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Making the case to trade and keep each of Canadiens’ top centres

The issue with things we dub “good problems” to have is this: the word “problem” remains a pesky little part of the equation.

The suddenly centre-rich Montreal Canadiens likely can’t believe where they are today when it comes to this crucial position. Just two years ago, Max Domi was in his first training camp with the Habs and the more fretful portion of the fan base was convinced his move to the middle would go no better than Jonathan Drouin’s shambolic transition did one year prior, when Montreal plucked him from Tampa with the logic he’d help cure a years-long deficiency up the middle.

The subsequent seasons somehow saw Montreal go from desperate for centre solutions to having four guys — Domi, Phillip Danault, Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi — who can all make a case for big minutes. As for the fourth-line role none of the aforementioned guys would want, the team has said 2017 first-rounder Ryan Poehling is ready to compete for a full-time job next year and the Habs inked cerebral, right-shooting Jake Evans to a two-year deal just last week.

Too many centres in the kitchen? Well, there’s certainly been some noise around the position. Neither Danault nor Domi emerged from Montreal’s pandemic-triggered playoff performance completely happy with his role. Domi’s name has been in the rumour mill and while his new agent Darren Ferris recently reiterated to Sportsnet pal Eric Engels that Domi has not requested a deal, let’s just say the speculation won’t be ending any time soon.

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Another throbbing factor in all of this is Montreal’s blatant need for talent on the wings (always has to be something, right?). There are a lot of things about being an NHL GM most of us could never understand, but one simple concept we can all grasp: Trade what you have lots of for stuff you need more of.

Montreal GM Marc Bergevin has already added aggressively this off-season, trading for goalie Jake Allen and defenceman Joel Edmundson. He’s also inked 32-year-old defenceman Jeff Petry to a four-year extension, so let there be no debate about how all-in the Habs are right now. That being the case, the next logical move is to bring some centre clarity to the picture by swapping someone for players who can help at other positions.

With that in mind, here’s a look the pros and cons of moving each guy (excluding Evans).

Max Domi, 25

Why move him? This is the safest play by a mile. In some ways it will be a shame if Domi’s time ends with Montreal, because he threw himself into being a Hab and brought a fighting spirit the club needs. That said, he’s had one good year and one bad year in Montreal and — unlike the other guys on this list — he’s an offence-only player. The fact he’s a restricted free agent in need of a new contract also presents a natural pressure point.

Why keep him? Again, this guy loved being in the Montreal fire and you simply cannot say that about every high-level player who wears the red, white and blue. Also, though hiring Ferris would seem to indicate Domi is after every dollar, he doesn’t have a ton of leverage coming off a disappointing 44 points in 71 contests. A team could kick the can with a one-year deal. But if you’re convinced in his abilities as a 2C, the door is likely open to make the commitment and get him on a longer-term deal at a friendly AAV.

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Phillip Danault, 27

Why move him? Well, he could move himself next summer as a UFA if he’s not happy with how things play out or the money Montreal is offering. Even with free agency on the immediate horizon, Danault would net a great return because he probably tops the second tier of two-way centres in the league. Understanding what a coach’s dream Danault is, there’s one thing I keep coming back to: If he’s playing ahead of Suzuki and Kotkaniemi long-term in Montreal, something went wrong. Those latter two guys — though they may not quite have Danault’s Selke chops — are both 200-foot players with more offensive potential.

Why keep him? The Canadiens got Danault in a 2016 deadline deal with Chicago, sending Dale Weise and Tomas Fleischmann the other way. That’s a huge win even before you consider they received a second-rounder in the package, too. So much talk is devoted to his awesome defensive play that the fact he’s a first-round pick (26th overall in 2011) can get overlooked. He’s just gotten better and better. If you inked him to a six-year extension today, he’d still be just 33 in the final year of the deal.

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Ryan Poehling, 21

Why move him? This is the last guy listed here who, if you squint and tilt your head, you could see the path to dealing him today. The only way you could stomach trading a young centre prospect like Poehling is when you have two guys — Suzuki and Kotkaniemi — who are both younger than him (Suzuki has him by 10 months) and have already done more at the NHL level. The Habs don’t have a crown jewel in their cupboard, but they’re loaded with quality prospects and draft picks thanks to their two-year reset. Dangle Poehling with a pair of your three 2020 second-rounders and you’d have somebody’s attention.

Why keep him? Though Kotkaniemi has been bulking up, Poehling is the only centre Montreal has who could be described as barrel-chested. There have always been questions about his high-end potential, but his floor is a super-strong, two-way guy who will play in most — if not all — situations. A 1-2-3 of Suzuki, Kotkaniemi and Poehling could have Habs supporters smiling for 15 years.

Jesperi Kotkaniemi, 20

Why move him? We’ve arrived at the debate club portion of this piece, where you make a case for something regardless of whether your heart is in it or not. Had we not had bubble hockey, Kotkaniemi’s stock would be in a different place right now after a difficult sophomore season that saw him sent to the AHL. However, he looked like a different (specifically stronger) player in the post-season and that third-overall pedigree is shining through again. Say this: you’d be selling high if you moved him right now.

Why keep him? The Canadiens ultimately whiffed when they selected Alex Galchenyuk third overall in 2012. Six years later they took Kotkaniemi in the same spot — right ahead of Brady Tkachuk — largely because of the position he plays. If you draft a guy that high and he’s six-foot-two, has a great attitude and skill to boot, just go ahead and see it through. If you let recency bias wash over you, it feels very reasonable to suggest Kotkaniemi will be a terrific No. 2 in the NHL.

Nick Suzuki, 21

Why move him? You don’t. I can’t even fake it. In fact, don’t even move him to the wing, though he’s probably the guy best-suited on this list to do so. You know why he could do it? Because he’s clever, shifty and determined. Keep him in the middle, where he can get the most out of his prodigious, right-shot potential.

Why keep him? Because, between major junior and his first NHL playoff showing, Suzuki has demonstrated a serious ability to meet the moment. He might not be a true, Art Ross-style No. 1, but having him at the top of your depth chart will work just fine given the Canadiens — however they choose to play this out — should have another two or three great pivots playing behind him.


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