Habs Montreal Canadiens Corey Perry Cole Caufield

Return of injured Habs will lead to some difficult decisions

Depth in a lineup is a blessing and a curse.

Marc Bergevin was a busy man throughout the 2020 offseason. After acquiring Josh Anderson from Columbus and Jake Allen from St. Louis, the Canadiens GM also pursued the free agency market, obtaining some more talent in Tyler Toffoli, Joel Edmundson, Michael Frolik and Corey Perry. Along with that, mid-season trade deadline acquisitions included the likes of Jon Merrill, Erik Gustafsson and veteran Eric Staal. Throw in the favourable first impressions of rookies Alexander Romanov and Cole Caufield and you get a team that’s full of new faces — many of whom are hungry for ice time. Unfortunately, there are only so many stalls in a dressing room. And with the playoffs nearly here, tough decisions will have to be made.

Finding a solution to Montreal’s player surplus has not been easy. This season’s NHL COVID regulations required teams across the league to assign players to the so-called “taxi squad,” making it more difficult to make the kind of on-the-fly lineup changes (due to salary cap constraints) we’ve seen in years past. For this reason, both Corey Perry and Paul Byron were sent down to waivers earlier this year, along with defensemen Noah Juulsen and Victor Mete, who were claimed by other teams.

With the recent slew of injuries that include Shea Weber, Carey Price, Brendan Gallagher, Paul Byron and Philip Danault (along with Jonathan Drouin’s leave of absence), depth players have been coming in handy. The biggest story among them of course is the young Caufield, who has already silenced critics with three goals in his first seven games with the club. Coach Dominique Ducharme has also upped the ice time of Jake Evans and goalie Jake Allen, who have proven that they can handle the pressure of a bigger role.

The club’s recent performance (4-6-0) on the other hand has been subpar, to say the least. And the lack of rest due to postponed games is only making it harder to play well consistently. But in Montreal’s defence, most teams would not fare much better with so many core players missing from the lineup.

Luckily there is no salary cap in the playoffs, which will alleviate most of the taxi squad restrictions. And in the event that Caufield remains with the club when injured players return, teammates like Byron, Lehkonen, Evans and Staal will likely be given smaller roles, with some being scratched indefinitely. Deciding who deserves a spot at the highest level is a sport of its own, especially when depth players are outperforming starters. But no matter what happens, one thing is certain: Montreal will be the underdogs in these playoffs. And they will need all the help they can get. Ducharme, who has been tossing the lines in a blender as of late, will have to show some consistency in order to complete an upset. Fortunately, he’ll have a lot of options. ■

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