Canadiens must turn to youth with Armia, Byron out for weeks

Nick-Suzuki

Montreal Canadiens' Nick Suzuki, right, protects the puck from Vancouver Canucks' Jay Beagle during the first period of an NHL hockey game in Vancouver, on Tuesday December 17, 2019. (Darryl Dyck / CP)

BROSSARD, Que. — If Claude Julien wasn’t exactly in a festive mood during his first post-Christmas Holiday availability, it had everything to do with the news he was delivering regarding two of his most important players.

The Montreal Canadiens coach was purposely vague, saying both Joel Armia (hand) and Paul Byron (knee) will be sidelined week-to-week, but his sombre tone was revealing enough.

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The hope was that Armia, who left in the second period of Montreal’s 6-2 win over the Winnipeg Jets on Dec. 23, wouldn’t be out long, but it was also that if he did have to miss some time, Byron might be prepared to step back in and help the Canadiens survive his absence. And with those hopes dashed over the Christmas holidays, Julien was forced to contemplate what that means for his team as it forges ahead in a playoff race that is as tight as any we’ve seen in the post-2005 NHL.

“We just need consistency,” Julien said. “It’s a tight division and tight conference, and we’ve got to keep winning games. It’s only going to get tougher, and it gets tougher when you keep getting injuries.

“So, we’ve just got to stay on track here and respect what we’ve been doing. It’s playing well as a team, and when you do that, you give yourself a chance.”

That’s what the Canadiens have done in re-establishing their footing in this chaotic race in the Eastern Conference’s Atlantic Division.

They came apart when Jonathan Drouin went down with a long-term wrist injury and Byron was lost to a knee injury, losing for eight-straight games and collecting only three points in the standings from Nov. 16 to Dec. 2. But they’ve gone 7-3-0 since Dec. 3, and have found a formula that they feel can allow them to continue generating positive results.

We’ll see if they can adhere to it without Armia.

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The 6-foot-4, 213-pounder has played some massive hockey for the Canadiens this season. With 12 goals and nine assists through 35 games, he was on pace to double his career-highs in both categories, but he’s also been a key player on both special-teams units, and he has been a force in controlling plays along the walls and down low in the offensive zone.

When Canadiens teammate Nate Thompson was asked what the team would be missing with Armia sidelined, he summed it up perfectly in just one word.

“Everything,” Thompson said.

Canadiens assistant captain Brendan Gallagher referred to the big Finn as a Swiss Army Knife, and then he made the most salient point of the day in response to how the team will overcome his loss.

“Look at our team, that’s kind of what our team is,” he said. “We lost a guy in Army, but Army’s the guy who came (to the Canadiens via trade) and was just looking for one of those opportunities. He came here and he got it. Paul Byron’s the same thing (he was claimed on waivers by the Canadiens in 2015). These are guys that you don’t really know what guys are capable of until they’re put in those situations where they can contribute and we’re relying on them.

“We’re obviously going to need (others). It doesn’t matter what you’ve done before — if you’re given the responsibility to do the job, there’s going to be an expectation that you’re going to have to do it.”

Cue the return of Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who’s been out since Dec. 5 with a concussion. And here’s looking at you, Nick Suzuki and Ryan Poehling.

They are three of the youngest players on the Canadiens, but they will all be thrust in elevated roles — at least until Drouin, Armia and Byron return.

How these kids handle the added responsibility will have a significant impact on the team’s short-term goal of making the post-season, but it will also mean much in the grand scheme of things.

After all, this is a team in transition, and the transition towards the future can happen at an accelerated rate if these youngsters can successfully shred what they’re being forced to bite off.

The 20-year-old Suzuki has already been counted on as a top-six forward for a fair portion of the schedule, and the fact that he’s done so well in it would indicate he’s prepared for a boost.

“He’s having a good season and he continues to improve,” affirmed Julien. “It’s certain with all the injuries we have he becomes a pretty important player, because if he wasn’t (playing well) we’d have our backs even further against the wall. I’d say the way he’s playing since the start of the season and his intelligence, which we always thought was very good, is giving him good games and bringing us a good presence.”

The soon-to-be 21-year-old Poehling has taken significant strides too, after a concussion slowed his development in training camp and after he seemed ill-prepared to play at this level during his first four-game stint with the Canadiens in November. Since being recalled from the AHL’s Laval Rocket on Dec. 10, the 6-foot-2 Minnesotan has been steady in all three zones and has seen his ice-time incrementally increase.

“He’s pretty reliable, he’s big, he’s strong along the walls,” Julien said. “We used him on the PK the other day (in Winnipeg) because we had Thompson in the box, and obviously Armia out and there’s guys like him and Suzuki who can kill penalties for us. So you might see him helping out in those areas.”

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As for Kotkaniemi, the coach said he’d be given time to find his rhythm again. After all, Saturday’s game against the Tampa Bay Lightning will be his first after missing eight.

As long as the third-overall pick in the 2018 Draft doesn’t take too much time, and as long as he rediscovers the game that saw him promoted to the Canadiens as the youngest player in the NHL a season ago, he can have a major influence on the team’s ability to navigate this difficult injury situation.

“We need him to be a very important player,” said Gallagher of Kotkaniemi, who has only three goals and five points through 22 games this season after scoring 11 goals and 34 points in 79 games as a rookie last year.

“The third line centre on any team plays such an important role. There’s so much matchups and things going on (that) you know that line can sometimes be the difference-maker within games.

“For him, you see the talent. If he can put it together and have a good end of the season, it can be a huge boost for our group.”

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