Montreal Canadiens’ Mailbag: On Armia’s job security and Dach’s potential

Montreal Canadiens' Joel Armia (40) celebrates his goal against the Washington Capitals with teammate Justin Barron (52) during second period NHL hockey action in Montreal, Thursday, April 6, 2023. (Peter McCabe/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

MONTREAL – Thanks for all the incredible submissions. Let’s crack open the mail:

Hi, Karine,

Thanks for the question.

I wouldn’t go as far as suggesting it’s a likelihood Joel Armia gets waived before the start of the season, but if that did come to pass, it certainly wouldn’t be perceived as Kent Hughes wronging a veteran.

Every decision the GM makes has to be for the betterment of the Canadiens and if he feels that aim is served by keeping Jesse Ylonen or Emil Heineman over Armia, then that’s what he’ll do.

Armia’s remaining two years under contract at $3.5 million per shouldn’t guarantee him anything other than the money he’s owed. He has severely underperformed over the first two years of his deal and has to prove to himself, to Canadiens’ management, to the coaching staff and to his teammates that he can be relied on to consistently fulfill the obligations of his role better than the players hoping to unseat him.

That task could be markedly harder for Armia now, considering his underwhelming camp to date and an upper-body injury that could keep him sidelined for the remaining practices and pre-season games. In my opinion, neither Heineman nor Ylonen have done enough to push him out of his chair, but that could change as he sits and watches them battle for it over the coming week.

On Saturday, against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Heineman looked a lot more like a player who understood how ripe the opportunity is for him to force Hughes into a difficult decision. Coach Martin St. Louis called it his best game.

Now, Heineman has to press even harder Monday night, especially considering he can be sent to the AHL without having to go through waivers.

If Ylonen doesn’t elevate his game at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto and at least match Heineman’s urgency from the same line, I’m not sure the Canadiens will be all that concerned about waiving him to send him to the Laval Rocket before camp breaks. Not that Hughes wants to expose himself to losing a potential NHLer who was drafted and developed by the organization for nothing, but I don’t know if he’ll see that as a particularly risky proposition if Ylonen doesn’t step up.

If the Canadiens don’t feel Ylonen can beat Heineman to a job and unseat Armia on the fourth line, it’s hard to imagine other teams — who are trimming their rosters to comply with limits for the season — will view him as a player they need to claim and keep in the NHL.

But if one did, the Canadiens wouldn’t really be losing an essential depth player. They have other prospects pushing — in addition to Heineman — who appear capable of playing at this level and versatile enough to fill different types of roles if called upon.

That’s another thing that makes Armia’s hold on a position tenuous. Perhaps no one pushes him out at the start of the season, but there are enough players coming to force him to continue to fight to keep his chair or earn a better one.

The 31-year-old, who’s been in the NHL for eight years, knows it. He knows this is a business and that any decision that gets made here won’t be personal.

The veterans who might consider Montreal a choice destination in free agency know that, too.

Thanks for the question, Trege.

This is the first of three seasons remaining on Mike Matheson’s $39-million contract and, if he continues to play at least as well as he did last season, I don’t see any urgency to trade him.

The kids are coming, absolutely. But if the Canadiens get to where they hope to be as Matheson nears the end of his contract, they’re going to need quality veterans to help push them through to their ultimate goal, and Matheson is a quality veteran.

He’s only 29 years old, he just had a breakout season, and he appears poised to build on that and continue proving he isn’t just a No. 1 defenceman by default.

I wouldn’t expect a significant drop off in Matheson’s level while he’s still under contract, especially considering that his skating is his biggest asset. And if he continues to trend as he has since he arrived in Montreal, I’d sooner be looking at re-signing him when his deal expires than trading him to make room for someone else.

Hi, Terry,

I don’t believe anyone on the Canadiens’ staff is limiting Arber Xhekaj to a certain number of fights, though they obviously don’t want him taking on all comers and dropping his gloves every time he’s challenged.

There’s a time and a place for everything and, now that he has proven himself in this department and gained valuable experience in this league, Xhekaj should be better able to identify when the time and place is to do this type of business.

Speaking with the 22-year-old last week, he appears to have the right approach.

“For me, it just depends on the game,” Xhekaj said. “If the game gets so out of control and something needs to happen, then maybe …

“For me, now, it’s all team first,” he continued. “If the team needs something, then I’m there to step up. If we’re getting picked on or we’re getting bullied out there, then I’m going to step up. It’s all about the team for me.”

As for the risk Xhekaj assumes each time he steps up for a fight, that’s part of the deal. And he’s more than willing to assume it knowing he’s putting some — if not most — of his challengers at greater risk.

Hi, Karl,

I’m not going to put numbers on it, but I expect this to be the best year Alex Newhook has had in the NHL since he was drafted 16th overall by the Colorado Avalanche in 2019.

