Call of the Wilde: Tampa Bay Lightning dominate the Montreal Canadiens – Montreal

The final contest at home for the Montreal Canadiens before their longest road trip of the season of seven games. The Tampa Bay Lightning in town and they posted an easy 5-1 win.

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It’s becoming clear that the best two-way forward on the Montreal Canadiens is actually Kirby Dach. No matter where he plays, he is on the best line that night.

Usually, Dach plays with Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield, who are the best scoring forwards on the club, but as soon as he leaves that line, it’s Dach who carries the best line of the team while the first line has a lot of issues (detailed below).

On this night, Dach centred Juraj Slafkovsky and Jonathan Drouin. To be lined up with a rookie, and a player who has struggled mightily recently, yet then be the best trio is saying a lot about what Dach brings.

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It also bodes well for the future of Slafkovsky. The goal is for him to show the skills that will make him a top-six forward, and at only 18, it’s easy to see the possibility when Dach is his centre.

Drouin likely doesn’t have a future with the club when his contract runs out, but then again, if this is a confidence issue for a once massively talented player, then perhaps Dach can help Drouin find his long-lost better self.

It’s a shame that Dach can’t play all the lines. If that were possible, it feels like he could raise the play of everyone.

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Head Coach Martin St. Louis would love to see his first line excel when Dach is playing centre on the second line. The last attempt in the middle, two weeks ago, Dach had a positive Corsi and was four of five from the face-off dot.

However, every time the head coach tries this, the line that Dach leaves goes from a fairly good Corsi to getting destroyed. The experiment last time lasted only two periods with the line of Suzuki, Caufield and Josh Anderson getting only a 20 per cent share of shot attempts. They were folded like a cheap tent.

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Suzuki and Cole Caufield do not function with Anderson. They were a minus-two in ten minutes. The line had a 35 per cent shot share. The Dach line had an 80 per cent shot share. The numbers are startling.

Dach is a special winger with Suzuki and Caufield. He has a natural tendency to behave like a second centre while playing the wing. He rushes the puck up ice and exits the zone well. He also enters the zone well with possession. Dach is a possession giant.

The team has a manpower shortage. The entire first line craters or there is no second line scoring. One of the two is sacrificed every time out.

This is a one line hockey team. Suzuki, Dach and Caufield have 38 goals. The entire rest of the team has only 47 goals.

This says a lot about how good these three are, because without any other dangerous options, opposing head coaches can fully concentrate on line matching and also make sure that the Canadiens’ top-three face the best defending pair. The three facing all that attention still score most of the goals. Remarkable.

The rebuild has some pieces to acquire still. The most important one being a winger for Suzuki not named Kirby Dach.

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The Montreal Canadiens rebuild has advanced more at forward than defence. The goal is to have as many top-six forwards as possible, with the best teams having five of six.

The Canadiens are doing well early in the rebuild. They have three top-six in Nick Suzuki, Cole Caufield and Kirby Dach. They have another hopeful in the first pick overall, Juraj Slafkovsky, who is already playing well in the NHL at the age of 18.

Three more prospects Filip Mesar, Owen Beck and Sean Farrell could reach that lofty height. A free agent signing of Pierre-Luc Dubois is also a possibility, with him showing an interest in playing in Montreal when he becomes an unrestricted free agent. Montreal is close to set at the forward position.

Sadly though, Montreal’s defence is less developed overall. The goal is to have four top-four defenders. Any team reaching that goal will certainly have a chance at the Stanley Cup. Arguably, only one team has perfect top-four defencemen, and it should be no surprise that they won the Stanley Cup.

Cale Makar, Samuel Girard, Devon Toews, and Erik Johnson lead the best defence in the league. They also have a top-four in waiting in Bowen Byram. That’s a young group as well. Colorado will be good for a long time.

Another top defence is the Carolina Hurricanes. They are the perfect example that perhaps the second best defending team in the league doesn’t actually top out at all four top-four defenders. The Hurricanes are extremely strong, but they have only Brent Burns, Jacob Slavin, Brett Pesce, and Brady Skjei. Strong, but hardly the Central Red Army on the blue line.

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Realistically, the Canadiens are shooting for three of the top-four as that would put the club within the top ranks of the league. This is where the club needs to get to work still. They’re not as close as they are with the forwards.

Montreal has only one potential top-four defender in Kaiden Guhle. After a junior campaign where he was the MVP of the Edmonton Oil Kings Western Hockey League championship run, Guhle is bringing his first round draft pick talent to the NHL in his rookie season. He looks polished already, and with experience, it would be a shock to see Guhle not reach top-four status.

After that the rest is hope, and it’s not likely that any of the roster players now, even though they are playing well, hit that clear top-four status. Jordan Harris, Arber Xhekaj, and Jonathan Kovacevic are likely to be locked in as strong third pair defenders.

Defending is more difficult to know how development will continue. Forward is easy as there are clear stats to assess, stick skills, and shot.

Former Canadiens defenceman Shea Weber says defending is mostly about decision-making, and then physically having the ability to follow through on that decision. That’s harder to assess.

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With that in mind, perhaps one of the three rookies on the Habs blue line can become both smarter and more physically able. It seems a reach, but hope floats.

The Canadiens need a prospect to shine. The biggest hope is Lane Hutson. He is an offensive unicorn — one of the most talented offensive defenders at the college level that’s ever been seen. The worry is that he can not, with his stature of only five foot nine inches, handle the physical nature.

Hutson’s ceiling is top four. However, his floor is not even in the NHL, if he can not figure out how to mitigate his slight build.

The other hope is Logan Mailloux, who has missed so much hockey since he was drafted that it is difficult to assess his ceiling. Offensively, he is extremely strong. He is terrific on the rush and has a powerful shot. He has not shown a defensive awareness yet to match top-four talent.

In summary, the Canadiens have one fairly sure thing in Guhle, and then five hopefuls. If two land, then the Canadiens could be ready to rise up the standings. However, two landing in this group is far from a guarantee.

It’s easy to see the Canadiens, when they lose a lot of fat contracts to get into a favourable cap position, signing a free agent top-four defender to strengthen the roster.

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Last year’s cup winner had eight of the 10 pieces of a top-six and top-four. That’s how a championship is won.

Montreal has four pieces already, and they have a lot of prospects projecting high hopes. They also have a draft coming up with two first round selections, and a lot of money coming off the books to acquire a top free agent.

They’re not as far off as some think. It should be exciting to watch the pieces fall into place in the hands now of an intelligent management team.

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