There’s a certain sense of indignation among some Montreal Canadiens fans when utility players are discussed.
And it stems from a very valid concern.
For years the Canadiens desperately attempted to add truculence to their lineup, and the results were disappointing, to say the least.
Few will forget the disaster of a trade deadline that was 2017.
The Canadiens, who desperately needed 5v5 and powerplay production, acquired Dwight King, Steve Ott, and Andreas Martinsen.
Combined, the three players managed to score a grand total of one (1) goal in 51 games, including zero (0) goals in 14 games.
Shockingly, both Ott and King retired immediately after the Canadiens were eliminated from the playoff.
It was easy to anticipate for most, but Marc Bergevin was blinded by a certain level of insecurity regarding the size of his lineup, and consequently, completely ignored his team’s actual needs.
Simply adding grit to the lineup is a lot like tossing a handful of sand on a highway. It may stop one car from skidding off the road if you’re extremely lucky, but in reality, you’re just providing a false sense of security.
But in a salary-cap world, there is definitely value to be found in employing utility players on the fourth line, as long as grit is not the only thing they bring to the table.
There’s still a strong inclination among some fans to dismiss the value of extending players like Michael Pezzetta, who signed a two-year contract extension with the Canadiens on Friday morning.
Pezzetta’s cap hit of $812,500 will account for less than one percent of the Canadiens’ total salary cap expenditures next season. When we consider Pezzetta scored 0.76 goals per 60 at 5v5 last year, it’s rather easy to see why the contract has a very low chance of backfiring.
For the record, 0.76 goals per 60 is roughly the same output the Canadiens saw from Mike Hoffman last season. To drive the point home, Pezzetta even ranks ahead of captain Nick Suzuki in goals per 60.
Of course, there are other factors to consider. Suzuki faces the opposing team’s best players on a nightly basis, and he’s used significantly more often than Pezzetta. The point here is not that Suzuki is bad, but rather, Pezzetta has made good use of his few opportunities while playing on the fourth line, which is a rather difficult assignment in which to produce a healthy level of production.
On the surface, Pezzetta’s underlying numbers are rather pedestrian.
But once again, context is key. Once Pezzetta enjoyed a tiny semblance of consistency, his numbers skyrocketed.
If we even the playing field by using relative numbers, we can see that the Canadiens tapped into something very interesting last year when Pezzetta played alongside Alex Belzile and Rafael Harvey-Pinard.
They weren’t just treading water, they produced some of the most impressive numbers among the many lines employed by Martin St-Louis last season.
What a great hustle play by Michael Pezzetta: forechecked hard, beat his defender to the puck & made a great pass while falling down to Chris Tierney for the goal.
He’s back to the hardworking Pezz we saw last year since being placed with Alex Belzile. pic.twitter.com/oDewJmyVco
— /r/Habs (@HabsOnReddit) February 25, 2023
But the raw numbers were quite good as well.
When the trio was on the ice they controlled 51 percent of the shots, 61.1 percent of the high-danger scoring chances, and 55.7 percent of the expected goals.
The Suzuki, Cole Caufield, and Kirby Dach line, which was rightfully heralded as a fresh of breath air for a team that struggled to control the scoring chances all season, managed to control 52.3 percent of the shots, which is a little more than what we saw from the fourth line.
But they also controlled just 51.2 percent of the high-danger chances, and consequently, a little over 50 percent of the expected goals. Those are very good numbers when we consider they were on a rebuilding team and faced a strong quality of competition.
Again, the point here is not to compare the two lines, but rather, to show that a good fourth line can bring significant value to an NHL team, especially if they account for very little of the salary cap, and even more so when they can spend more time attacking than defending.
And that’s exactly what we saw from Pezzetta, Belzile, and Harvey-Pinard.
— Nathan "Grav" (@NathanGraviteh) March 28, 2023
The greatest risk when constructing a roster is overpaying for middling players. Players like Joel Armia could provide value, but certainly not when he carries a $3.4 million cap hit.
Simply put, cutting fat is key. And there’s very little fat in the contract the Canadiens signed on Friday. Signing players like Pezzetta at a reasonable cap hit also gives the Canadiens a lot more flexibility when it comes to signing high-end players. Players like Caufield.
Not to mention, his presence on the fourth line will prevent the team from rushing a prospect into the NHL.
Few situations are less conducive to thriving than playing minimal minutes on the fourth line. Unless you happen to be named Harvey-Pinard, it’s simply not a good place for a prospect who projects to have top-9 potential.
Yes, in an ideal world, the Canadiens would load their roster with players who have 20-goal potential.
But if we’re being perfectly honest, that’s also an unrealistic expectation in a salary-cap world.
And in that salary cap world, players like Pezzetta and Belzile have certainly their place.