Canadiens Mailbag: Drouin could be best match for Suzuki-Caufield duo

Watch as Montreal Canadiens' head coach Dominique Ducharme speaks to the media about Jonathan Drouin at his foundation’s golf tournament, and how he thinks he is in a 'good spot' for the upcoming season.

MONTREAL — I was delighted to open the mailbag this week to find over 100 replies to my call for questions.

Though I can’t get to every inquiry, there was enough overlap in the subject matter for me to cover the majority of the issues people want to know about.

Just know, if your question didn’t crack this entry, fear not. I’ll be doing this throughout the season and you’ll have many more opportunities to have one featured in this space.

Thanks for your participation.

Development is obviously le sujet du jour in the aftermath of the Jesperi Kotkaniemi offer sheet saga. The spotlight is shining brightly on how few first-round picks have thrived or even remained with the organization over the last decade, and it would be odd if it wasn’t — with the third-overall pick in 2018 now off to the Carolina Hurricanes and the Canadiens never strongly considering paying him the highly-inflated salary he was poached for.

While the Canadiens have an objectively terrible record on this front, it would be impossible to pin that on one specific failing. That it boils down to multiple factors is something that should keep them up at night.

Marc Bergevin is, however, right; development is a two-way street and the player shares as much responsibility as the team does.

But the GM and his staff clearly have a lot of room for growth on this front, and I think they know it.

I do disagree with Bergevin on one thing, though I commend him for conceding he erred with Kotkaniemi and needs to learn from it. He was asked if one of the lessons he takes from not bringing Kotkaniemi along to a place where matching Carolina’s offer would’ve been a no-brainer was to allow his prospects to develop at lower levels before graduating them to the NHL, and he responded yes. It’s a deviation from his previous philosophy, and I don’t believe it’s the answer to this problem.

Bergevin always likes to say, “The players will make the decisions for us,” and that’s always how it should be.

It definitely has to be that way in a system that depends on the early graduation of prospects. The upper limit of the salary cap is expected to be fixed at $81.5 million over the coming years and not having the objectivity to bet on a prospect who proves immediately worth taking a chance on will only impede you from thriving within that system. After all, entry-level salaries are capped, and those players can provide the most bang for the buck.

That doesn’t mean you should be graduating players who only might be ready. It just means being willing to take a chance on someone who comes to training camp and seizes the opportunity instead of instituting a blanket policy of keeping them down for an extra year.

And every player needs to feel that opportunity is actually available to them in order for them to show their best in those auditions, and you’re only hurting your team if you’re closing the door on that before they even show up to camp.

That approach can be just as detrimental to a player’s development as graduating them prematurely, even if I agree that harm rarely comes from seasoning a player in the AHL or having them return to junior or to Europe to hopefully dominate at a lower level before jumping into the NHL.

I think the big thing is, the Canadiens have to ask themselves how they can better ensure the success of players they’re willing to immediately take chances on, and I think the solution has to involve a real thorough self-assessment on whether or not they’re effectively communicating with the players and whether or not they’re as approachable as they think they are.

This is where Dominique Ducharme really needs to prove he’s worthy of the opportunity he’s been given to run this team.

On the day Ducharme was hired to replace Claude Julien as head coach, Bergevin said his connection to the younger generation was a key consideration.

“He's a new model of coach, the young coach (he's 13 years Julien's junior) who came a long way, had success at the junior level, had success at the World Junior level,” the GM said. “I feel that the new voice, that's what this team needs. And also, he's a good communicator. And lots of time, that's what the players, I feel based on what I saw, that's what they're looking for.”

I don’t know if that’s what Kotkaniemi was getting from Ducharme when he was scratched to start and finish the playoffs, but I would think, given the length of his exit meeting after the Stanley Cup Final, the blueprint for his success this coming season was laid out in full.

