Matthew Peca excited for chance to move up Canadiens’ depth chart

MONTREAL— I’m not going to lie, I did a double take when I saw the Montreal Canadiens had signed Matthew Peca to a two-year, $2.6 million contract on July 1.

Sure, this was a team that desperately needed to add centres in the off-season. But signing a five-foot-eight, 25-year-old who had 20 games of NHL experience to a one-way, two-year deal seemed like a borderline foolish decision to me.

Three months later I was sitting at the Bell Sports complex in Brossard, Que., watching Peca take his first strides in a Canadiens uniform, when a feeling of déjà vu washed over me.

It was on the eve of the regular season in 2015 that a much deeper Canadiens team put in a waiver claim on 26-year-old Paul Byron; an unexpected move that had most every Canadiens fan rushing to Google just to see who the player was. And the initial reaction to Montreal’s decision was a universal dismissal of Byron’s ability, which was only reinforced when head coach Michel Therrien made him a healthy scratch to start.

No one envisioned Byron could be more than fourth-line contributor with the Canadiens—until they watched him play. Now he’s a middle-six forward who’s hoping to breach the 20-goal mark for a third straight season, playing for a new contract as his three-year pact with the team is set to expire in July.

I can’t say whether or not Peca will have the same type of impact with the Canadiens as Byron has, but I can tell you that my first reaction to watching him skate with the team was that it wouldn’t surprise me if he does. It’s a feeling that’s only grown stronger since watching him scrimmage on Sunday, and one that I think a lot of Canadiens might have when they watch him play his first exhibition game against the Florida Panthers at the Bell Centre on Wednesday.

I don’t believe people around the NHL will be too surprised to see Peca succeed, either.

Peca’s agent, Jay Grossman, told Sportsnet 15 teams expressed interest in his player when the free-agent negotiation window opened in late June. According to him, one team offered more money on a shorter-term deal.

But the security Montreal offered—and the opportunity to move up their depth chart—was too good to turn down for a player that had been buried on a Tampa Bay Lightning team overflowing with natural centremen.

Peca, who led the unheralded Quinnipiac Bobcats to two ECAC titles and brought them to within one win of an NCAA championship, had been stuck in the mud with the Lightning. He showed well in his 20 games spread out over two seasons, scoring three goals and seven points with limited ice-time and opportunity, but jumping over the likes of Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point and Tyler Johnson wasn’t going to be in the cards for him.

“I think I had it in me to make that team and for whatever reason they went in other directions,” said Peca on Sunday. “I thought it was time for me in my career to move on and maybe go somewhere where there’d be more opportunity, and now I hope I can make the best of it here.”

He’s gotten off to a great start in that quest, scoring a goal in the intra-squad scrimmage by beating goaltender Charlie Lindgren to a loose puck and cruising his way to the net to tap it in.

He was consistently dangerous throughout the game, particularly so on one sequence when he showed off his dizzying speed and silky hands by deking his way through three defenders for another great scoring chance.

There’s grit to Peca’s game, too. He’s not afraid of the dirty areas of the ice, from which he’s scored the bulk of his 34 goals and 134 points in the AHL.

And though it may not be what he’s known for, he can shoot the puck.

In a dream world, Peca turns into the next Jonathan Marchesseault, the diminutive centre who went on to become an elite point producer with the Florida Panthers and Vegas Golden Knights in successive seasons after being pushed out of the same logjam in Tampa Bay.

But if he turns out to have a similar impact to the one Byron has had with the Canadiens, that’ll be ideal, and I won’t be the only one having to offer up an apology for my initial reaction to his signing.