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Finding The Right Linemate For Nick Suzuki And Cole Caufield

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Montreal Canadiens forwards Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield

MONTREAL — As the Montreal Canadiens prepare to embark on what is likely to be a frustrating season, all eyes are on the pair of players that will serve as the foundation for the rebuild: Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield.

The pair finished first and second in team scoring last season, respectively, but the question remains, who will complete the trio?

Power Horse

The de facto combination seems to be power forward Josh Anderson. With over 250 minutes of even-strength experience under their belt, the trio put up some respectable numbers last season, owing, in particular, to a very hot start.

They were scoring goals and flat-out dominating their opponents for the first few games.

Unfortunately for those of us that banked on the line’s potential, their numbers quickly cratered. They ended the year by controlling roughly half the shots while they were on the ice, and their expected goals (xGF%) dropped all the way to 48.9 percent. Their most alarming statistic came in the form of controlling just 45 percent of the high-danger chances.

It may come down to a stylistic issue, given that all three players are among the team leaders when it comes to generating rushes. Anderson ranked first on the team with Caufield trailing him by just one attempt, whereas Suzuki finished fourth.

All three players love carrying the puck, and all three players struggled to find open ice once the novelty of the line wore off.

When it comes to shooting the puck, Anderson is among the best players on the team, but it’s only fair to say his playmaking leaves something to be desired, which mitigates the scoring options once the puck lands on his stick.

Martin St-Louis is likely to put this trio again, possibly even to start the season, but don’t be surprised if they get split up quite quickly, allowing all three to generate more offence on another line while distributing the puck carriers evenly throughout the lineup.

Guess Who’s Back?

With the exception of last season, Brendan Gallagher has been one of the most dominant players at 5v5, which is exactly where players like Suzuki and Caufield need to improve their production.

Gallagher entered training camp as a man on a mission, showing the type of passion and intensity he’s renowned for throughout every single scrimmage, intrasquad match, or preseason game. It’s also worth mentioning that he’s completely healthy for the first time in a long time.

By shifting Caufield to the left wing, Gallagher becomes a very interesting option, an option that perfectly fits the bill when it comes to Caufield and Suzuki’s needs. They need a player that can both shoot and pass, a player that is defensively responsible,  a player that will draw penalties, and a player that will capitalize on rebound opportunities.

On paper, it seems clear, they need Gallagher.

There is some evidence the trio has significant potential, as Gallagher assisted on Caufield’s power-play goal against the Jets, and vice versa, though we’re yet to see the trio play any significant time together at 5v5.

The Best Of The Rest

There are a few more options to play with Caufield and Suzuki, including first-overall pick Juraj Slafkovsky, but it’s only fair to see he probably hasn’t convinced management he’s ready to start the season on the Montreal Canadiens’ first line.

Sean Monahan could present a good alternative, though it’s unsure whether he’ll play the season on the wing or as a centre. He featured down the middle of his first game with the Canadiens and put together one of the most impressive performances by a centre thus far in preseason.

Evgeni Dadonov also checks most of the boxes, however, he’s far from being a defensive stalwart, which would increase the likelihood the line would end up on the bad side of most crucial statistical categories. The same can be said for Mike Hoffman, Jonathan Drouin, and Paul Byron.

With so few logical choices on the menu, unless the Canadiens find a perfect fit on waivers, which is unlikely, it’s probably time to return Gallagher to the top line, not only to help Suzuki and Caufield produce more at even-strength but also to help guide them with the very valuable experience he’s gained throughout his tenure on the Canadiens’ first line.

(All Statistics are 5v5 unless otherwise noted, via NaturalStatTrick)

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