What the Puck: With addition of Juraj Slafkovsky, Montreal now has a first line

With linemates Cole Caufield and Nick Suzuki this could be the No. 1 trio to take us through the decade.

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The Canadiens actually have a bona fide first line.

You’re probably saying: ‘Yeah, so do many other teams.’ And you’d be right. But the Habs have spent much of this century in search of a first line that actually can be called that without us all snickering.

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Remember the infamous Guy Lafleur quip, somewhere in the midst of the hellish Marc Bergevin years?

“There’s no first line, second line, third line. I think they have four fourth lines,” said Lafleur, a fellow who was seldom shy about criticizing the team that was his home during his glory years.

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OK, so The Flower was being a bit harsh, but he wasn’t totally wrong. In the past, the Canadiens kept naming people No. 1 centre when they simply weren’t real No. 1 centremen. Saku Koivu was a great all-heart player, but he wasn’t the top-line centre who could take you to the Promised Land.

Scott Gomez most certainly wasn’t. David Desharnais? Please. But Nick Suzuki is. He now has 12 goals and 34 points in 38 games this season and that’s playing on a team that’s notably short on scoring, and with his wingman Cole Caufield not scoring like he used to.

Not that folks are down on Suzuki, but the captain doesn’t get nearly the praise he deserves for his consistently high-calibre performance. He has 87 goals and 243 points in 329 career games over four-and-a-half seasons. That doesn’t make him the best centreman in the league, but he’s mighty good at the position. That’s something you couldn’t say about a Canadiens player since Pierre Turgeon was traded by Réjean Houle in 1996 after only one season with the CH for reasons not understood by anyone except Reggie.

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The real reason the first line has come together is the arrival of Juraj Slafkovsky on the right wing. Suzuki, Caufield and Slaf have been together for about a month now and, during that time, the Slovakian winger’s play has improved dramatically. His best game of the year was arguably that nail-biter of a 4-3 win over the Stars in Dallas on Tuesday.

That was an awesome game for the Slafanator. He muscled along the boards to get the puck and made a beautiful pass to set up Suze’s one-timer, On Caufield’s goal, the crucial play was Slafkovsky keeping the puck in the O Zone. He is the real deal. Not a star maybe, but a good power forward to be.

Caufield is the member of the trio I’m the most worried about. Yes, the diminutive right-winger scored goals in three consecutive games at the end of the lengthy road trip, but he still doesn’t look anything like the sniper who put the puck in the back of the net 26 times in 46 games last season. I believe in Caufield, but there’s something wrong with the picture right now. He still has a respectable 27 points in 38 games, but if he ends the season with just over 20 goals, that’s gotta be considered a disappointment.

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The best news is Suzuki and Caufield are both signed to long-term deals and, presumably, Slafkovsky will be as well. So this could be a first line that could take us through the decade. That’s kind of cool.

Canadiens Jake Allen looks behind him at the puck in the net after Sabres scored during the second period.
Canadiens Jake Allen looks behind him after being scored upon by Sabres’ Jeff Skinner during second period Thursday night at the Bell Centre. Photo by John Mahoney /Montreal Gazette

A goalie threesome: Having three goalies was a disaster and a distraction back in the 1985-1986 season — until a young fellow named Patrick Roy nabbed the top job — and it’s as much of a disaster and a distraction in the 2023-2024 season. It’s time for it to end.

And there’s a simple solution. You tell Jake Allen ‘thanks so much for your faithful service’ and you finally give Samuel Montembeault the No. 1 designation with Cayden Primeau serving as his back-up. The team recently signed Monty to a three-year, $9.45-million contract extension, which clearly makes him your guy between the pipes. And Monty is playing like a hot No. 1 dude. Did you see him Tuesday in Dallas? Unreal. So why are they still fooling around with this three-goalie carrousel?

When I say this, people keep saying: ‘Yeah, but they have to showcase Allen so they can trade him.’ That’s absurd. The 31 other GMs know full well who and what Allen is. If they want him, and someone will in the coming weeks, all they have to do is call Kent Hughes. Plus, let’s be real here. You are not going to get a king’s ransom for a 33-year-old back-up netminder with a 3.52 goals-against average.

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