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Canadiens Must Solve Christian Dvorak Conundrum at Center – Hockey Writers – Montreal Canadiens

Montreal Canadiens forward Christian Dvorak isn't a problem per se. The problem is more than the rest of the top players like him in the lower division, who don't move the needle much, all this respects him.

Montreal Canadiens forward Christian Dvorak – (Jess Starr/Hockey Writers)

However, what other possible assessment of Dvorak's play is there, honestly speaking? After scoring five goals and four assists in an injury-shortened 30-game season, the best thing Canadiens fans can say about the guy is that he's easily replaceable, at least on the ice.

Alex Newhook Emerges as Another Option at Center

With multiple injuries down the middle (Dvorak and Kirby Dach) and Sean Monahan being traded before the deadline, the Canadiens were lucky in a way. They were in a position where expectations were low and head coach Martin St. Louis could be creative with his inventory decisions.

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To his credit, fourth baseman Jake Evans scored a respectable 28 points in a full 82-game season with more offensive responsibility, and 1:30 more ice time per game compared to last season. However, the real story was Alex Newhook. He had a breakout campaign at center, where, based on the lines used by the Canadiens to start the season, they saw him as a defensive player on Dach's line.

Of course, then Dach was injured for two games, forcing the Canadiens to turn around. As a result, Newhook was thrown into the fire. St. Louis played him on the floor between Juraj Slafkovsky and Josh Anderson, a line that earned mixed reviews, which is a polite way of saying it couldn't score to save its life, literally. It was eventually disbanded.

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Newhook himself was injured in late November, returning from an ankle sprain while Monahan was sidelined in early February. At the time, there were few options other than giving Newhook another chance at center, and he definitely took full advantage of the opportunity. Before the injury, he had collected 13 points (seven goals) in 23 games. He finished the season with 21 points (eight goals) in his last 30 games.

Overall, Newhook's 34 points in 55 games put him on the same level as Dach last season (38 points in 58 games). Seeing as Dach came out of that season as the Canadiens' second-line center (some see him as the No. 1 center of the future), it's clear that Newhook has the ability to play down the middle.

Canadiens a Crapshoot Below Top Line

Ironically, the problem is that the Canadiens are expected to be again healthy to start 2024-25 to get a shot there. Between Dvorak, Dach, Evans and Nick Suzuki, the Canadiens don't have room for anyone else. What's more, with Joel Armia re-establishing himself as a Top-12 (if not Top-9) forward in the organization after being cut to start in 2023-24, there is absolutely no vacancy. That's especially true if the Canadiens decide to keep eligible, but released Joshua Roy to the NHL next season (and they should).

If the first line of Suzuki, Slafkovsky and Cole Caufield remains the same (and it should), that leaves 11 players vying for nine spots. That's all well and good under certain circumstances:

  • No prospects get spots outside of training camp (can Roy be counted as a prospect).
  • The Canadiens are going with seven defensemen, despite the organizational logjam there.
  • They are comfortable putting one of Josh Anderson and Brendan Gallagher on the fourth line (despite their hitters).

Unfortunately, the last point contradicts common sense and previous knowledge. Although Anderson suffered a terrible season, the Canadiens appear willing to continue to try with him based on his outlook as a unique combination of size and speed. They have tried everything to get him to continue, but to no avail. So, it makes sense, they'll give him a chance alongside Dach.

Newhook should in theory get another spot on the second line. All of a sudden you're eight points ahead and six spots to go and you'd like to believe that Roy is not only in contention but in with a chance to win. That means putting him on the third line, and, since he's enjoyed great success playing with Joel Armia, the latter should be deployed there as well, with Dvorak being the best center in such a situation.

Commercial Case Christian Dvorak

That puts Gallagher and his $6.5 million cap hit, third highest on the team, on the fourth line, which is unlikely, especially since he finished the season as strong as he did. The only logical solution is to take Dvorak out of the equation, take advantage of his early return from injury to trade this offseason (for example).

Such trades can have a positive domino effect on the entire list. Newhook will initially take over as the third-line center. In no time, you can put together the second line of his team at the end of the season, Armia and Gallagher, who replaced the injured Roy there. With Newhook no longer on the true second line, you can move Roy up to play with Dach and possibly Anderson. While Roy will no longer be playing for Armia, playing with a proven play-driving forward in Dach should more than make up for the inconvenience.

On top of everything else, based on the proven power of Dach and Newhook down the middle, it gives the Canadiens two creative second lines (to go and first). Sadly, with the loss of Dvorak, the Canadiens will add to their depth, as they will no longer need to build a perimeter with the remaining parts.

With Armia and Gallagher, Newhook has shown that he can help a line compete as a whole that is more than the sum of its parts. In contrast, Dvorak has spent the past three seasons going from trying to find his spot on the roster to being shelved and back again, without getting any traction. In fact, his points and goal totals have decreased each season. Because of this, with one left under his $4.45 million contract, it is unlikely that he will be re-signed.

The same goes for Armia ($3.4 million). The difference is that Armia just scored 17 new goals. With high expectations heading into 2024-25, the Canadiens should think he still has a lot to offer, and Newhook has made Dvorak obsolete (without the dot, Dvorak has just won 57.8% of his faceoffs to Newhook's 46.5%) . However, it's a safe assumption: Keeping someone with $4.45 million just to take faceoffs isn't usually how successful franchises run their organizations.

Admittedly, that's easier said than done. However, under similar circumstances, to make room for the roster, general manager Kent Hughes traded Mike Hoffman, who had also struggled to fit in with the Canadiens, last season. No one expected Hughes to be able to pull that off, especially with as much grace as he did. So, perhaps a victim of his own success, he should make trading Dvorak a priority this offseason. Whether you pull it off or not remains to be seen, but it will solve a lot of problems. Everyone should at least see that.

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