What the Puck: Fans wonder whether Habs have Cup-contending first line

Nick Suzuki, Cole Caufield and Juraj Slafkovsky are the strongest line Montreal has had in years, but can they lead us to the promised land?

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With the addition a couple of months back of Juraj Slafkovsky, it became clear the Canadiens finally had what could legitimately be called a first line. That’s great news. But the question now becomes — Is the Slafkovsky, Cole Caufield, Nick Suzuki trio good enough to be the first line on a team that could contend for the Stanley Cup?

I know this outfit won’t be in the playoffs this year and won’t be contending for the Stanley Cup next season, though they could at least make a run for the playoffs. But the Jeff Gorton/Kent Hughes reconstruction is designed to have them become a perennial contender, so it’s fair to wonder if they can go deep in the post-season with Slaf, Caufield and Suzuki leading the charge. From what I heard from fans Wednesday night at McLean’s Pub, the debate isn’t over yet.

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Chris Scott thinks we do have that contending first line.

“Slaf is looking good these days,” Scott said. “There’s a lot of debate about whether Suzuki is a 1C or 2C. But lately, in the past month or so, they’ve looked great.”

But it’s one thing to look good in the regular season and another to shine in the playoffs. So can these three do it?

“Suzuki’s been there, Caufield’s been there,” said Scott.

And we both agreed that though Slafkovsky hasn’t been there, the guy is still a teenager and all signs point to him being the type of player who’ll step it up in the playoffs.

But some still wonder if Caufield, with his size, will be able to keep the scoring coming when things tighten up and toughen up in the post-season.

“I like Suzuki and Slaf but I’m not sure about Caufield yet,” said Brian Lajoie. “The real games are in the playoffs and it’s the playoffs that make me scared. It’s hard for small guys like that to play in the playoffs.”

I think it’s a fair point. The fact is that the 5-foot-8 winger’s goal production is down significantly this season, showing that he is already having trouble scoring at the same pace as earlier in his career. Is that due to his size? Partly. It’s also partly due to the fact that other teams have figured out what he does.

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Caufield had, prior to the game against the Pittsburgh Penguins Thursday night, 19 goals in 56 games. That’s on pace to score around 27 goals this season. Last year, he scored 26 in 46 games, before a season-ending injury. That tally left him on pace to score 46 in a full 82-game schedule.

People counter that he’s now doing other things better on the ice, that he’s better without the puck, to echo coach Martin St. Louis’s favourite expression. And that’s true. His defensive game has improved and he has more assists this season.

For decades now, conservative Habs management hasn’t prioritizes pure offence, but nothing beats scoring goals. Caufield was given an eight-year US$62.8-million contract by Hughes because the GM thought he had an elite goal-scorer on his hands, not a 27-goal scorer.

Others are less worried about Caufield and see a near-ideal first-line to compete for real in the playoffs.

“We have a big talented player who can go into the corners (Slaf), we have a guy who can make the passes and we have an elite scorer,” said Joey Bienvenu. “If we give them a few years, for sure we have a real first line that can do some damage in the playoffs.”

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Marc-André Claveau makes the valid point that the line still has some work to do to become more responsibly defensively.

“They’re the kind of line that when they’re in the offensive zone, they’re good, but they can get stuck in their own zone,” said Claveau. “So I think there’s still some work to do if we really want to have a great first line for the playoffs.”

And that leads to maybe what’s the key point here. Clearly this is a more exciting first line than fans have seen in some time, but perhaps the most important factor here is coaching. It’s all about how far St. Louis can push these three young players to reach their collective ceiling.

“They show flashes of brilliance and it’s showing that the team is coached much better than it has been in the past,” said Dave Lazar. “And I like the fact that I’m finally seeing some patience. Like let this guy play the way he’s supposed to play and see what happens. And it seems to be reaping a bit of reward.”

Indeed it is. Now Hughes and Gorton have to figure out the other lines!

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