View from Above: The Canadiens needs to play the kids
Published Thursday, May 13, 2021 11:43AM EDT Last Updated Thursday, May 13, 2021 11:44AM EDT
Montreal Canadiens’ Cole Caufield (22) celebrates with teammate Jake Evans after scoring against the Ottawa Senators during overtime NHL hockey action in Montreal, Saturday, May 1, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
MONTREAL -- For the Montreal Canadiens, the strangest of regular seasons has come to an end, and not a minute too soon.
Habs fans know the story by now: because of a COVID-19 case, their schedule changed and the team was forced to play its final 25 games in 44 days.
What resulted was a tired, banged-up group that was somehow able to scratch out enough points to secure the final playoff spot in the North Division. A first-round series with the Toronto Maple Leafs awaits (their first meeting since 1979, if you haven’t heard). Now it’s time for Montreal to turn the page, in more ways than one.
The week between games will allow the team to get physically and mentally rested. It will give them the practice time they desperately need. This season, perhaps more than ever, the playoffs represent a fresh start for Montreal.
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The likes of Carey Price, Shea Weber and Philip Danault and Brendan Gallagher should be healthy and ready to go against Toronto and while the focus is and should be to win now, the Canadiens also need to keep their eyes on the future. They need to give their young players starring roles now that the stakes are highest.
Cole Caufield needs to play. I understand his NHL career is all of ten games old and that he’s not been perfect. He’s predictably had some problems when battling for the puck and those fights for possession will only intensify in the post-season. But Caufield can flat out score. Period.
Yes, two of his four goals came in three-on-three overtime and one came in the team’s meaningless season finale, but he’s come as advertised. The 20-year-old is shooting the puck from everywhere, displaying the same approach he had at the University of Wisconsin. In short, he is not intimidated into playing a different game than the one that got him to Montreal. However, despite his skills, I fully expect Caufield to be on the outside looking in favour of veteran Corey Perry for the opening playoff game.
I have a lot of respect for Perry. He likely exceeded expectations in the regular season, his work below the dots in the offensive zone can’t be discounted and he drives the opposing goaltenders crazy. But it’s Caufield’s time. Give me a developing sniper who will be with the team for years to come over a player who doesn’t figure into the team’s future. I’ll take the kid who can drill one-timers from the left circle on the power play to the cagey veteran who, admittedly, can cause havoc in the crease.
These are just numbers but worth considering nonetheless: Corey Perry finished the season with no goals in his final 20 games. Caufield had 4 goals in 10 games. Think back to last season’s playoffs: youngsters Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi played prime roles in the series against Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. That experience was can only help both players in the future and Caufield should be given the same opportunity now. Which leads me to Kotkaniemi.
It was a difficult season for Jesperi Kotkaniemi. He had 5 goals and only 20 points in 56 games. He finished the season with 0 goals and 4 assists in his final 24 games and it’s clear that his confidence is nowhere to be found. Still, he needs to play ahead of Eric Staal. A handful of good practices, video work and positive reinforcement can go a long way to helping the 20-year-old find his game. The 36-year-old Staal has had an excellent career and has 62 games of playoff experience but he has not played well as a Canadien. He simply hasn’t been able to keep up. His work in his own end or at the faceoff dot hasn’t been enough to warrant playing him ahead of Kotakniemi.
As with Caufield and Perry, I would be very surprised if Kotkaniemi gets the nod over Eric Staal to begin the post-season. Coaches and managers often lean on experience over youth when it comes to playoffs and I don’t expect anything different from the Canadiens. Maybe Dominique Ducharme will find a way to work all four of those players into the lineup at the same time, but I see three of the four lines looking (roughly) like this: Tatar-Danault-Gallagher; Toffoli-Suzuki-Anderson; Lehkonen-Evans-Byron; Perry-Staal-Armia.
With that in mind, here’s a question worth asking: would playing Perry and Staal over Caufield and Kotkaniemi be the difference in pushing the Canadiens past the Maple Leafs? I don’t think so.
Play the kids for now and for the future.