Canadiens Mailbag: A top D-man a want, not a need ahead of trade deadline

Montreal Canadiens' Brett Kulak reflects on how head coach Dominique Ducharme has changed the way the Canadiens play.

MONTREAL — Before we get to some of the excellent questions that filtered into to this week’s Ask EE Mailbag, a note on Dominique Ducharme’s Montreal Canadiens, care of defenceman Brett Kulak.

“I think ever since Dom took over he’s saying he loves when we play tight, when we play hard and fast defensively, and he also loves when we get creative offensively,” said Kulak on Friday. “But I think No. 1 for him is that defensive side of the game and just giving the other team nothing. He likes to just say, ‘Not let them have any fun in the game.’ You do that over a certain amount of time and as the game wears on the other team they start getting frustrated, they start forcing stuff and that’s when things open up and scoring chances happen for us. We’ve seen that over the last couple of games. I think we’re forming our identity around that. It helps a lot as a D-man when our forwards are taking a lot of responsibility and pride on the backcheck and it makes it easier on us at that point and we can transition quicker offensively.”

The Canadiens have collected points in six consecutive games, they’ve won their last three and looked exactly as Kulak described them in Tuesday’s 4-0 win over the Edmonton Oilers, but also in Thursday’s 4-1 win in Ottawa.

Another game like that against the Senators on Saturday at the Bell Centre would make this one of the best weeks of their season.

Meanwhile, Tyler Toffoli, the team’s leading goal scorer, should be back for Saturday’s game. Eric Staal is coming out of quarantine Sunday and is set to make his Canadiens debut Monday. Ben Chiarot, who had surgery to repair a fracture in his right hand on March 15, is back to skating regularly. And this team very well might gain more reinforcements between now and the NHL’s April 12 trade deadline.

Ducharme said Friday he’s excited about what’s to come.

“It’s (general manager Marc Bergevin’s) job, and he’s looking,” he added. “But we’ll see what happens. We like our group, we like the way we play, so our focus is on that right now.”

Our focus is on your questions about all of that, so let’s get to some of them.

Hi Liam, thanks for the question.

Boy, there are so many options to choose from, it’s pretty hard to figure out. But I’d go with this, assuming everyone remains healthy between now and the playoffs and no more additions get made:

Jonathan Drouin-Nick Suzuki-Josh Anderson

Tomas Tatar-Phillip Danault-Brendan Gallagher

Tyler Toffoli-Jesperi Kotkaniemi-Cole Caufield

Paul Byron-Eric Staal-Corey Perry

Ben Chiarot-Shea Weber

Brett Kulak-Jeff Petry

Alex Romanov-Joel Edmundson

This lineup leaves Artturi Lehkonen, Jake Evans, Joel Armia and Victor Mete on the outside looking in, and I’m assuming Caufield can immediately make an impact with the Canadiens.

And, yeah, we’re over the cap here, but there’s no cap once all the dollars have been spent and the playoffs start. Anyone on the reserve list can play, and I think this lineup gives Montreal its best opportunity to win games.

Up front, the top two lines have great chemistry. That third — should we even call it a third? — has three guys on it that would make the matchup game very challenging for the opposition, and all three players are strong enough away from the puck and defensively to make it work.

And that fourth line can do the work as a unit at both ends of the ice, but all three pieces of it can also be used to spark another line. And each player on it can play a primary role on one of the special teams.

On defence, the Chiarot-Weber pairing remains intact because it’s made for how loosely the game is called come playoff time. They will wear down the opposition with their physicality and, with the way the other pairings are structured, there would be no reason to overtax them.

Edmundson has been good no matter where he’s played this season, and Romanov’s game has come up a level since permanently moving to the left side under Ducharme.

“I think it helps his game,” said the coach about Romanov earlier this week. “The way he closes on guys through the neutral zone and high into our zone, I think he’s doing a good job on the left side. When he gets the puck, it’s easier to see the play when you’re on your strong side.”

Edmundson would be the most stable partner Romanov could have on the team, and his experience makes him a better option on the right side than any other left-handed defenceman on the team.

Look at the balance of these pairings. There’s just no reason to have a wide dispersion in ice-time with things structured this way.

But you want to get Weber and Petry on the ice a lot at 5-on-5, and you can boost the minutes for Chiarot and Edmundson through special teams.

Hi Ryan, good question.

I don’t see any difference in the dynamic of the North from before we started the season to where we are now, and I don’t think that dynamic will change much with whatever moves get made between now and the trade deadline.

The Canadiens remain behind Toronto, Winnipeg and Edmonton in the superstar department — particularly at the centre position. But their depth and balance are unequivocally stronger than what the Oilers and Jets have and they're, at worst, on par with what the Maple Leafs have.