And if the kid expressed he was hoping to have more communication and more opportunity than he received when he was going through the ups and downs of his development, I would think Ducharme would take that into consideration and apply lessons from that to how he intends to deal with the young players who remain and the ones who are on their way up.

It’s not all on Ducharme. Alex Burrows and Luke Richardson — Ducharme’s assistant coaches — are former players who can help a great deal with that communication. And the message that needs to be passed along to each and every player when they arrive at camp is that their voice matters just as much when it comes to their development.

The players also need to be honest with themselves about where they’re at in the process and whether or not they’re doing all they can to be worthy of the opportunities they’re requesting, as Bergevin said on Monday.

“To a degree, a player also has a responsibility to assess his own game,” he started. “The coaching staff has also a responsibility towards the other players, and when the games start, they’re there to win a hockey game. And when certain players don’t buy in or do what they’re being asked, at some point a coach has to make a decision (on) what’s best for the hockey team. If a young player sees that as a knock on him, that’s when sometimes, more times, more maturity needs to come into the players to understand what it’s all about.”

I couldn’t help but snicker when Don Waddell said on Sunday that acquiring Kotkaniemi had nothing to do with avenging the 2019 Sebastian Aho offer sheet.

Giving up a first- and a third-round pick in the upcoming draft and paying Kotkaniemi, who’s accumulated just 22 goals and 62 points in 171 games, just $200,000 less than Nathan MacKinnon will make this season to play out of his natural position doesn’t sound like the best available option for the GM to bolster his team’s forward depth. To suggest that’s putting $6.1 million to good use, and that it has nothing to do with Bergevin publicly dumping on Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon’s financial might by forcing him to pay Aho over $20 million within the first year of his deal, is laughable.

I’m not entirely sure it’s good for Kotkaniemi’s development, either, because he’s not a winger. He’s unquestionably a centre, and he’s coming to a team where the depth at that position is very strong. Aho is there. Jordan Staal is there. Derek Stepan is there. And even if Vincent Trochek is likely entering his last season there, Martin Necas is there waiting to move from wing to centre and appears to be a better option for that promotion than Kotkaniemi is.

I think Kotkaniemi will have the opportunity to play with good players, and he’ll be placed in a role to produce more than he did over his three years in Montreal. I think that will be great for his confidence, and I can see him taking a big step that even the Canadiens likely felt he was ready to take had he remained with them this season.

But I don’t think playing Kotkaniemi on the wing will give him his best opportunity to develop into a top-30 centre in the league, and I don’t know how temporary his placement on the wing will be.

As for Dvorak, who’s 302 games into his career and ready to jump into his prime years at age 25, I can see him scoring around 50 points this season. While he’ll have to take on his share of the defensive assignments Phillip Danault previously had, he’ll be playing with productive wingers no matter who he lines up with and I believe he has more offensive potential than his time in Arizona enabled him to show.

That Dvorak produced 31 points in 56 games on a paltry Coyotes team last season suggests he can build on that with a better one in Montreal this season. That he was a highly prolific scorer at the junior level — even if he played with great players like Mitch Marner, Max Domi and Matthew Tkachuk, you have to be good enough to play with great players — also suggests he has some untapped offensive potential.

That Dvorak believes he does is just as important.

“I think I can score more, and make more plays as well,” Dvorak said on Monday.

He’ll have a chance to prove that right out of the gate.

I think Ryan Poehling is going to be given his best opportunity to prove that at training camp, and he’ll come in knowing it.

Bergevin said he really liked Poehling’s year in Laval, and the GM mentioning him as an option at centre opens the door even wider for the former 25th-overall pick in 2017 to cement his place in Montreal.

The time is ripe for Poehling to jump right through. If he slots in down the middle, he needs to show he can play with pace and play within his skill-set — much like Jake Evans has over the last year. If his opportunity is on the wing, he needs to be willing to use his six-foot-two, 200-plus-pound body to greater effect than he has in the past.

With 11 goals and 25 points in 28 games with the Rocket last season, Poehling built up the confidence he needs to make the jump. Time to see if can get both feet off the ground quickly.

