The Montreal Canadiens continue to struggle to find Cole Caufield and Nick Suzuki a viable linemate; maybe it’s time to think outside the box.
Since the Canadiens first paired Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield together at the tail-end of the 2020-2021 season, the chemistry been the two players has been unquestionable. They are, without a doubt, the two most offensively talented players on the team, and, whenever they’re together on the ice, they did good things. The issue has been finding them a consistent linemate that can complement their game and complete a top-line.
Initially, the Canadiens found some success with Tyler Toffoli as the veteran presence on that line, but he was ultimately traded to the Calgary Flames prior to the NHL trade deadline last season. They’ve also had spurts of success when paired with power-forward Josh Anderson, but the hulking winger hasn’t been consistent enough to warrant that kind of top usage. The Canadiens tried practically everyone they could in that spot last season without anyone being able to stick.
So far this season, the Canadiens have tried Josh Anderson, Sean Monahan and Mike Hoffman in that role. Out of the bunch, Monahan was by far the best suited for the role, but putting him on the top line left the rest of the Canadiens’ top-9 a little void of offensive depth. The combination of Kirby Dach and Monahan helps the Canadiens have two stable duos in their top-six, rather than a loaded top-line; a better recipe for sustainable success and also a huge boost for Dach’s development at centre.
Head coach Martin St. Louis is also not fond of having three right-handed shots on the top line, meaning that Brendan Gallagher likely doesn’t fit the bill either as a candidate to complete the trio. With left-shooting, goal-scoring forwards being limited within the lineup, it could be time for the Montreal Canadiens to try something a little out-of-the-box and place Juraj Slafkovsky on the top line with Suzuki and Caufield.
Yes, some may believe it could be too much, too soon; and they could very well be right. However, Slafkovsky needs to be tested in a role that he is destined to fill down the line, and, almost ironically, would already be the best defensive player on that line as it stands. You read that right. Juraj Slafkovsky has some of the best defensive metrics on the team this season, posting a 1.44 expected goals-against rating for the Montreal Canadiens. Just to give you an idea, linemates Jake Evans and Mike Hoffman were at 3.19 and 2.94 respectively; showing better defensive aptitudes on the ice than his more defensive (Evans) and experienced (Hoffman) linemates in the same even-strength utilization.
What’s more, Slafkovsky’s ability to play along the boards and in the high-danger areas, is something that only Monahan has been able to bring to that top line in the last 50+ regular season games. On the chart below, Slafkovsky is shown to be one of the best in high-danger chances on the ice. As the club struggles to get into those high-danger areas, while conceding a high quantity to their opponents, especially in their last few games, Slafkovsky generated high-danger chances of his own with limited usage and was very good at setting up his teammates without much look in the scoring department.
Right before his injury, Slafkovsky looked to be taking off in terms of confidence and overall play; and this would simply be a continuation of that to truly evaluate exactly where his strengths, and limitations, lie. It’s a line that fans have been dreaming about since the Canadiens won the 2022 NHL Draft Lottery. They got a glimpse of it during the preseason, when Slafkovsky wasn’t yet acclimatized to the NHL pacing or physical play; but, with a few games under his belt now, the experiment would be worth trying again.
The Montreal Canadiens currently have the lowest NHL Betting Odds of making the playoffs in the Eastern Conference, meaning they have the luxury of experimenting without massive expectations at this junction. It doesn’t necessarily need to happen during the Canadiens’ current four-game road trip, as they would surrender the last change to their opponents, but, when they return home next week, the numbers show that Slafkovsky could indeed be a proper complement to Suzuki and Caufield, given his advanced underlying numbers and his overall physical style.
(All statistics are 5v5 unless otherwise noted, via NaturalStatTrick)