The Montreal Canadiens are in a state of flux. That was clear at practice in Brossard this afternoon.
The Habs returned home after only picking up two of a possible eight points on their West Coast road trip. The club now have a record of 2-8 to start the year, their worst 10-game start to a season in 70 years.
The Montreal Canadiens announced earlier that they had sent forward Cole Caufield down to the Laval Rocket of the AHL and called-up forward Michael Pezzetta. Caufield’s struggles had been apparent for some time after picking up a lone assist in 10 games this season.
The wanted and the wounded
Today was a case of who was actually able to practice on the South Shore. Centreman Cedric Paquette was but likely won’t play against Detroit tomorrow. He’ll have a hearing with the NHL’s department of player safety this afternoon for his hit from behind on Ducks forward Trevor Zegras. Paquette was tossed from the game while Zegras did no return. There was no Mathieu Perreault either as he is expected to miss the next several weeks with an eye injury. Brendan Gallagher and Jeff Petry were also absent, with both players taking therapy days.
Gambling down the middle
With the missing bodies and roster turnover over the past 24 hours, the Montreal Canadiens were forced to put together a puzzle up front that looked disjointed at best. Curiously, head coach Dominique Ducharme had Jonathan Drouin playing down the middle between Mike Hoffman and Josh Anderson. Natural centreman Jake Evans was moved to the left wing next to Nick Suzuki and Tyler Toffoli.
“We already spoke to him, even before training camp, that at some point it could be a possibility,” Ducharme told reporters in French about trying Drouin at centre. “… With Anderson and Hoffman, in general all three are playing good hockey at the moment so we’re putting them together.”
The decision appears to be more mad scientist than tactical brilliance. Ducharme went on to reference Drouin playing centre in junior, praised his hockey IQ and the chance to get him into more open space. But he has shown several times in both Tampa and with the Montreal Canadiens that while it may make sense in theory, practically playing down the middle doesn’t work for him. Or his team.
Why move him from a role where he is currently excelling to one where he has repeatedly failed?
Drouin has been one of the few bright spots for the club this season. He leads the team with seven points in 10 games. He is firmly in the discussion for the Bill Masterton trophy for comeback player of the year in the league. Re-discovering his game has been a joy to watch. It would be a shame to see him struggle at centre and watch his confidence take a hit.
The lesson needs to be learned, once and for all by this organization. Jonathan Drouin is not a centreman. Either tomorrow against Detroit or Thursday against the Islanders, that will become quite clear. Yet again.
While the Montreal Canadiens continue to try anything at all, maybe tomorrow night against the Red Wings could be the perfect time to see where Mattias Norlinder is in his development.
The smooth-skating Swede, drafted in the third round in 2019, missed the majority of training camp and the pre-season with a lower-body injury. He took regular line rushes with the team for the first time in over a month today. With Chris Wideman and Sami Niku both in and out of the lineup so far, Ducharme could give the 21-year old offensive defenceman a look.
Here is how the Montreal Canadiens lined up at practice in Brossard today
Evans – Suzuki – Toffoli
Hoffman – Drouin – Anderson
Lehkonen – Dvorak – Armia
Pezzetta – Brooks – Paquette
Chiarot – Romanov
Kulak – Savard
Norlinder – Niku/Wideman