MONTREAL — I’m not shrinking from it.
When then-GM Marc Bergevin traded the Montreal Canadiens' first- and second-round picks to the Arizona Coyotes for Christian Dvorak back in September, I wrote that the steep price was worth paying because “in the 25-year-old the Canadiens have gained a versatile player who’s accumulated nearly a half-a-point per game over his first 302 in the NHL and done so on a team lacking the type of talent on the wings the Canadiens currently boast.”
I added that he was the best trade option to replace Jesperi Kotkaniemi — the young centre the Carolina Hurricanes plucked away from the Canadiens with a one-year, $6.1 million offer sheet — and was coming over as a player who might not be better than Kotkaniemi in the long run but was certainly better than him at the moment.
And I’m not asking for mulligans on either statement.
Not yet at least. Not before Dvorak has played more than one game under Martin St. Louis, and certainly not after only appearing in 35 games in a Canadiens uniform.
Whether or not Kent Hughes, who took over from Bergevin as GM a little more than halfway through January, feels the same way will be determined between now and Monday’s trade deadline.
But given that Hughes has already had a most pragmatic approach to moving players — he sold Tyler Toffoli and Ben Chiarot when their respective values were soaring and collected two first-round picks, two prospects with NHL potential and two depth picks — I’m thinking he’ll wait and see, too.
Even with a couple of teams out there who might be interested in this player who struggled mightily out of the gate and finally began looking more like himself when he suddenly suffered a neck injury that kept him out of 19 games prior to his return in a 4-3 overtime loss to the Dallas Stars on Thursday, selling him at a total loss just to get the remaining three years of his contract off the books seems anything but pragmatic.
Considering the lack of depth and experience the Canadiens have at centre, it actually wouldn’t make much sense at all — unless some team out there was willing to give up a decent-to-good return and absorb the full weight of his $4.45-million cap hit through the end of his contract.
On Thursday, Dvorak showed signs of what made him attractive to Bergevin to begin with.
And St. Louis, who said after the game that he knew nothing of this player prior to taking over the bench on Feb. 9, saw them.
“I’ve been here for 15 games, and I hadn’t really seen him,” he said, “and I was happy with what I saw.
“I think he’s a reliable guy, and I think there’s more offence to his game that we’re going to keep tapping.”
Dvorak certainly left that impression, getting robbed by Stars goaltender Jake Oettinger on Montreal’s first great scoring chance of the game.
He created two more scoring chances for himself as things went along and got stymied defensively on a great rush in the third period.
Dvorak also helped linemates Brendan Gallagher and Artturi Lehkonen achieve Montreal’s best shift of the game in the second period. They drew a power play, and he then won the faceoff that led to Cole Caufield’s 12th goal of the season and his 11th in his last 16 games.
On the whole, Dvorak won 11 of 14 faceoffs before losing the last one that led to a controversial goal John Klingberg scored for Dallas with 10 seconds left in overtime.
That St. Louis put him on for it, after close to 20 games without playing, will only help Hughes and the Canadiens make a proper evaluation of what they have in him.
But that evaluation can’t be limited to one game.
“It’s giving him an opportunity to get his legs underneath him,” said the coach about how he used Dvorak in all situations. “You can’t do that playing eight, nine minutes. I thought tonight he was at 16, right? So with that, I know with those minutes he’s going to feel better the next game. To be in game shape you have to play those minutes.
"We were tracking him in faceoffs, and he was excellent. He got extra work because of it. I think I’m encouraged that he’s going to keep feeling better on the ice.”
The Canadiens need to see that happen because they certainly didn’t see enough of it through the first half of the season.
It didn’t help Dvorak that almost everyone on the team played like their skates were untied through the first 10 games, and it really didn’t help that Canadiens fans — and some local radio and television hosts — were all over him.
There are some people out there who feel differently about Dvorak. There were 16 scouts at Thursday’s game, and we surveyed four of them who work for Western Conference teams about the player.
All of them said some iteration of, “He’s a good player.” One said, “I thought he was in between a second- and a third-line centre,” and another said, “one reason he may have been judged as harshly as he has been here is because he’s never been known to be a flashy guy and when things aren’t going well and you can’t counter it with a move or two that brings people out of their chair, you’re going to catch some extra heat.”
“It takes a long time to get adjusted for some players, and I think that’s clearly the case for him,” said the last one. “But I still think he can be as good, if not better, as he was in Arizona. And he was very good there.”
We thought so. We thought Dvorak was a good player to get for a team that had just lost Phillip Danault and Kotkaniemi, and we think he’s good to keep through the end of the season to potentially prove he can be a safety valve for less-experienced centres Nick Suzuki, Jake Evans, Laurent Dauphin, Ryan Poehling and Rem Pitlick moving forward.
“I think he just brings stability in the middle of the ice for us,” said Canadiens goaltender Jake Allen after making 31 saves in his first game back since he suffered a lower-body injury on Jan. 12 in Boston. “He’s a guy that’s played a lot of games in this league. He’s responsible in both zones. He’s not going to flash you offensively, but I think he’s got some offensive instincts. Up on the mental side, he can be one step ahead.
“We played against him (with the St. Louis Blues) up in Arizona; he’s a reliable centre that’s not really going to make too many mistakes. He’s just a consistent, good hockey player and I’m glad to have him back after having that injury. Looking forward to seeing what he can do the rest of the year.”
Dvorak is looking forward to showing it, too, and I think he deserves the chance to.
“I think you want to finish these last 20 or whatever games are left the right way,” he said. “Since the new change and everything, guys have been playing well, so I just wanted to get back as soon as possible and try to finish this thing the right way.”
If Dvorak can’t do it, then there’s a conversation to be had about what to do with him moving forward.