Understanding that we’re likely to see multiple combinations throughout the season, and that the duo of Suzuki and Caufield can really benefit from a big-body, puck-recovery and puck-possession type who can ensure they’re not limited to one-and-done scoring chances, I do believe they could also be really successful with a player of comparable ability.

I think that player is Jonathan Drouin.

First, I think Drouin’s previously established chemistry with Suzuki and his playmaking ability would be great matches to both Suzuki’s and Caufield’s skills. This could be an explosive line.

Second, Drouin is returning from personal leave which saw him miss Game 45-56 and all 22 the Canadiens played in the playoffs, and I think it’s imperative to put him in a position out of the gate where he feels comfortable and confident.

This is not about giving Drouin something he hasn’t earned; it’s about getting the very best out of him — and I don’t think he’ll ever have a better opportunity to play his very best than the one both Suzuki and Caufield present to him. And Drouin at his very best can make a huge difference for this team.

If he performs, that could propel Montreal’s offence to the next level and help mitigate some of the defensive issues they’re likely to have with Shea Weber unable to play due to injury.

If he doesn’t, then Tyler Toffoli’s a proven option with those two players. Joel Armia’s another. And there are several other players who can rotate in.

Might as well give you the rest of the picture as I see it, understanding things will shift around depending on injuries and the internal competition at camp.









Quick notes:

• That leaves Poehling and Cedrik Paquette battling for a spot as 13th forward, which probably places Poehling in Laval to start. But if he has a great camp, he won’t be there for long.

• The middle six is interchangeable, but under this structure Dvorak and Evans can share defensive-zone responsibilities. Ice-time at 5-on-5 should be pretty similar between both lines.

• Armia’s puck-carrying and protection skills could fit very well with Dvorak and Toffoli, but he will have to produce consistently to maintain a spot on that line.

• While this structure technically puts Hoffman on the fourth line, I see him on the top unit of the power play and as a rover in the lineup for when the team is down in a game and needs a goal. I also think he can produce with those linemates and that he would be the clean-cut finisher on that line, and that brings better balance to the Canadiens’ attack.

• Anderson-Evans-Gallagher has the potential to be an extremely hard line to play against. Three guys who keep the game relatively simple could fit well together, and they’d be an excellent energy line. They can also be disbanded in-game to give another line a bit of edge it might be missing.

• Just like up front, the defence pairings can be toyed with quite a bit. Wideman is a real wildcard after an exemplary season in the KHL that followed some not-so-good ones in the NHL. His puck-moving, his speed and his offence can vault him up the chart and make him a better fit next to Chiarot than Savard if, and only if, he proves to be defensively reliable enough to handle top-four minutes. And Savard can be a great partner for Romanov if the coaching staff is willing to balance things out and lean a bit more on its third pairing.

• Mattias Norlinder is going to get a proper look at camp and, considering his ability to play the right side as a lefty, he’ll be in stiff competition with Wideman.

Suzuki had 15 goals and 41 points in 56 games last season after posting 15 goals and 41 points in 71 games as a rookie in 2019-20. I don’t think it’s out of the question that he produces upwards of 20 goals and 65 points after scoring seven goals and 16 points in 22 playoff games.

Suzuki is a confident player, a cerebral player, and I don’t think it’s beyond him to score as much while also helping Dvorak and Evans shoulder a lot of the defensive responsibility Danault was previously handling.

As for Caufield, who will unquestionably benefit from starting off with Suzuki, I have believed for over a year that he’d score at least 24 goals in his first full season in the NHL. Now that he’s gotten some of the richest experience he could possibly earn at this level, nothing I’ve seen would have me backing off that suggestion.

If Caufield dresses for 82 games, 24 goals should be in the bag for him. The key for him, as it is for all young players with limited experience, is proving he can play consistently at both ends of the ice — and he’ll surely have his ups and downs with that.

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