One issue that has spanned the tenures of several Canadiens general managers is a lack of top centre talent. One might say that the strongest one-two punch down the middle was when Montreal could boast a lineup of Saku Koivu and Tomas Plekanec.
Koivu, while being one of the most inspirational Canadiens players of the last generation, was able to get to 60 points or more three times. For the remainder of time in Montreal, he was a 55-point player. Plekanec reached the 60-point mark three times as well, but was also typically a 55-point center.
Both players were good centres, were saddled with defensive responsibilities and brought some intangibles to the game. But, to be fair, neither were blessed with a strong supporting cast. As such, while miscast as top line centres, they would have been far more capable as second line players.
Looking back, Rejean Houle’s best attempt at landing a top centre was Trevor Linden, after trading Vincent Damphousse to San Jose. During Andre Savard’s short stint as GM, his best attempt was bringing in veteran Doug Gilmour, who spent his last two seasons in the NHL as a Canadiens centre.
Bob Gainey was ahead of his time, seeing that the NHL of the future would capitalize on speed and skill. His attempt to reshape the Habs relied on using a major trade as the catalyst to attract unrestricted free agents. While the trade accomplished his aim, Gainey’s mistake was trusting the advice of Pierre Gauthier who recommended bringing in Scott Gomez and wasn’t too high on the talents of Ryan McDonagh. The deal itself has been criticized as one of the worst in Habs history.
When Gauthier took over as general manager his most notable trade was acquiring Lars Eller in return for media darling and fan favorite Jaroslav Halak. Eller was never fully embraced in Montreal moving on to become an excellent third line center and a Stanley Cup champion with Washington.
Marc Bergevin made a solid trade to add Phillip Danault, but the 25-year-old is better suited as a bottom six centre. While Jonathan Drouin is a winger, he was pressed into duty as a top line centre in Montreal with disappointing results. Bergevin has since admitted that Drouin is best suited for the wing.
But Bergevin has also used the NHL Entry Draft to address the organizational need at centre selecting Alex Galchenyuk with the third overall selection. It’s fair to say that Galchenyuk failed to develop to his full potential as a Canadien.
Bergevin has added to his future talent pool at centre with his first round pick the past two drafts landing Ryan Poehling in 2017 and Jesperi Kotkaniemi in 2018.
At the NHL level there are currently very few players who are top-six capable down the middle.
Drouin is talented but is not effective at centre. Kotkaniemi, the third overall pick at last June’s draft, is a skilled two-way centre but is not NHL-ready. He would benefit from playing with Assat in the Finnish elite league (Liiga) this season and contribute in a key role for Finland at the World Junior Championships. This would come with or without a nine-game trial with the Canadiens at the beginning of the season.
Ryan Poehling still requires seasoning before he will be ready to step into an NHL lineup.
Nick Suzuki, the key asset in the Max Pacioretty trade and the 2017 thirteenth overall selection by the Golden Knights, arrives in Montreal at 19-years old coming off of an OHL season where he scored 100 points. Suzuki will be at the Habs training camp but expect him to return to Owen Sound for another season and possibly dressing for Canada at the World Juniors.
The remaining NHL-level centres, Danault, Jacob De La Rose, Matthew Peca and Plekanec can all be described as bottom-six players.
In the AHL there are a few players who may be able to step into an NHL spot as an injury replacement. But they would not be expected to play in the top six.
Byron Froese has leadership capabilities and solid work ethic, but is not likely to become an NHL regular. Michael Chaput has been a productive AHL player capable of playing both center and wing. This may be his best chance at an NHL job, but it would be a long shot.
There have been a wave of new additions to the organization who will not see action at the NHL level this season but can create competition at the AHL level. Lukas Vejdemo and NCAA star Jake Evans may have NHL promise for the future. Hunter Shinkaruk is listed as a center, but will likely fill a top-line role on the wing in the AHL.
Free agent additions Alexandre Alain and Hayden Verbeek add quality two-way play but will be in Laval for the foreseeable future. Michael Pezzetta is listed as a center, but with sheer numbers and his style of play, he will likely play on the left wing for the Rocket this season.
Like Suzuki and Poehling, Joni Ikonen has the skill set to possibly play a top-six role soon in the NHL. Other prospects such as Jacob Olofsson, Cam Hillis, Allan McShane and Cale Fonstad may never reach beyond a top-nine role.
Bergevin’s legacy as the Habs GM rest with Trevor Timmins who has been given the green light to stock the prospect pool. Recently, the Canadiens have significantly added to their organizational depth at centre. It will be interesting to see if the Habs will be able to transition some of these prospects to the NHL in a top-six role anytime soon.
Edited by Cate Racher, All Habs Hockey Magazine