ANAHEIM — The Canadiens fell to 2-8-0 on the season with a 4-2 loss to the Anaheim Ducks on Sunday.
This one, more so than any of the others, highlighted a glaring hole up the middle of this roster. And not being able to fill that hole is going to be one of the team’s biggest impediments to getting their season back on the rails.
Before the puck dropped at Honda Center, it was announced Canadiens forward Mathieu Perreault would miss two-to-three weeks with an eye injury.
We reported during first intermission that Perreault would only be re-evaluated in 14 days and that he underwent laser surgery to fix a detached retina suffered due to lattice retinal degeneration — a condition he’s had since birth but was unaware of until the damage done caused him to experience blurred and double vision.
“He was lucky one of the best eye specialists in the world was in Los Angeles,” said a team source regarding the procedure Perreault was able to get following Saturday’s 5-2 loss for the Canadiens to the Kings.
The Canadiens were unlucky not to have him against the Ducks, and that only reinforced how much things have changed at the centre position for this team since they went to the Stanley Cup Final last summer. Perreault may have started his career as a centre back in 2009, but he hadn’t played the position regularly in over four years before being forced into it by the Canadiens a handful of games into their season.
The centre position was a strength for this team before the departure of Phillip Danault in August created a hole that was widened by the Carolina Hurricanes poaching Jesperi Kotkaniemi via offer sheet. It’s undoubtedly a weakness now — even with the acquisition of Christian Dvorak made soon after Danault and Kotkaniemi left.
On Sunday, without Perreault available, centre Jake Evans returned from injury to play a game he’d have been sitting out of had Brendan Gallagher not been sidelined by an undisclosed injury. The 25-year-old started on the wing of the fourth line so as not to stress his injury further, but he was quickly moved back to his natural position when pivot Cedric Paquette got himself ejected for a hit from behind that left Anaheim’s Trevor Zegras down and bleeding from his face.
Evans scored his first goal of the season and had a positive impact on the game, but this was but a small step forward for him after a slow start and four games missed.
Adam Brooks, who took Perreault’s place on the third and appeared in just his second game since the Canadiens claimed him on waivers just prior to the start of the season, was barely trusted to help make any tangible difference against the Ducks. He played 10:13, won only one of six faceoffs and was roughly 170 feet away from his own net when Troy Terry scored the winning goal for Anaheim in the third.
Ryan Getzlaf, one of the best centres of his generation, set the play for Terry and, with the assist, passed Teemu Selanne to become the Ducks’ highest-scoring player of all time. He was a player the Canadiens hoped to acquire at last year’s trade deadline and one they’d have considered signing in free agency had he not solely been interested in returning to Anaheim.
The 989-point man or Eric Staal, who was instrumental in Montreal’s playoff run, are the type of players the Canadiens would love to lean on to alleviate some of the pressure on Nick Suzuki right now.
Danault helped the young centre on the ice, and not having him around to do some of the heavy lifting is ratcheting it up.
Suzuki, who’s only 22 years old and recently signed an eight-year, $63-million deal that will only kick in next fall, is feeling it. He has been since the start of the season, and it’s pressure that’s only risen with the Canadiens dropping games and missing key players.
“I always put a lot pressure on myself to contribute everywhere,” Suzuki said. “Throughout my whole career, I’ve always wanted to be a good go-to person. But today, I wasn’t really doing much, to be honest. Probably one of my worst games. Pretty disappointed in how I played — especially with some of the centres out. I’ve got to play better.”
He’s pushing hard to make a difference and admittedly cheating at times to generate offence after only producing five points in 10 games, and it’s not going to get easier for him.
It won’t be easy for Evans, or even for Dvorak, who may have over 300 games of experience but is still only 25.
“When you have younger players — especially like Jake and Suzy playing in the middle — you know there’s going to be ups and downs,” said Canadiens coach Dominique Ducharme.
He talked about the desire to insulate them from certain matchups at times, but that isn’t really an option on the table with the lack of depth the Canadiens have at the position.
It’s one of several problems this team is dealing with right now — they’ve got bottom numbers in nearly every category, an offence that’s underperforming, a defence that’s limited to generate much better results than what they’re currently offering (which isn’t very good) and substandard goaltending — but it’s the one that seems the hardest to solve.
It's going to make reversing their worst 10-game start to a season since 1941 a near impossible task.