MONTREAL — It wasn’t immediately obvious in the aftermath of the NHL’s trade deadline what the value was in adding a few fourth-liners to a Montreal Canadiens team that was lacking in premiere talent, but it’s abundantly clear now it was about achieving balance.
Canadiens coach Claude Julien has had an easier time finding it with Nate Thompson and Jordan Weal than he did before they arrived in Montreal. And though it took some time for that to be the case, both players settling onto a line with two-time, 20-goal scorer Paul Byron has helped Julien spread the minutes around on offence over the team’s last three games.
On Friday, the coach explained why that approach has led to two convincing wins over the Philadelphia Flyers and the New York Islanders after a hard-fought loss to the Chicago Blackhawks.
“I think we’ve said all year [that] in order for us to have success, we need everybody going,” Julien said. “We’re not a team that can lean on three, four players and say, ‘They’ll carry us.’ We don’t have that. We’re all aware of that. We all know that. We all respect that part of it. That doesn’t make us a bad hockey club and it doesn’t make them bad hockey players.
“By having balance, it’s allowed us, the last couple of games, to really play well on both sides of the puck. And we’ve been able to score, we’ve been able to keep the puck out of our own net, so right now that’s working.”
The versatility both Weal and Thompson have brought to the table has helped make it possible. The former has shown he can contribute on the power play, the latter has been dynamic on the penalty kill, and both players are well above 50 per cent in the faceoff circle this season.
Weal has managed two goals and four points in eight games since coming over from the Arizona Coyotes on deadline day, while Thompson has recorded four assists and helped the Canadiens kill off 41 of 48 penalties since being traded from the Los Angeles Kings for a 2019 fourth-round pick 18 games ago.
With Byron, they form a line Julien can trust at even strength against just about anyone.
“There’s a little bit of everything there,” said Julien after the Canadiens beat the Islanders 4-0 on Thursday. “There’s experience, there’s speed, there’s skill and on faceoffs, you have a righty and a lefty.”
On Friday, Julien expanded on the thought and said, “They’re giving us good performances. They have good scoring chances every game. They’re spending a lot of time in the offensive zone. Those players — one of them is on the power play, the others are on the penalty kill — all three of those players are very useful. They’re a good fourth line, if you want to call them that. For me, I give them more credit than being just a fourth line. When you see the ice time, you can see we have good balance on offence.”
Looking at the breakdown from Thursday’s game, there was very little variance in even-strength ice time among Canadiens forwards. The line of Jonathan Drouin, Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Joel Armia, which produced two of the team’s goals, was used the least — with Drouin and Armia playing 10:51 and 10:57, respectively, and Kotkaniemi playing 11:51 — and the line of Artturi Lehkonen, Max Domi and Andrew Shaw topped out at roughly 14:30. Meanwhile, there was less than a minute’s difference in usage of the Canadiens’ top line of Tomas Tatar, Phillip Danault and Brendan Gallagher, and their fourth line.
The hope, as Julien explained it, is that it translates into the team being able to maintain its speed-game and its energy as it attempts to close out back-to-back weekend games against the Buffalo Sabres and Carolina Hurricanes with wins.
“I need to be in a position to use all my players,” said Julien. “I think over the last couple of games the team played well as a whole and I didn’t have much reason to cut down on anyone’s ice time. It helps us to be able to use all four lines and all six defenceman — especially when we have three games in four nights. By the third game that’s where it becomes that much more important.”
That third game, against a Hurricanes team that’s only two points ahead of the Canadiens and resting in the first wild-card position in the Eastern Conference, is the most monumental of Montreal’s season. It’s one they seem better-suited to compete in with the depth they acquired in the lead up to the deadline and the balance they’ve achieved of late.