From the AHL to Masterton: Canadiens’ Armia makes climb for nod

Steven Stamkos scored a pair of goals, Nick Paul scored two as well and Nikita Kucherov recorded three points as the Tampa Bay Lightning defeated the Montreal Canadiens 7-4.

MONTREAL — Joel Armia was facing the end of his NHL career, whether he wanted to admit it or not.

The Montreal Canadiens certainly didn’t want him to feel completely discarded when they sent him to the AHL as training camp for the 2023-24 season broke, but they accepted he might feel exactly that way. Nothing they could say to him would dull the shock of dismissing his 483 games of NHL experience and paying him $4.8 million to play for their minor-league affiliate rather than counting on him to be one of the 23 players helping them, and they had to be willing to live with the possibility their cold, calculated — and necessary — decision would break his spirit once and for all.

That Armia didn’t allow it to is the reason he’s been chosen by the Montreal chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association to be among the 32 most worthy candidates for the Bill Masterton Trophy, which is awarded annually to the player who “who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to ice hockey.”

On Thursday, against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Armia scored his 15th and 16th goals of the season to tie his career high in the category. It was a performance that only served to extend an excellent run of play he’s had in this league going back to mid-November, and it never would’ve happened had he allowed his early-season circumstances to defeat him.

They easily could’ve. Especially considering his history.

We’re talking about a player who spent the better part of his first eight seasons in the NHL incapable of looking past his own shortcomings. Armia, a first-round pick of the Buffalo Sabres in 2011, tortured himself over mistakes, admitting last season to what degree this self-destructive tendency prevented him from accessing the awesome talent he has always possessed.

On Thursday, Armia referred to it as “playing with a handbrake on,” and it was unimaginable that his career being placed in jeopardy would lead to him releasing it.

But the 30-year-old faced this adversity with exemplary resolve. He chipped away at it with Canadiens mental performance coach Jean-Francois Menard, and he refused to allow the progress they made together to be derailed by his demotion to the AHL.

Instead, Armia got to work, immediately assuming a leadership role with the Laval Rocket off the ice and helping them on it by scoring four goals and five points in four games.

Still, when he was recalled to the Canadiens, on Oct. 21, it was to essentially warm their bench.

There he sat for four straight games as a healthy scratch before barely being put in position to impact their results over the next six.

And then on Nov. 12, the Canadiens sent Armia back down, which could’ve been devastating for him.

But after posting four more points in four games with the Rocket, Armia returned to the Canadiens determined to put an end to his AHL career.

“I was super motivated,” he said, and he showed it, climbing to third in goals on the team, driving a second line first centred by Sean Monahan and now centred by Alex Newhook, serving as Montreal’s most effective penalty-killing forward, and earning the recognition he’s being given on this day.

In the eyes of Armia’s teammates, it helps undo the perception he was a player lacking will over three down seasons that preceded this one.

“I think, for a long time, he’s kind of been the scapegoat in the media and stuff,” said Mike Matheson after Thursday’s game. “When I wasn’t even here, a lot of stuff was said about him, and I think a lot of it was pretty far from the truth, and it’s so very impressive for him to be able to block all that out and continue being a good teammate and have that bounce back. I don’t know if bounce back is (the right term), but perseverance, I guess, to keep on fighting, knowing that ‘I am a good player and I’m going to show that at some point.’ And he obviously has.”

Canadiens coach Martin St. Louis said he isn’t surprised, and added that the credit belongs all to Armia.

“Everything always starts with the player,” St. Louis said after his post-game press conference. “You can help him all you want, and we have plenty of resources to help him, especially with the group (general manager) Kent (Hughes) and (executive vice president of hockey operations Jeff Gorton) Gorts has put together, whether it’s on ice or off ice, mental. So I think he just took everything into his own hands and he just built himself back up. Someone who cares a lot about the game, who loves the game, usually will do that.”

Armia has done it with grace, and with humility in accepting that experience and a lucrative contract didn’t afford him security.

“It’s a privilege to play in this league every day,” the Pori, Finland native said. “It’s nothing guaranteed … You can’t take anything for granted, so I guess (I have) a lot of gratitude.”

That’s been obvious with each passing day Armia’s spent with the Canadiens this season.

He said he never doubted he’d be back in the NHL, but there was undeniably a chance he never would be.

Now, there’s no denying Armia not only eliminated that possibility but also made himself indispensable to the Canadiens in the process. And that makes him as good a candidate as there is in the league for the Masterton Trophy.

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