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Canadiens lineup projections: Versatility highlights much-improved depth

Montreal Canadiens assistant coach Luke Richardson spent over 30 minutes talking with reporters over Zoom last week and uttered no word more frequently than “depth.”

The organizational chart has changed so much since August that the team’s biggest weakness has suddenly become its biggest strength.

Don’t buy it? Well, let’s lay it out.

Here’s what Montreal’s lineup was for its Game 6 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers on Aug. 21:

Tomas Tatar-Phillip Danault-Artturi Lehkonen

Jonathan Drouin-Nick Suzuki-Joel Armia

Paul Byron-Jesperi Kotkaniemi-Max Domi

Charles Hudon-Jake Evans-Alex Belzile

Ben Chiarot-Shea Weber

Brett Kulak-Jeff Petry

Xavier Ouellet-Victor Mete

Carey Price

Charlie Lindgren

If you swapped in then-injured Brendan Gallagher for recently traded Max Domi, there was at least the possibility of reuniting the top line of the last two seasons. But doing so would’ve pushed Lehkonen into Domi’s spot and, well, done very little to improve the team’s chances of spreading out its offence.

Maybe Cale Fleury or Noah Juulsen, or both, would’ve made the third pairing a little better. Or maybe they wouldn’t have.

The point is, there wasn’t much mixing and matching for the Canadiens to do to make themselves harder to play against.

But now?

Add top-six forwards Tyler Toffoli and Josh Anderson, top-six defencemen Joel Edmundson and Alexander Romanov, and backup goaltender Jake Allen, move Hudon, Belzile, Mete and Ouellet to the fringe, and the depth, balance and versatility of the roster becomes undeniable.

Here’s what Canadiens coach Claude Julien said about it back in October:

“I like the fact that I can move guys around and it’s not like one line’s going to get better and the other one’s going to get weaker. If I make a change, it’s probably all lines that will have an opportunity to get better. That’s what I like about the depth of this group right now.”

It’s what the fans appear to like, too.

We asked them to submit line combinations and defence pairings on Twitter, and the variety in their responses speaks to the depth, balance and versatility of the roster.

There were, however, some commonalities in their suggestions. The majority of them had Tatar, Danault and Gallagher completing the same line for a third consecutive season, Drouin and Suzuki matched up to continue building on the chemistry they displayed in the Toronto bubble, and Chiarot and Weber paired together once again.

We won’t break down every single one of the 150-plus suggestions made, but we’ve picked out four that we think are compelling for a variety of reasons. We’ll also add two suggested compositions of our own — one with our outside-the-box combinations and the other as a template for what we think Julien will opt for.

Why it could work: With a shortened training camp — and without the benefit of exhibition — the biggest challenge Julien will face is integrating his new players into his system. Keeping the Danault line and Weber pairing intact and placing Drouin with Suzuki and Lehkonen with Armia provides a certain level of stability while that integration process is unfolding.

One thing we like: That third line. While we appreciate the logic behind Jonathan’s justification for putting Anderson next to Kotkaniemi, we don’t know that he needs much protection. Kotkaniemi emerged as a much bigger and far more physical player in the bubble. Assuming he continues to progress in both departments, that makes this combination particularly dangerous.

That Kotkaniemi can score as easily as he can set up goals helps because Anderson and Byron are both capable finishers but also versatile enough to create space and opportunity for whomever they’re playing with.

Granted, they do it in different ways — Byron with his pure speed and Anderson with his speed, size and physicality — but the result is still the same. The result is three players who can create opportunities for each other and three players who can all put the puck in the net.

One potential flaw: Brett Kulak had a crisis of confidence in being demoted to the team’s third pairing last season and moving him to the right side of that pairing, where he’s never played before, could prove to be too risky an endeavour.

Bonus points for: Giving us a breakdown of how you see the Price/Allen split. We’d be surprised if it’s that even when all is said and done, but Price’s work rate is bound to decrease significantly from what it was last season.

Why it could work: The chemistry between Tatar and Gallagher is established and placing them with Suzuki — at least at home — could free them up to produce a bit more offence without constantly having to match up against the other team’s best line and without having to take as many defensive zone draws as they would with Danault.

In Byron-Danault-Toffoli, you have two finishers playing with a pass-first player, and all three of them are very responsible checkers.

One thing we like: Kulak and Petry as a pair — especially since we’re talking about how to start the season. It’s worth giving Kulak a show of confidence and rewarding him for how he played in the bubble. If he resembles the player we saw there, it makes the whole group that much better.

Also, with the defence set as such, there’s a balance there that makes reducing the minutes Weber, Chiarot and Petry play viable.

One potential flaw: If you’re going to pair Drouin and Kotkaniemi together, it’s probably best they play with someone slightly more defensive-minded than Anderson. This line, as it’s constructed, would need to be sheltered, and that would mean less ice-time in tight games where they could make the difference with their offensive abilities.

Bonus points for: Splitting the Danault line right off the hop. You already know what you have in them and you can reunite them at any point. And it’s not like you blew it up; this is a moderate experiment to be running — and with a centre in Suzuki who knows how to play with both guys.

