MONTREAL — It took a little more than six seconds for Joel Armia to make the deciding play in a game his Montreal Canadiens absolutely had to win.
It took the 26-year-old Pori, Finland native a little over five years of playing at the NHL level to become the kind of player you’d expect to score the type of goal he scored in Montreal’s 5-2 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday.
It was Armia’s sixth goal in his ninth game—a play he started off by stripping the puck off Jake Muzzin and one he finished by sweeping from left to right and deking Michael Hutchinson from backhand-to-forehand before shooting to the top corner of the net. It was a beauty registered on the power play to give the Canadiens a 3-2 lead after they blew an early 2-0 advantage.
A little over seven minutes later, Jonathan Drouin took off on a breakaway from his own side of centre and scored his second goal of the game to give the Canadiens a 4-2 lead. It was the 24-year-old’s fifth of the season and his 10th point in his 11th game.
It was Armia who set up Drouin’s first goal, and without both players the Canadiens would have likely lost a third straight game—and this one to a tired Leafs team that was playing its fourth game in six nights and its second in less than 24 hours.
It’s fair to wonder where the 5-4-2 Canadiens would be in the standings without the consistent production both Armia (eight points in nine games) and Drouin have provided. The consistency of their efforts have given Canadiens coach Claude Julien a reason to elevate their roles, and they are leading a pack of young players on this team who are transitioning towards becoming veterans.
“I’m kind of in the middle,” said Armia.
The hike to this point has been a difficult one.
He’s a player who was drafted 16th overall by the Buffalo Sabres in 2011. He barely had his feet underneath him as an NHLer when he was thrown into a massive trade with the Winnipeg Jets, with Evander Kane and Zach Bogosian going to Buffalo in exchange for the young Finn and defenceman Tyler Myers in February of 2015. By that point, Armia had played two strong years with the AHL’s Rochester Americans before appearing in just one game with the Sabres.
When he got there, he was staring at a depth chart that would be near impossible to climb.
“They had pretty good right wingers,” Armia said after Saturday’s game. “Look how many goals (Patrik) Laine’s scored, look how many assists (Blake) Wheeler has had. It was tough.”
Armia’s first real opportunity in something more than a fourth-line role came after he was traded to the Canadiens on July 1, 2018 in a cap-clearing move for the Jets, who unloaded the remaining two years of goaltender Steve Mason’s contract and took back a C-level prospect in Simon Bourque.
In 57 games with the Canadiens, the six-foot-four, 215-pounder found the back of the net 13 times last season. He showed some real promise—despite missing 25 games mid-stream to a knee injury—and there was a sense he could elevate his game.
Julien certainly had it.
“He’s got a lot of talent and I know there’s more in his toolbox than what we’ve seen,” the coach said in an exclusive interview with Sportsnet prior to the regular season.
That it’s coming out now is the product of years of hard work and a maturity that’s developed. It’s a maturity that’s seen him take advantage of being put on both the power play and the penalty kill—and placed on a line with Drouin and Max Domi.
When you look at the plays Armia’s making on a nightly basis this season, you see the evolution.
When teammate Jesperi Kotkaniemi looks at the goal Armia scored on Saturday, he sees the player he had a poster of on his bedroom wall from back when he was 12-year-old boy growing up in Pori.
“It warms my heart to see,” said Kotkaniemi. “He had a long road to come to this level and he’s finally there.”
Think about how long it took for Drouin to get to where he’s at right now. The former third-overall pick in 2013 had major steps to take after he was traded away by the Tampa Bay Lightning for defenceman Mikhail Sergachev in the summer of 2017.
He came to Montreal as a 22-year-old kid who rarely had to apply himself to the max to generate results. And after two seasons of largely disappointing and inconsistent play, Drouin came into the 2019-20 campaign with much to prove.
When you look at how he has applied himself and how involved he is in all parts of the game, he looks like a completely different player from the one who finished off last season by failing to score points in more than two of his last 18 games.
Does Drouin still see himself as a young player?
“I have grown up,” Drouin said. “I have matured as a person. I think everyone matures at some point in their career. For me it’s just bringing it every night and it’s something a lot of veterans do every night. You watch Shea Weber and every night he’s battling, and I want to be one of those guys that every night you look up to.”
There is no more important development for the Canadiens this season than that. They are a young team trying to get to the next level, a team that remains largely unchanged from the one that barely missed the playoffs despite earning 96 points in the standings a season ago. The difference has to be that some of their players – Drouin, Armia, Domi, Kotkaniemi and Victor Mete amongst others – are coming of age.
“There’s a lot of guys with a year or two (of experience) under their belt, they’re maturing,” said Julien. “We’re trying to take that next step and it’s not an easy one because we all know how tough this league is right now and how anybody can beat anybody any night. So we’re trying to build a team here that can have that consistency and take that next step because the next step is us participating in the playoffs. So it’s going to be a big grind, it’s not going to be an easy one, and you need your players—those young players that we talked about—to mature, and you need your leaders to lead by example.”