I think the Canadiens are made for the playoffs, with the right mix of speed, size, physicality and experience. The lineup is filled with Stanley Cup and gold-medal winners, and, as Bergevin recently said, “That’s not by accident.”

Barring a catastrophic collapse fuelled by some unfathomably devastating injuries, this team is making the playoffs.

You could say the Canadiens' schedule down the stretch — 23 games in 39 nights — is going to make it harder for them to go on a run once they get there, but everyone in this division has had to jam 56 games into roughly the same amount of days. This is where the depth of the Canadiens should help mitigate how condensed things are for them than say the Jets or Maple Leafs down the stretch.

I believe the Canadiens can absolutely go on a run. I don’t have them as Stanley Cup favourites — Tampa Bay, Vegas and Colorado are on another level — and I have them ranked below Toronto on the contender list, but it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to see them win.

It would take good health and a fair amount of luck — requirements for all championship runs — but they’ve got two exceptional goaltenders, a strong defensive core, speed, scoring, size and grit up front and a power play that’s improved dramatically under Alex Burrows.

Odds of them winning the Cup were set at 36-1 prior to the season. I’d say they represented a really good value bet then and still do now — even though, as of Friday, they were at 17-1.

Hey Jimmy, those are rather loose parameters.

I don’t believe it’s imperative for Bergevin to pay whatever cost to get the best defenceman available.

But if — and it’s a big if right now with the Nashville Predators currently in a playoff spot — Mattias Ekholm were to become available prior to April 12, I think Bergevin’s in a great position to acquire him without giving away too much of the future.

A first-round pick is easy to part with for a playoff team with as much already on the line as the Canadiens have gambled. Giving up two prospects — none of them named Caufield — would be a considerable sacrifice, but a worthwhile one, too, with Ekholm under contract for one more season after this one at a digestible $3.75-million hit.

Obviously, money’s gotta go out to make this deal, so it’s a given that one of Armia or Lehkonen would have to be in it. That wouldn’t be a crushing blow to the team’s depth.

Neither would this: Acquiring Ekholm wouldn’t change Montreal’s expansion draft plans much, either. They’d still have to consider incentivizing Seattle to not take goaltender Jake Allen, but protecting Ekholm and exposing another defenceman wouldn’t put them in a more vulnerable spot.

Now, Bergevin’s not forced to do anything. I think he’s even justified to feel there’s a lot to like about the dynamic of the current blue line, and Mete’s recent boost in play has given the group a bit more insurance.

But surely the GM knows it thins out quickly after Mete.

That doesn’t mean Bergevin should add just any blue-liner just to have an extra body around. I think it would be hard to find a third-pairing type who would prove to be a better option than Edmundson, Kulak, Romanov or even Mete.

But any team with the ability to add a defenceman of Ekholm’s quality, a defenceman who pushes everyone down, should want to, and I suspect Bergevin would want to.

You can’t look at this and say it’s not worth a first-round pick and a couple of prospects not named Caufield going out the door:





The Canadiens have lots of picks at their disposal, and they have an exceptionally deep prospect pool — especially at left defence. They can compete with just about any offer the Predators get for Ekholm, if he becomes available and if they’re willing to trade for him.

Hey Canucky, thanks for the question.

I’m not sure what the insinuation is here, but here’s the reality behind Ryan Poehling’s progression: there’s nothing wrong with the speed of it.

Yes, he was a first-round pick in 2017, and no, he hasn’t been able to live up to unreasonable expectations that were set when he made his NHL debut with a hat trick and a shootout winner in the last (meaningless) game of the 2018-19 season.

But that’s not some sort of failure on Poehling’s part. And what happened after he returned to Montreal last fall and appeared like a player who was all but locked into a roster spot with the Canadiens is all part of a normal progression for a young player. He had great momentum in training camp before he suffered a concussion in a pre-season game.

It couldn’t have been easy, physically, but certainly mentally for Poehling to watch others leap ahead of him in the depth chart while he was recovering — and I think that was apparent in the way Poehling played both in Laval and Montreal last season. He had high expectations for himself, and it appeared hard for him to accept that he was further away than he thought when he had been so close to the NHL he could taste it.

But if you’ve watched the Rocket this season, you can see Poehling has realized being in the AHL can make him a better NHL player down the line. He’s grown significantly in embracing that — he’s got seven goals and 16 points in 21 games and appears more confident and assertive in his play.

Poehling, who was drafted 25th overall (not third like Kotkaniemi or 13th like Suzuki), turned 22 years old in January. He looks like a capable NHLer right now, which is what you want to hear about a prospect his age.

That’s the real story.

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