I’ve liked the camp he’s had, and not just because his speed and skill are shining through enough to suggest he’s a top-six player on this team. What’s clear is that while he was waiting for a better opportunity with the Avalanche, he was developing the details that would enable him to be a more trusted player in the role he was serving with their team, and there’s a lot to like about that.

I think Newhook tracks back well through the middle of the ice, that he forces turnovers and checks, that he has a bit more edge to his game than I would’ve assumed based on the sample of his games I saw when he was in Colorado, and I think he has a coach who will give him a better chance to express himself offensively.

I don’t think it’s purely because Newhook is playing for St. Louis that he’ll come a lot closer to meeting his potential; I think the experience he’s already gained, combined with playing for St. Louis and with better offensive players, will bring his game up to where the Canadiens hoped it would be when they traded two draft picks to the Avalanche.

Hi, Zachary,

“Always” is a strong word.

I expect to see them together at the start of the season, and I’d bet on them playing more together than they will with anyone else in the lineup if both of them remain healthy.

But there will be times when Caufield and Suzuki need to be separated, when depth — or Kirby Dach — will be better served by Caufield moving.

The Canadiens picking up Newhook gives them one more option to play with if they need to separate Caufield and Suzuki. On top of Rafael Harvey-Pinard and Juraj Slafkovsky presenting as top-six options, that’s a big change from last season to this one.

We’ll see how it all shakes out, and if the Canadiens remain healthy, but I think we’re going to see a lot of players moving around in the top-nine. It’ll depend on chemistry, and there could be tweaks just based on which team the Canadiens are playing on a given night.

I think they’ll roll with Caufield and Suzuki together more often than not, but I’m sure we’ll see Caufield play some games next to Dach.

Hi, Henry,

The sensible approach: Be patient with their development and hope you end up with an embarrassment of riches to choose from.

The Canadiens are going to have to continue building through the draft to procure some elite talent up front, but having an abundance of young, NHL-calibre defencemen will enable them to trade for some too.

Thanks for the question.

I think the chance of Primeau making the opening roster is reasonably strong, though I wouldn’t suggest it’s guaranteed.

There’s a risk he’d be claimed off waivers, and the organization isn’t overflowing with NHL-capable goaltending prospects to necessarily assume the risk of losing him.

That risk could be somewhat offset by Primeau’s contract, which guarantees him $800,000 (no matter which league he plays in this season) and pays him a $1.1-million salary next season. But it won’t be eliminated by that.

I don’t think the Canadiens have an interest in carrying three goaltenders long-term, but it might be their best move to do so for the time being. With only one game to play on the road between now and Oct. 30, they could easily carry just six defencemen and pull someone up from Laval if an injury occurs.

Thanks for the question.

We’re going to find out because Samuel Montembeault is being put in a position to further prove himself.

I like his chances of building on what he did last season, and I think he can match or exceed his performance because what he did at the world championship — where he was the best player on a gold medal-winning Canadian team — showed he can perform under the type of pressure he’ll be under in Montreal this season.

Montembeault was under pressure to establish himself and push for the Canadiens’ net last season, but he wasn’t under the gun to win. With Canada he was, and he will face something similar as he angles to keep his edge on Jake Allen and Primeau as the Canadiens’ No. 1.

Thanks for the question.

I don’t think Slafkovsky has to play on the top two lines to gain more valuable experience in the NHL this season.

Not that I’d advocate playing 8-10 minutes on the team’s fourth line would be better for him than seeing top minutes in the AHL, it’s just that he’d still be in the right place on the team’s third line if that’s where he ended up.

Also, looking at the composition of Montreal’s second and third lines, I don’t think there’s going to be a considerable difference in ice-time allotment at five-on-five.

I don’t think there will be so much of a talent disparity between those lines, either.

Thanks for the question.

I think William Trudeau showed that he’s going to be capable of playing games in the NHL this season.

Love his work ethic, I like his poise and I admire his all-around ability.

One thought I have: Play Trudeau on the right side in Laval. Right now, he’s close to being a part-time NHL defenceman, but he can get a lot closer to being a full-time one with the Canadiens if he proves he’s adept at playing his off-side.

Thanks for the question.

I think that comes down to opportunity more than it does Dach’s ability.

While I believe the former third-overall pick of the Chicago Blackhawks can produce at that level as early as this season, I just don’t believe he’ll be consistently paired with players capable of taking advantage of his playmaking ability to get his point total up to that level.

When I asked St. Louis what profile of player fits best with Dach, he said he needs a goal scorer next to him. As I touched on earlier in this mailbag, the guy who scores most on this team is likely going to be stapled to Suzuki for most the season.

Josh Anderson can score. Harvey-Pinard and Slafkovsky can, too. But Dach probably needs more than what all three of them can offer in order to hit 70 points this season.

But yeah, on talent alone, I think the 22-year-old is already capable of doing that in this league. And I think he could become a point-per-game player down the line if the Canadiens find another player like Caufield to pair with him.

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