Line-by-line, pairing-by-pairing analysis of the 2019-20 Canadiens

Cale Fleury and Nick Suzuki discuss how Montreal Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin broke the news to them that they made the team, with Bergevin saying he doesn't hand out jobs unless they earn it.

BROSSARD, Que. — Two things conspired against Ryan Poehling in his quest to earn a job with the Montreal Canadiens straight out of training camp.

The fact that he missed eight days with a concussion and was limited to appearing in just two pre-season games was one of them. The other was that the Canadiens weren’t willing risk losing a depth player to waivers prior to NHL rosters being set as of 5:00 p.m. ET on Tuesday.

It’s why the team is carrying eight defencemen to start the year.

“Today, knock on wood, we have a team at full health,” said Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin on Tuesday. “But that can change quickly. Maybe in two weeks we’d be looking for defencemen (if we lost one to waivers). It’s important to have depth. If I had to cut someone else, I would’ve had to put them on waivers and there’s concern we would have lost that player.”

There’s was no risk of losing Poehling, and his demotion to the Laval Rocket is far from bad news for him or for the Canadiens. It’s quite the opposite. The 20-year-old has an opportunity to play big minutes in the minors and make up the time he missed in training camp, and if he continues on the path he started on there’s a strong chance we’ll see him back in Montreal in short order.

“I don’t have a timeframe,” said Bergevin. “But it’s not going to be for long.”

The hope has to be that when Poehling is prepared to return, once room has been made for him, that he takes on a prominent role with the team like ones fellow 20-year-olds Nick Suzuki and Cale Fleury have been given out of the gate.

About that, now that the roster is set, we thought we’d break it down line-by-line and pairing-by-pairing.

UP FRONT

Tomas TatarPhillip DanaultBrendan Gallagher

What the coaches want to see out of it:

They were one of the most dominant lines in the National Hockey League at 5-on-5 last season and that’s what they’ll need to be again this season.

That means coming out on the right end of nightly matchups against the competition’s best players, continuing to dominate the shot attempts (they ran a 61-per cent Corsi For as a trio last season), and finishing way on the plus side of goal differential (they allowed just 20 goals and combined for 40 at 5-on-5 during the 2018-19 season).

Why the line can work:

The chemistry is already built in. It showed in their first game back together, a 4-3 overtime win over the Ottawa Senators in Montreal’s final pre-season game, with all three players scoring goals and combining for five points on the night.

They are three players that play the game fast, three players who play in straight lines, three players who play well in tight spaces, and three players who won’t be outworked. They fit perfectly together.

One potential pitfall:

If Tatar’s production falls off considerably after a career campaign saw him score 25 goals and register six more assists (33) and two more points (58) than in any other of his previous six NHL seasons, it could force Canadiens coach Claude Julien to mix things up.

Artturi LehkonenMax DomiNick Suzuki

What the coaches want to see out of it:

High-octane offence without sacrificing defence. That’s what’s going to allow these three players to stay together.

Domi scored 28 goals and 72 points last year mostly playing with Jonathan Drouin and Andrew Shaw. Suzuki is coming off three 90-point seasons in the Ontario Hockey League. There’s little doubt these two confident players can make magic together in the offensive zone.

Add in Lehkonen, who’s one of the most dependable two-way players on the team, and there’s potential for this line to be much more reliable without the puck than the Drouin-Domi-Shaw line was last year.

It helps that Suzuki’s no slouch in his own end, either.

The coaches will demand for all three of them to play responsibly, otherwise they can’t remain together against the quality of competition they’ll face on a nightly basis.

Why the line can work:

There’s a versatility factor that lends to this line being dynamic.

That Domi and Suzuki both have the chops to play centre and wing gives this line something it would otherwise be missing with Shaw moving back to the Blackhawks in a summer trade that brought two draft picks back to the Canadiens. That both players are supremely talented, that both are extremely imaginative and intelligent, and that both are as good at finishing plays as they are at setting them up creates real potential for them to put up excellent numbers together.

Sprinkle in Lehkonen’s dogged determination at both ends of the ice, his ability to retrieve pucks on offence and his ability to break up plays on defence and help transition play with his north-south style, and this becomes a line that can exhaust its competition.

One potential pitfall:

If Lehkonen continues to score on just 6.3 per cent of his shots, that won’t do.

That amounted to just 11 goals for the 24-year-old Finn who placed third on the team in high-danger scoring chances last season.

Playing with Domi and Suzuki, Lehkonen should be a threat to finish just behind Gallagher in high-danger scoring chances this season. But if he doesn’t get to burying those chances early and often, it will be hard to keep this line together long-term.

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Jonathan DrouinJesperi KotkaniemiJoel Armia

What the coaches want to see out of it:

Pure offence.

This is a line that’s going to start the majority of its shifts in the offensive zone, a line that features three gifted players who will largely benefit from the Danault and Domi lines drawing tougher matchups. They should excel in transition, they should be highly effective in the controlled zone-entries department, and so long as they don’t complicate it too much, they should give the Canadiens the three-pronged attack they’re looking for in the way they’ve assembled their top-nine.

Why the line can work:

The same things that make Domi and Suzuki a potentially lethal combo should hold true for Kotkaniemi and Drouin.

It can only help that the 19-year-old Kotkaniemi is 14 pounds heavier and 79 games more seasoned than he was a year ago at this time.

And though Drouin’s received a lot of negative attention for his lack of production over Montreal’s last 26 games (one goal and six assists) last season and for a pre-season showing that had general manager Marc Bergevin saying, “We need more from him,” he still tied a career high with 53 points and showed he can be a dynamic producer at 5-on-5 like he was for close to 75 per cent of the 2018-19 campaign.

