By Marc Dumont Jul 9, 2018 21
When Matthew Peca signed a two-year contract with the Canadiens on the opening day of free agency, two things came to mind.
The first was his $1.3 million price tag seemed a little high given his lack of NHL experience, and the second is that Peca is a player that constantly made a positive impact at the AHL level for the Syracuse Crunch. It’s a role reversal of sorts, considering the Tampa Bay Lightning are usually the ones pilfering Montreal’s AHL talent.
Peca’s time in the AHL tells a tale of a player who excels in the playoffs, produces a decent amount of offence, and provides energy to his entire team through a relentless effort on the ice. Last season Peca represented Syracuse at the AHL All-Star Game, and his strong work ethic was eventually rewarded with a 10-game stint on the Tampa Bay roster during which he had two goals and three assists.
His AHL success is undeniable, although he hasn’t produced jaw-dropping numbers by any means; in 204 AHL games, he scored 34 goals and had 100 assists. His primary asset is playmaking and of his 33 assists last season, 25 of them were primary assists.
But when given space, he was able to use his accurate release to fool goaltenders. His ability to pick corners is quite evident.
But Marc Bergevin didn’t sign a 25-year-old player at $1.3 million per season just to play in the AHL.
Which leads us to the question, what can he bring to the table in an NHL setting, and where does he fit on the Canadiens roster?
His numbers last season were quite interesting, not only from a raw totals standpoint. He scored five points in 10 games, which is very good, and he did so while averaging 13:40 of ice time per game. To put that in perspective, Peca had 2.19 points per 60 at 5-on-5, compared to the 1.1 points per 60 Jacob de la Rose produced last season.
In fact, almost all his numbers trump De la Rose’s by a wide margin. Considering they may very well be competing for the job of fourth-line centre next season, it’s worth comparing their overall impact.
De la Rose has two things going for him despite Peca’s clear advantage in terms of production, shots, individual high-danger shots, and faceoff efficiency; age and on-ice shot control numbers. De la Rose is also much bigger, although his size advantage hasn’t yielded any sort of tangible on-ice advantage yet.
He is, however, two years younger, meaning there’s still a fair amount of time to grow and become a better hockey player, whereas Peca is 25, which means he should have entered his statistical prime last year.
But when it comes to their shot control numbers, Peca’s slight disadvantage can be explained rather easily. When playing on a line with Alex Killorn and Yanni Gourde, he was excellent. Their relative Corsi For percentage was plus-5.05 percent, and they scored seven goals while allowing zero goals against.
When Peca played with Ryan Callahan, his stats took a massive nosedive. That shouldn’t come as a surprise considering Callahan has had negative relative shot control numbers in eight of the last 10 seasons, with the two positive years hardly cracking the surface of an above-replacement player (0.08 percent and 0.14 percent in 2010 and 2014, respectively).
Peca’s wide variance in underlying metrics supports the theory that unless you’re a Sidney Crosby or Connor McDavid type of player, you’ll have a hard time producing beside mediocre linemates.
Which leads me to believe that with the Canadiens, Peca is better suited to play on a third line, rather than the fourth.
He has speed to burn.
He has the ability to find open ice and score in-tight against the goalie.
He has a very accurate wrist shot that can beat NHL goaltenders.
And he uses his speed efficiently on the forecheck, leading to scoring chances for his teammates.
All things considered, Peca shouldn’t be competing with De la Rose to play down the middle on the fourth line.
He’s faster, scores more, is a better playmaker and his defensive impact is roughly the same.
It should probably come down to Tomas Plekanec versus De la Rose, leaving Peca with more ice time and more opportunities to flourish on the third line with offensive players like Charles Hudon and Joel Armia, while the defensive centres battle it out on the bottom trio.
Goals will be hard to come by for the Canadiens next year, and if the third line doesn’t contribute their fair share, the team will once again find itself near the bottom of the NHL in terms of goals scored.
For $1.3 million per season, Bergevin made a low-risk gamble on a player who may have some untapped potential, but we can’t ignore his age.
In fact, we should probably temper our expectations when it comes to Peca’s overall impact over the course of the next two seasons. Players who suddenly flourish into top six forwards at the age of 25 are few and far between.
Peca could end up being one of those rare players, and everyone I have spoken to has told me that he’s a player who simply needs a few opportunities to truly shine in the NHL. But seeing as we’re working with an incredibly limited sample size of NHL play, the only reason I’m pencilling him onto the third line is the lack of quality centres on this team, rather than his ability to make a significant difference.
But that doesn’t mean Peca can’t make a positive impact. There’s nothing wrong with having quality players in the bottom six of your roster, especially if they show the ability to produce when playing with above replacement-level linemates.
(All statistics are even-strength unless otherwise noted, via Natural Stat Trick)
(Top photo credit: Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images