Stu Cowan: Canadiens counting on young centres to take next step
|Montreal Gazette 29 Jul 2021 at 17:21|
There were growing pains along the way — more so with Kotkaniemi — and GM Marc Bergevin decided to acquire veteran centre Eric Staal from the Buffalo Sabres before the NHL trade deadline to help them out.
Staal won’t be back with the Canadiens next season and neither will centre Phillip Danault, who signed a six-year, US$33-million deal with the Los Angeles Kings Wednesday as a free agent.
Now there will be even more pressure on Suzuki and Kotkaniemi to perform next season and the centre position could once again be a big question mark.
Bergevin signed free-agent centre Cédric Paquette to a one-year deal worth US$950,000 on Wednesday. No disrespect to Paquette, but he’s no Danault. Paquette does, however, come much cheaper and the 27-year-old Gaspé native also gives the Canadiens another francophone in the lineup to replace Danault, which is very important to the franchise.
In 47 games last season split between the Ottawa Senators and Carolina Hurricanes, Paquette had 4-4-8 totals and was minus-12 while winning only 44 per cent of his faceoffs.
Danault was the Canadiens’ No. 1 faceoff man, winning 52.5 per cent of his draws last season, while Kotkaniemi won 47.9 per cent and Suzuki won 44 per cent. Danault took 907 faceoffs, Suzuki 796 and Kotkaniemi 549.
Faceoffs could be a problem for the Canadiens next season, although Jake Evans did win 50.1 per cent of his 405 draws. Danault was also the team’s top defensive centre and one of the best in the league, as he proved in the playoffs, and he’s a big loss.
Bergevin has $973,630 in salary-cap space, according to CapFriendly.com , but should get another $7.857 million with captain Shea Weber expected to qualify for long-term injured reserve due to injuries that are expected to sideline him for all of next season and could also end his career. So there’s still a possibility of Bergevin adding another experienced centre to the lineup before next season to take some of the pressure off Suzuki and Kotkaniemi.
If Bergevin doesn’t add another centre, the Canadiens would start next season with Suzuki as the No. 1 centre and Kotkaniemi at No. 2.
Montreal Canadiens’ Jesperi Kotkaniemi sets up in front of Edmonton Oilers goalie Mikko Loskinen during second period in Montreal on May 10, 2021. Photo by John Mahoney /Montreal Gazette
The Canadiens showed a lack of trust in the 21-year-old Kotkaniemi when they made him a healthy scratch for the first game of the playoffs and also the last two games of the Stanley Cup final.
“As a player we love KK’s potential, we love the peak of his game and sometimes even I get caught wanting more fast,” Bergevin said Wednesday about Kotkaniemi, who had 5-15-20 totals in 56 regular-season games and 5-3-8 totals in 19 playoff games last season. “He’s still a young player that just turned 21 and, yes, I do want him to be more constant. I do want him to have his best game almost every night.
“When he plays the north-south game … I’m not saying run through people, but he’s got a great shot, he scores a lot of his goals like you saw in the playoffs two years ago, he goes to the net,” Bergevin added. “And when he has success sometimes as a young player — and he’s not the only one — they fall back and they try to play more east-west game. What I want him to understand — which we have talks with him and he’s receptive, he’s a good kid, he wants to get better and I think and I believe he will — it’s just that right now I wish he had done that more often than up and down in his game.”
When asked about the possibility of acquiring another centre to fill the No. 2 role, Bergevin said: “In a perfect world, I’d like to shelter KK more. It could be done internally. On the trade market, you have to be careful because what is available and what you have to give to get that player. We value certain players with different …. there’s a cap now and there’s a flat cap moving forward that’s going to move very little. So there’s consciousness that needs to be done at that level, too. I can’t just go out and sign a third-line centre that’s going to shelter KK or we’re going to trade for one that makes $5 million or over. I need to be careful.
“Certain positions teams on average put certain dollars, depending what their team’s at,” the GM added. “So where we’re at today I need to be careful. But, yeah, if I don’t have a choice, if I don’t see there’s a fit, then I’m going to have to rely and hope that KK gets the job done. That’s just the reality of being a GM in the NHL. Sometimes you can’t fill those spots, you have to be careful. And if it’s not there, you just hope that the young player’s going to take the next step. I don’t know that for sure, but that might have to be the case in this case with KK.”