Then you look at Armia, who had 13 goals and 23 points in his 57 games with the Canadiens last season. He’s a heady player along the walls and in the offensive zone, and there’s potential for him to score more in a full-time role with these players after a 25-game absence in the middle of last season disrupted his rhythm.

One potential pitfall:

That Drouin and Kotkaniemi don’t mesh well together.

The pair played 152:57 at 5-on-5 last season and the results weren’t all that impressive. Sure, the Canadiens were able to control 54 per cent of the shot attempts when they were on the ice together, but the two players combined to score just three goals as a duo.

They’ll have to do much better than that considering how they’ll be used, otherwise change will come quickly.

Paul ByronNate ThompsonJordan Weal (Nick Cousins, extra)

What the coaches want to see from it:

A line that will spend the majority of its shifts wearing down defencemen in the offensive zone. A line that won’t get scored on.

Why the line can work:

Because all three players are efficient checkers.

All three are great on the cycle, all three can hold their own on the wall, and all three can play in their own end.

From a possession standpoint, the line will benefit from Thompson’s efficiency in the faceoff circle. His only season under 50 per cent in the dot was 2011-12 when he won just 49 per cent of his draws.

Weal can help out there, too, after winning 56 per cent of his draws last year.

Another thing that will help this line control possession? Byron has a 52-per cent Corsi For rating over his 281 games with the Canadiens.

There’s a bit of scoring on this trio, too. Byron’s a two-time 20-goal scorer who finished with 15 goals in 56 games last season, and Weal had four goals and 10 points in his 16 games with Montreal after being traded from Arizona last February.

If Cousins is subbing in, he’s been a net-positive possession player over his NHL career despite playing on some pretty defensively porous teams in Arizona and Philadelphia. He’s also coming off scoring seven goals and 27 points with the Coyotes last season.

One potential pitfall:

If Byron’s speed is too much for Thompson, Weal and Cousins to keep up with, it could lead to a lack of cohesion between these players. This has more to do with how fast Byron is than it does Thompson, Weal and Cousins being slow (all of them can skate well enough).

ON DEFENCE

Victor MeteShea Weber

Why they fit together:

Mainly because they’re opposites. Mete’s speed is a perfect complement to Weber’s size and physicality.

It also helps that they’ve spent 866 minutes together over the last two seasons and have developed a fair amount of chemistry. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that they are both elite puck-movers and players who are particularly good at breaking up the cycle and killing plays.

That Mete now has two years of experience under his belt and that Weber is starting off the season healthy and had a whole summer to train unimpeded should bring this duo to the next level.

One question:

How will Mete handle having his ice-time boosted? He averaged 15:35 in 2017-18 and was bumped up to 17:46 last season. There’s a good chance he’ll be averaging close to or above 20 minutes per game this season and if he can thrive under that kind of pressure the Canadiens will be better off.

Ben ChiarotJeff Petry

Why they fit together:

For much the same reasons Mete and Weber do — Chiarot’s stay-at-home, physically punishing style is going to allow Petry to join the rush at his leisure.

They’ll need time to find chemistry as a pair, but there’s a lot of promise here. Enough to suggest Petry could set a new career high in points after putting up 44 last season and 42 the season before that.

One question:

How will Chiarot adjust to the style of game Montreal plays after spending the last six years in the Winnipeg Jets organization? He’ll have to rely far less on the D-to-D pass and he’ll have to keep his feet moving that much more.

Chiarot skates well enough for a guy who’s six-foot-three and 225 pounds, but he’s going to have to skate more than he ever has in an Eastern Conference that features a faster style of play than what he’s accustomed to.

Brett KulakCale Fleury (Mike Reilly, Christian Folin, extra)

Why they fit together:

Here you have two players who move the puck efficiently, two players who play with pace and energy, and two players who should balance each other out pretty well.

It helps that Kulak has 158 games of NHL experience under his belt. He’s a good candidate to work the 20-year-old Fleury into action, and last season Kulak took a big step forward — averaging 17:51 and rocking a 56.3-per cent Corsi For.

Fleury’s bringing some bite to this pairing, which will offset Kulak’s biggest deficiency. The six-foot-one, 200-pounder can hit, he can handle the battles along the boards and in front of the net, and he’s smart enough to not get himself out of position in pursuit of showing that physical edge.

One question:

After starring as a top defender with the Western Hockey League’s Kootenay Ice and Regina Pats, and after playing a big role in his first pro season in Laval, can Fleury adjust to the role of being a third-pairing defenceman in the NHL? There’s little reason to doubt he can after what he showed in pre-season, but it is an adjustment, nonetheless.

Third-pairing defencemen get on the ice less frequently — and often against the bigger, tougher forwards filling out bottom-six jobs with the opposition. That means having to withstand a lot of physical punishment while retrieving pucks behind the goal-line and making plays to start the rush. It also means finding a way to stay in rhythm when it’s being disrupted by being used sporadically.

“I think consistency has been the biggest thing I’ve shown throughout camp,” said Fleury on Tuesday.

Now the training wheels are off and it’s time to see if the kid will continue on that path.

GOALTENDING

Carey Price (starter), Keith Kinkaid (backup)

What’s expected?

Price has to be the guy we saw from December to April last season, when he picked up the second-most wins in the league (28) and posted a .925 save percentage.

As for Kinkaid, a return to the form he showed in 2017-18, when he went 26-10-3 and put up a .913 save percentage in 41 games to help the New Jersey Devils make a surprise entry into the Stanley Cup Playoffs, is essential.

Kinkaid was signed to a one-year, $1.75-million contract to help reduce the amount of games Price plays this season, and he needs to be up to the task right off the hop. If he starts looking like the player who went 15-18-6 with a .891 save percentage last season, that would derail the plan.

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