Canadiens’ top line excels again, but without depth, the present will be hard to manage



Caufield Suzuki Slaf scaled e1707613771562

MONTREAL — The future of the Montreal Canadiens is evident every time they hit the power play. The oldest of the four forwards on their top unit is captain Nick Suzuki at 24; none of the other three — Cole Caufield, Juraj Slafkovský and the newly returned Alex Newhook — was born at the turn of the century.

The top line of Suzuki, Caufield and Slafkovský continued cooking against the Dallas Stars on Saturday afternoon. Caufield extended his career-high point streak to 11 games, setting up Suzuki to score the opening goal of the game, his 16th of the season. Suzuki then set up Slafkovský for the Canadiens’ second goal just before the end of a disastrous second period for the Canadiens.

Since New Year’s Day, Caufield and Suzuki are tied for the team lead in scoring with 15 points in 15 games, and Slafkovský is fourth with 10 points (not including the now-departed Sean Monahan’s 14 points in 13 games).

The consistent glimpse into the future every time the top line or the top power play is on the ice is a nice reminder that the future remains the Canadiens’ overall focus, that they have pieces here to build around, and that those pieces are succeeding. But those pieces also want to win games. They are living in the present, not the future.

And for them to have a chance of doing that, those pieces need some help.

You can’t simply hope to break even long enough for your top line to bail you out game after game. Very few teams, if any, consistently win that way, and while the Canadiens are unlikely to consistently win from now until the end of the season, the proper development of those pieces for the future would be greatly aided by them demonstrating an ability to at least be competitive.

Here is the expected goal share at five-on-five for the Canadiens’ forward lines against the Stars, according to Natural Stat Trick.

Canadiens lines vs Stars at 5v5

Line

  

TOI

  

XGF%

  

Caufield-Suzuki-Slafkovský

11:25

66.84

Pearson-Evans-Anderson

5:13

16.77

Harvey-Pinard-Newhook-Armia

5:00

32.13

Pezzetta-Gignac-Ylönen

2:46

0

The Canadiens are not built to be a top-heavy team, but they clearly are one right now. Over the Canadiens’ two games coming out of their break, they have scored seven goals. The only one scored by someone other than Suzuki or Slafkovský was scored by Michael Pezzetta. Not exactly a sustainable recipe for success.

Newhook’s return should help in that regard.

“Obviously our top line was the only one to score, but I thought our line created a lot, I thought we got a lot of good looks,” Newhook said. “Other nights maybe two of those go in and you’re not saying the same thing about depth scoring. I think we’ve got the guys to produce aside from the top guys, and myself coming back to the lineup, I’d like to add another layer to that.”

Newhook is not wrong. His line looked good against Dallas, and while he had a lot to do with that, so did Joel Armia, who has been a consistently good player for weeks now. He is an example of how a veteran player can overcome a bad stretch and rebound to become a contributor.

“He’s playing well,” Newhook said. “He’s a big body, plays hard, smart, really skilled, he’s got a lot of tools. He’s fun to watch with some of the things he does with that big frame, he’s able to move around guys and use his body to create a lot of chances. It was fun playing with him tonight. I think it was my first time playing with him, but he’s a fun guy to play with.”

When Jake Evans was handed a double-minor for high-sticking after catching Joe Pavelski in the face with 6:10 left in the game, Armia had a chance to tie it on a play he is uniquely capable of making.

That between-the-legs move to give himself a breakaway was a demonstration of Armia’s skill, and when you combine that skill with his size and smarts, it provides a picture of what makes him so effective. The problem, of course, is we haven’t always seen long stretches of that from Armia. We saw it in the 2021 playoffs, which is what got him his current $3.4 million a year contract, a contract he has not lived up to. But we’re also seeing it now, because Armia has been playing good hockey for a while, and the Canadiens will need that to continue to bolster that depth behind the top line.

“He’s been consistently visible, he’s got a lot of positive actions on the ice, great intentions,” coach Martin St. Louis said. “You can see his size, obviously we know he has a good shot, but you can see it, he can make plays. I think Army’s just in a good place, I think he’s found joy playing this game at this level with everything the game is asking him to do, what the game brings. I think because of that, he’s found some consistency.

“He’s been a very good player for us.”

For a veteran who had to start the season in the AHL and went unclaimed on waivers to allow the Canadiens to do that, this is an incredible accomplishment. Armia is not an outgoing type, he will never be a good quote or look all that engaged on camera, but talk to any of his teammates and they will tell the story of an intensely competitive and proud athlete, one who burns to succeed and can sometimes allow that intense pride and competitiveness to get the better of him. For him to overcome the intense disappointment he experienced earlier this season to be as “consistently visible” as he’s been is vitally important for the Canadiens.

But as good as Armia has looked and as problematic as his contract has been, there is another player who could help the Canadiens’ depth who has not looked good for a long time and whose contract is even more problematic.

In 11 games since Jan. 1, Josh Anderson has a goal and an assist, registering the same number of points over that span as Joshua Roy, who played five fewer games and was called up from Laval after the game Saturday to take the place of Rafaël Harvey-Pinard, who left the game with what looked like a serious leg injury.

Anderson was under an enormous amount of heat after it took him 25 games to score this season, but he is in nearly as bad a drought now, and the Canadiens need him more than ever. He was a non-factor Saturday against the Stars, ripping off five shot attempts but landing none of them on goal and finishing the game a minus-2.

Armia has not been lighting up the score sheet, but he’s been a useful player for a while now, killing penalties effectively and creating scoring chances with regularity. Anderson has not been useful, and the Canadiens need to find a way for him to have the kind of turnaround Armia has displayed, for him to be noticeable, or visible, to use the term St. Louis used. He has five shots on goal in his last six games. He has been invisible for a significant stretch of games.

Armia is proof you can put a rough stretch behind you and turn things around if you put your mind to it and work at it. His teammates and his coach are all happy for him after everything he has gone through this season to once again be a significant NHL player. As St. Louis said, Armia has found the joy of playing at this level, and that joy has led to consistency. Anderson’s joy remains elusive, as is his consistency.

“Yeah Suzy’s line is playing well and we’ll need them to continue to do so, but we need all hands on deck, really,” St. Louis said. “Everybody’s got to contribute. It’s not an easy league to do that, but we’ve got to find a way.”

The Canadiens’ future looks bright every time that Caufield-Suzuki-Slafkovský line takes the ice, or when Kaiden Guhle continues to play effective hockey on his off side, or even Michael Matheson continuing to be one of the more productive defencemen in the NHL.

But the Canadiens’ present will be largely reliant on other players stepping forward the way Armia has, the way Newhook did in his first game in more than 10 weeks.

Or, put another way, the way Anderson has not.

(Photo of Cole Caufield, Nick Suzuki and Juraj Slafkovský: Minas Panagiotakis / Getty Images)





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