Deslauriers in, Hudon out gives Canadiens’ fourth line new dimension

canadiens-nicolas-deslauriers-celebrates-goal-with-andrew-shaw

Montreal Canadiens' Nicolas Deslauriers (20) celebrates his goal with teammate Andrew Shaw against the Calgary Flames, in Calgary on Friday, Dec. 22, 2017. (Todd Korol/CP)

MONTREAL — Choosing who dresses for any given game comes down the health and depth of the roster, but it’s also based on roles.

That’s why Nicolas Deslauriers is likely taking Charles Hudon’s place when his Montreal Canadiens play the Ottawa Senators on Saturday.

Deslauriers, who suffered a facial fracture three weeks ago in a pre-season fight with New Jersey Devils forward Brandon Baddock, returned to full practice this week and found himself in Hudon’s spot next to Matthew Peca and Andrew Shaw at Montreal’s skate on Friday.

His spot in the Canadiens’ lineup for Saturday’s game will be confirmed once Tomas Plekanec’s name is officially placed on the injured reserve list on Friday afternoon.

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Plekanec suffered a back injury that could keep him out a few weeks. As a result, the Canadiens won’t have to make any changes to be in compliance with the NHL’s 23-man roster limit once Plekanec is placed on IR and Deslauriers is officially re-activated.

The Canadiens don’t quite have another player like him in their lineup.

Deslauriers is a six-foot-one, 221-pound force, who skates well and brings an unmatched physical element. We’re talking about a player who will fight anyone. One that finished seventh in the NHL in hits last season (238) despite appearing in only 58 games.

Deslauriers can also put the puck in the net. If he hadn’t accumulated as many goals as Hudon last season (10), he might not be taking over for him.

But, in the limited ice-time playing on the fourth line offers, it’s hard to argue against him being a better option.

"Fourth lines across the league are usually used for eight or nine minutes per game," said Canadiens coach Claude Julien on Friday.

If he can get some sandpaper and some scoring out of his, it’s worth a look.

The thing is, aside from taking a couple of costly penalties in Wednesday’s 3-2 win over the St. Louis Blues, Hudon hasn’t done anything to merit a demotion.

When Julien was asked on Friday if Hudon’s defensive game had pushed him to the margins, or if he was disappointed with some other aspect, the coach said he was satisfied with the 24-year-old’s performance to date.

"Sometimes good players are being put on the sidelines," Julien said. "That’s the depth we have this year."

Plekanec and veteran Karl Alzner are two examples.

Both players were scratched to start the season, with Plekanec missing the first three games and Alzner missing the first five.

Peca, who signed a two-year, $2.6-million deal over the summer, was pushed out for Montreal’s fourth game. Nikita Scherbak, a former first-round draft pick who has produced almost a point per game at the AHL level, has yet to appear in a game this season.

And now Hudon, who has two goals and an assist and currently ranks fifth in team scoring, is taking his turn.

When the time comes to re-insert him, it might come at the expense of someone currently playing higher up in Montreal’s lineup.

Joel Armia, who was traded from the Winnipeg Jets to the Canadiens over the summer, comes to mind as a player who should be feeling some pressure to produce in order to keep his place.

As it stands, Armia, who had 12 goals and 29 points in a lesser role with the Jets last season, has produced only one goal and one assist with the Canadiens despite playing top-six minutes in three of Montreal’s six games.

Armia has also yet to produce a point on the power play, which currently ranks 23rd in the NHL. Considering he’s taken a regular shift there in every game, that’s one strike in his column.

But Armia’s place on Montreal’s penalty kill gives him a leg up on Hudon right now.

And the versatility Deslauriers and Shaw bring — offering size and feistiness to the NHL’s shortest and lightest team — makes them options Julien wants to explore on his fourth line for at least a game.

If more players were hurt, or if the Canadiens lacked NHL depth, Hudon would be in regardless. He’s a serviceable player who seems capable of becoming a 20-goal scorer in this league.

But his current role as a depth scorer, who doesn’t bring too many other components to the lineup, is what’s relegating him to the press box for Saturday’s game.

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