoff spot should no longer be the Canadiens’ goal. So, not only is it conceivable that the Habs hold onto Tatar, but they can also afford to, as they theoretically boast one of the better prospect pools in the league.
However, Domi himself may not be long for the Habs. His name regularly makes the trade-rumor rounds, especially after his lackluster playoffs. To an even greater degree after Bergevin “couldn’t speak for his future” following the loss to the Philadelphia Flyers, despite the fact Domi is a pending restricted free agent.
In other words, more so than ever before, the Canadiens hold all the cards in negotiations with Domi. Not caring if Domi is in the team’s future plans or not will do that. If Bergevin couldn’t so much as give Domi a tepid vote of confidence, it speaks volumes about the forward’s perceived lack of a future with the Habs.
Drouin Shows Spark with Suzuki
In truth, there are far worse things than to have a left side comprised of some combination of Tatar, Domi, Jonathan Drouin, Artturi Lehkonen and Paul Byron, each of whom can make a claim to being a top-six forward. Add in Weal and Charles Hudon as depth options, and the Habs are on solid footing for 2020-2021. The issue is it can’t legitimately be considered a solid foundation, when no one knows what the left side will look like past that point.
Look at it this way: If Drouin, who’s renowned for his inconsistency, is the biggest driver of certainty on the left side, it’s a problem. And, despite the chemistry he found playing with Suzuki on the left, there’s at least a slight chance head coach Claude Julien moves the former to right-wing, because of the lack of depth there.
In fact, it’s fittingly almost the mirror image of the situation on the right. The Canadiens don’t necessarily need to make any moves to solidify the left side for next season and they also have greater organizational depth from a prospect-pipeline perspective. However, whereas the Habs have Cole Caufield and Jesse Ylonen on the right, they have nobody on the left anywhere close to that projected talent level.
For example, Rhett Pitlick currently ranks as the Habs’ top unsigned LW prospect. He was picked just last summer, meaning he’s likely a few years away from playing in the NHL at least. He was also a fifth-round pick (No. 131 overall) who is considered a “long-term project.”
Looking to the Left’s Future
It’s why a player like Dylan Holloway makes a lot of sense for the Habs, when they presumably pick at No. 16 overall at the NHL Entry Draft. Holloway plays both center and left-wing, but he also played at the University of Wisconsin this past season with Caufield and fellow Habs prospect Jack Gorniak, so there’s a degree of familiarity there. He also projects as the best player available at that point, according to TSN’s Bob McKenzie.
Beyond Holloway, Rodion Amirov and Lukas Reichel are alternative left-wing options for the Habs at that spot. In terms of sheer potential, none of the three are in the same realm as Cole Perfetti, who the Canadiens would theoretically be having a chance to draft had they not beaten the Pittsburgh Penguins, but what’s done is done.
Bergevin has said he believes the trade-off was worth it, but, of course, he has to say that. It’s hard to argue that the team’s modestly successful playoff run shined a spotlight on the Habs’ impressive prospects for the future, especially down the middle. However, neither Tatar nor Domi had particularly good playoffs themselves.
It’s hard to justify reading as much as possible into the development of Kotkaniemi and Suzuki and not do the same regarding the struggles of the former two, especially if Bergevin is preparing to move on from each of them. In such an instance, one of the Habs’ biggest strengths right now can turn into their biggest weakness in a hurry.