One formula for success in today’s NHL is conceptually simple: A team needs strong play up the middle.
Pulling off the formula is the hard part.
A look at the Stanley Cup winners since the 2005 lockout only reinforces this notion. The Pittsburgh Penguins have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The Chicago Blackhawks have Jonathan Toews. Anze Kopitar was at the top of his game when the Los Angeles Kings won their titles in 2012 and 2014. Patrice Bergeron came up big for the Boston Bruins in 2011.
In the previous decade, Pavel Datsyuk was the centerpiece for the Detroit Red Wings during their run of success. Even the improbable 2006 champs from Carolina had Eric Staal, who delivered 45 goals and 100 points during that season.
So yes, building up the middle isn’t just a good strategy — it’s a downright essential one… which brings us to the Montreal Canadiens.
The Habs own high hopes and aspirations of bringing the Stanley Cup north of the border for the first time since their franchise won it all in 1993. They have arguably the best goalie in the world, an extremely underrated goal scorer in Max Pacioretty, and a gifted defenseman with one of the hardest slap shots in league history.
They changed head coaches toward the end of last season; swung an aggressive trade to bring in Jonathan Drouin this summer; and are feeling the weight of lofty expectations from the hockey-rich community they call home.
However, do they have enough to work with at the highly coveted center position?
At the moment, it doesn’t appear so — not on paper, at least. Phillip Danault was a pleasant surprise for the Habs this past season, but he’s more valuable when moved down in the lineup. Asking him to play up the middle in a top-six role makes his production look more like a deficiency than a positive — through no fault of his own.
“It was a bold move. The negotiations for Drouin dated back a year,” Godin explains. “Around the time that Drouin was in disputes with the Lightning. He’s a fit with the Canadiens for a number of reasons. He could be an option at center, where the team has struggled for, what, 20 years. He’s extremely creative, he’s an elite passer. Whether he plays with Alex Galchenyuk or with Max Pacioretty, he’s pretty sure to have a guy next to him that’s got a great release and who can finish his plays.”
If Drouin can play the role of playmaking pivot, that would be a huge addition for Montreal. It should be pointed out that he played mostly on the wing in Tampa, so that’s far from a given. While the move to acquire him was met favorably across the hockey world, there’s plenty of pressure on the youngster now.
As Godin also points out, the Canadiens acquired Drouin with the hope that he would boost their offense. However, they lost Alex Radulov to free agency later in the offseason. They may merely break even in terms of offensive output up front — except they also had to deal away top prospect Mikhail Sergachev to get Drouin. Simply having him become a productive winger might not be enough anymore.
Of course, Montreal has another skilled young forward, Alex Galchenyuk, who could potentially fill a center role as well. That debate has been raging for awhile.
“There’s no doubt that he needs to understand the defensive side of the job as a center,” Godin concedes. “I would say he was a liability there. But if the Canadiens had invested in him as a center from day one — because they had a need for a young, first line center — those worries would have been resolved by now. But it’s been a constant yo-yo between wing and center, and center and wing.”
Godin noted that while Galchenyuk still needs to improve aspects of his game — and some feel he’s more of a shoot-first guy than a traditional passer — he played his best hockey when centering two quality wingers.
Godin also suggests there was a “50-50” chance that Galchenyuk could have been dealt at the draft in June. Even though he does have a new deal now, it’s the sort of contract that wouldn’t be hard to trade if the right offer came along. In other words, the former first-round pick (No. 3 in 2012) isn’t necessarily on completely stable footing with the organization if that improvement doesn’t come soon.
That’s how the Canadiens are entering camp for the 2017-18 campaign. The move to land Drouin was ambitious, and now they have two undeniable young talents: Drouin and Galchenyuk. They’ll almost certainly need one of them to thrive at center — at least if they truly want to take the next step as a team this season.