Canadiens demonstrate why straddling future and present can be complicated

MONTREAL — Nick Suzuki had to admit he was a bit surprised when he got the news.

With Tanner Pearson returning from a broken hand against the Ottawa Senators on Tuesday night, the Montreal Canadiens placed centre Mitchell Stephens on waivers Monday to make room on the roster. The problem, of course, is that Stephens is a centre, and Pearson is a winger. The other problem is losing Stephens to the AHL after he cleared waivers Tuesday left the Canadiens with three centres to face the Senators. The Canadiens could have kept Stephens, but that would mean demoting rookie Joshua Roy after he’s been playing solid hockey and helping the team, which would send the wrong message to a player who is a big part of the team’s future.

But on the other hand, what kind of message does it send to the other players on your team when you purposely dress three centres in a contest the Canadiens identified as an important bounce-back game after allowing 15 goals in two games, including six against this same Senators team in Ottawa last Thursday?

“After losing two in a row and getting our butts kicked by them last time and same with Boston in the third period,” Canadiens forward Josh Anderson said, “we’ve just got to find a new level of energy.”

And so, when Suzuki saw the news of Stephens going on waivers Monday, he had questions. Legitimate questions.

“When (Stephens) got put on waivers it was a bit of a shock just because we didn’t have a fourth centre in our lineup, clearly, so I was wondering what we were going to do for that,” Suzuki said after the game Tuesday. “It’s not our call, obviously, so we’ve got to do what we can. We’ve had three centres on a rotation before, so it’s nothing new.”

The Canadiens lost the game 4-1, and icing a lineup with three centres wasn’t necessarily the main reason why. But it’s still odd. When Suzuki mentions the Canadiens playing with three centres in the past, he’s not wrong, but that was out of necessity. This was a choice, one dictated by factors that go beyond icing an ideal lineup for this one game, one dictated by waiver eligibility and the likelihood Stephens would go unclaimed while someone like Jesse Ylönen probably wouldn’t. It was also dictated by the ongoing three-goalie rotation leaving the Canadiens short one roster spot as a result. That rotation is also a result of waiver eligibility because Cayden Primeau would be in Laval right now if he didn’t have to clear waivers.

It was not dictated by the need to win this one game.

“The three centres and managing the lines, I don’t think it had anything to do with the result of the game,” coach Martin St. Louis said. “We gave them a couple of gifts in my book and it’s hard to do that in this league. On the positive side, I found we defended better, we were good on the penalty kill and we were able to go get some confidence in the third period.”

Frankly, the Canadiens shouldn’t be making decisions based on winning a single game, and perhaps the long-term benefit of keeping Roy with the team outweighs the short-term benefit of having a fourth-line centre for a Tuesday night game in January, even if it left your captain shocked. All those waiver considerations are legitimate, and the long term should be the priority over the short term now for the Canadiens.

But that becomes somewhat problematic when you look at what is happening on defence, and with Kaiden Guhle playing on the right side. That is a short-term decision based on what the team needs now as opposed to what it will need in the future.

“I think it’s a position where you get better the more you’re there because it’s not as easy for a lefty on the right side,” St. Louis said after practice Monday. “There’s an advantage on certain things, but there’s a major disadvantage on other things so you’ve got to be very mobile to do that. We feel like (Guhle) has done a good job.

“Is it ideal? I don’t think it is, but he’s done a good job.”

Guhle played his 87th NHL game Tuesday night, partnering on defence with rookie Jayden Struble in his 29th NHL game, and they had themselves a game against the Senators. At five-on-five, the Canadiens had 77.3 percent of the shot attempts and 86.9 percent of the expected goals with Struble on the ice. Guhle’s numbers were 60.7 percent and 63.8 percent.

Guhle didn’t play the right side in junior or ever before, and he’s done well since making the switch, but it is not a long-term decision. It is worth noting that the Canadiens lost Gustav Lindström, a right-shot defenceman, on waivers to the Anaheim Ducks two weeks ago, which at once explains why Guhle has to do this and also justifies all the waiver-based decisions going on (though it does raise the question as to why the Canadiens put Lindström on waivers immediately after the Ducks traded away right-shot defenceman Jamie Drysdale).

But still, when it comes to developing their young players, it seems like making ideal decisions is what the Canadiens should be striving for. Mike Matheson, who was initially Guhle’s partner when he moved to the right side, has played on the right occasionally over his career and didn’t like it. It’s difficult, especially in a league where a half second can be the difference between a successful play and a goal against.

“I thought he adjusted to it really well. That’s not an easy thing to do,” Matheson said Monday. “Obviously his skating, he closes on guys really well. He has a really good stick, but I think it’s just the fact that he’s never kind of out (on the ice) where you notice him for a bad reason. It seems like he’s very consistent that way. It might not be the thing that jumps out, like wow, did you see that highlight reel goal?

“But it’s just he never makes big mistakes, which is very impressive for a young player.”

Guhle doesn’t see this as some sort of development hindrance — quite the opposite.

“For me, I think of it as a learning experience,” Guhle said Tuesday morning. “I don’t know if it’s going to be a permanent thing or something I’ll be doing for a lot of my career, but for now anyway, just try and learn off it. I think it’s a good tool to have in your toolbox and something that maybe down the road, if you play on a Team Canada team somewhere, or something like that, they don’t have space for you on the left and they know you can play the right, so you just play the right.”

It is difficult to draw a line between having Guhle play on the right side even if it’s not ideal and icing a less-than-ideal lineup against the Senators on Tuesday other than to say some consistency in the decision-making would be, well, ideal. Either the present is more important than the future, or the future is more important than the present.

Except for the players on this team, the only thing that matters is the present, and that is the delicate line a building team needs to straddle, especially one that identified a progression up the standings as a priority this season.

Because for your captain to be shocked by a decision that had the future in mind but that hampered the present is less than ideal.

(Photo of Nick Suzuki: Arianne Bergeron / NHLI via Getty Images)

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