Pat Hickey: Mid-season hockey musings

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Some thoughts as the NHL season reaches the halfway mark.

The Canadiens’ most valuable player this season has been a defenceman: Mike Matheson. The Montreal native is one of the NHL’s leaders in time on ice and his willingness to lead the rush makes him a perfect fit in coach Martin St. Louis’s philosophy. The Canadiens lead the league in goals by defencemen but they rank 28th in offence, which means guys up front haven’t been pulling their weight.

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Captain Nick Suzuki is leading the team in scoring for a third consecutive season but gets our nod as the most improved player. His work in the faceoff circle is one of the reasons why the Canadiens rank fifth in faceoff percentage. He’s more willing to shoot the puck and is stronger on defence.

Cole Caufield’s goal production is off. The good news is that he is getting chances — he’s in the top 20 in shots on goal — but Florida’s Matthew Tkachuk is the only player in that group with a lower shooting percentage. Caufield may be dealing with the effects of the shoulder injury that sidelined him for the second half of last season and goalies may have a better read on his tendencies.

The third player on the top line, Juraj Slafkovsky, had a slow start but he has learned to use his size and skill and he is proving that he is an NHL player.

The absence of Kirby Dach, Alex Newhook, Rafaël Harvey-Pinard and Christian Dvorak makes it easier for defences to concentrate on the top line and the lack of depth filters through the other lines, affecting players like Sean Monahan and Jake Evans.

Monahan has been one of the team’s top goal-scorers and the most consistent faceoff man despite not having much support on the wing. The Canadiens should think about keeping him unless they get a mega return at the trade deadline.

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The biggest surprise has been the emergence of rookie Jayden Struble on defence. His solid two-way play is the reason why Arber Xhekaj is stuck in the minors and why the Canadiens could afford to lose Gustav Lindström, who was claimed off waivers by Anaheim this week.

And GM Kent Hughes has to get rid of one of the three goaltenders. Carrying three goaltenders doesn’t allow St. Louis to go with the hot hand and it doesn’t allow any of the three to find his rhythm. None of the three has played more than two consecutive games.

Montreal celebrates a third period goal by Marie-Philip Poulin #29 against New York during PWHL action at UBS Arena on January 10, 2024 in Elmont, N.Y. Photo by Bruce Bennett /Getty Images

Poulin on fire: Montreal’s other professional hockey team, the as-yet unnamed Montreal franchise in the Professional Women’s Hockey League, wrapped up a season-opening three-game road trip with a 5-2 win over New York Wednesday at UBS Arena.

Marie-Philip Poulin had a hat trick as Montreal improved its record to 2-1 heading into Saturday’s home opener against Boston at Verdun Auditorium (3:30 p.m., CBC, Radio-Canada).

Boston Bruins head coach Jim Montgomery points from the bench
Boston Bruins head coach Jim Montgomery. Photo by Steven Senne /AP

Encore for Monty: Montreal native Jim Montgomery received the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s coach of the year after he led the Boston Bruins to a record 132 points last season, but he may be doing an even better job this season. He has the Bruins in first place in the Atlantic Division despite the loss of Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci.

Toronto Maple Leafs' William Nylander waits for a faceoff
Toronto Maple Leafs’ William Nylander. Photo by Darryl Dyck /The Canadian Press files

What are the Leafs thinking? Toronto signed William Nylander to an eight-year contract extension with an annual cap hit of $11.5 million a season. The Leafs figured they had to lock up their leading scorer, but the deal means that Toronto will continue to be up against the cap and will have no money to address their two greatest needs: defence and goaltending.

The Leafs currently have 57.5 per cent of their payroll tied up in five players: Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, Nylander and defender Morgan Rielly.

The salary cap will increase by $4 million next season. But that boost won’t cover raises for Matthews, whose cap hit jumps from $11.64 million to $13.25 million, and for Nylander who makes a huge jump from just under $7 million to $11.5 million.

The Leafs have only three defenceman under contract for next season and the only goaltender with a contract going forward is rookie Joseph Woll, who is currently out with an ankle injury.

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