We also agree on Byron. He had a bad start to last season and then suffered a brutal injury that took him out of action for over three months. It made it easy to forget he topped 20 goals in 2017 and 2018 and was on pace for 22 had he played more 56 games in 2019.

Why it could work: Sammy’s justification said it all. In a shortened season you can undo your playoff hopes in a hurry, so it makes sense to start off with what you know. In his lineup, the top two lines and top two defence pairings from the bubble remain intact.

One thing we like: Toffoli and Anderson flanking Kotkaniemi. It could be a potent offensive line that isn’t quite as defensively vulnerable as the proposed Drouin-Kotkaniemi-Anderson line. Even if Toffoli plays his off-wing in this scenario, Julien made a point of mentioning that he’s been assured Toffoli is comfortable on the left.

One potential flaw: Not maximizing the offensive potential of the forward group. We know Armia played great hockey for the Canadiens prior to suffering a hand injury in December, but he doesn’t have a proven track record as a finisher. If you’re going to have the two best playmakers (Drouin and Suzuki) on the same line, you probably want a pure goal scorer next to them.

Bonus points for: Moving Edmundson to the right of Romanov. He has plenty of his experience playing his off side.

Why it could work: This is one of the more balanced compositions of the ones submitted. At least it is up front. Here you see the stability of the Danault line, a pure finisher next to Drouin and Suzuki, Lehkonen and Toffoli eliminating some of the desire to shelter Kotkaniemi, and a strong fourth line.

One thing we like: Pairing Romanov with Weber — even if Patrick says he doesn’t think he should start there. If he finishes there, that will unquestionably be a sign that he’s every bit as good as the Canadiens think he is.

But why not start him there and give him the most reliable partner he can have? Romanov’s mobility could prove to be an excellent fit for Weber, too.

One potential flaw: Edmundson out of the lineup. The Canadiens didn’t trade for him and sign him to a four-year, $14-million contract to park him in the press box before he’s even played a game.

Bonus points for: Focusing on the mobility of the blue line. It could be seen as a weakness—especially if both Kulak and Mete find themselves on the outside looking in.

Our outside-the-box composition

Drouin-Suzuki-Gallagher
Pure finisher next to the playmakers.

Toffoli-Kotkaniemi-Armia
We see puck possession.

Tatar-Danault-Anderson
Putting Anderson in a place to immediately succeed without changing the dynamic Gallagher normally brings to this line. We were surprised that not a single response had this combination.

Byron-Evans-Lehkonen
Speed and tenacity on the wings, and two defensive specialists next to a centre with limited NHL experience.

Romanov-Weber
Youth and experience, speed and size, physicality all around.

Chiarot-Petry
Complementary skills.

Mete-Edmundson
If Mete can produce to the level his skillset suggests he should, his speed could be a welcome component next to Edmundson.

Notes

• If Kulak isn’t on the second pair, we’re not sure he works well on the third. And if he’s out of the lineup, perhaps it’s because the Canadiens capitalize on his market value and trade him prior to the season.

We don’t see any of that as probable — in fact, we’d bet against it given GM Marc Bergevin putting a premium on having defensive depth — but it is possible.

• We like the idea of Gallagher completing the Drouin-Suzuki duo and still see him as the purest scorer on the team. And if we have to move him away from Tatar and Danault, why not put Anderson in his place? The two play the same style, but Anderson is bigger, stronger and faster.

Lineup we think Julien will start with

Tatar-Danault-Gallagher

Drouin-Suzuki-Toffoli

Lehkonen-Kotkaniemi-Anderson

Byron-Evans-Armia

Chiarot-Weber

Edmundson-Petry

Kulak-Romanov

Final thoughts

• A few submissions had Juulsen taking a spot on defence, but it appears to be consensus within the organization that he needs to get some games in at the AHL level to make up for all the lost time due to injuries over the last two seasons. And while we appreciate that most people are concerned he’ll be claimed on waivers if he’s sent to the AHL, we see that scenario as unlikely.

There are a lot of teams that are right up against the cap, and roster space, as always, is limited. Not that Juulsen carries an exorbitant cap hit — he’s got NHL upside for only $700,000 — but if the team waiving him (the team that knows him best) feels he needs reps before being able to be dependable enough at this level, it’s hard to imagine another team will see it differently.

• Cale Fleury not having to pass through waivers to go to the AHL hurts his chances of making the big club out of camp — especially with no exhibition games to prove he’s more worthy than someone else. It’s not to say he wouldn’t be prepared to be an ideal candidate on the third pairing, but the increased depth on the Canadiens’ blue line, coupled with his waiver exemption, stacks the deck against him.

• A few submissions had Jordan Weal centring the fourth line or serving as an extra. While it’s possible he’ll prove to be the best option to centre the fourth line, it’s unlikely. Even more unlikely would be keeping him as an extra, unless the NHL allows for a taxi squad that doesn’t count against the cap.

Regardless, Weal being demoted would be one of the easiest ways for the Canadiens to be cap-compliant to start the season. They’ll probably have to make a couple of other minor moves, but you have to figure they’ll at least make this one.

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