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Stu Cowan: Canadiens' Joel Armia letting his play do the talking

 Canadiens’ Joel Armia protects the puck from Flyers’ Justin Braun during a November game at the Bell Centre. When Armia decides he’s going to keep the puck, it’s almost impossible to get it off him.
Canadiens’ Joel Armia protects the puck from Flyers’ Justin Braun during a November game at the Bell Centre. When Armia decides he’s going to keep the puck, it’s almost impossible to get it off him.

The Canadiens’ Joel Armia is a man of few words.

Very few.

One of the toughest challenges for Montreal journalists covering the Canadiens on a regular basis is trying to get Armia to say more than a handful of words during an interview. He’s always polite and friendly, but seems very shy.

But Armia hasn’t been shy on the ice this season and has let his play do the talking with 11-6-17 totals in 29 games heading into Wednesday night’s matchup with the Ottawa Senators at the Bell Centre. Armia ranked second in goals on the Canadiens, trailing Brendan Gallagher’s 14, and needed only two more to match his career high of 13 set last season.

The 26-year-old was on pace for 29 goals and is showing why the Buffalo Sabres selected him in the first round (16th overall) at the 2011 NHL Draft when he was ranked fourth among European skaters behind three Swedes: Edmonton Oilers defenceman Adam Larsson, New York Rangers centre Mika Zibanejad and Minnesota Wild defenceman Jonas Brodin.

Ville Touru is a Finnish journalist based in Montreal this season and covering the Canadiens’ Finnish contingent — which includes Artturi Lehkonen, Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Otto Leskinen — and other players from his home country for Ilta-Sanomat, one of the country’s two prominent tabloid newspapers.

Touru says Armia isn’t really shy.

“He’s very calm and he’s thinking his answers,” Touru said in the media lounge between bites of a hot dog during the first intermission Wednesday night. “He’s a really smart guy, but he’s not any kind of showman. But I don’t think he’s shy.”

Touru remembers when Armia was a 17-year-old star in the Finnish Elite League, posting 18-11-29 totals in 48 games with Assat Pori.

“Everybody was writing a lot about him then,” Touru recalled.

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In 2013, Armia helped Assat Pori win the Finnish championship after posting 19-14-33 totals in 47 games. Kotkaniemi, who like Armia is from Pori but is seven years younger, had a poster of Armia on his bedroom wall as a kid. After the 2012-13 season, Armia came to North America, but would play only one game with the Sabres and spent the rest of his first three years in the AHL. He was also traded to the Winnipeg Jets.

At that point, Touru said Armia was ready to go back to Finland.

“He came to North America as a first-line player and a goal-scorer in Finland,” Touru said. “He came here and played on the fourth line. It’s a different game with the smaller rink and everything. It’s taken him some time to get going.”

Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin acquired Armia on June 30, 2018 — along with goalie Steve Mason, a seventh-round pick at the 2019 NHL Draft (defenceman Kieran Ruscheinski) and a fourth-round pick in 2020 in exchange for defenceman Simon Bourque. Coach Claude Julien has given Armia a chance to show what he can do and it’s now paying off.

Armia has the full package of size, strength, skill, speed and shot. You almost wonder if he realizes just how good he can become if he can be more consistent and play with a bit more of an edge. But there’s no doubt he is gaining confidence. When Armia decides he’s going to keep the puck, it’s almost impossible to get it off him and he’s also very good at stealing pucks from the opposition.

“Right now, what he’s shown me is confidence that this year more than last year he’s shown that confidence in wanting to be an even better player and wanting to make a difference,” Julien said. “It’s been … I’m not going to say night and day, because we saw some flashes of him last year. But consistency this year in his play has been much better.”

Canadiens defenceman Ben Chiarot played with Armia in Winnipeg and isn’t surprised to see what the big Finn has been doing this season.

“It’s all a confidence (thing) with him,” Chiarot said after a practice last week. “We kind of came in (the NHL) together a few years ago and you could see right away the skills that he has. The hands … I’ve said for a long time he has the best hands on a guy I’ve ever played with. I think now I see his strength on the puck and his hands combined. He’s the toughest guy to stop one on one in practice, by far.

“Just because he’s so strong and he’s a big guy and he can handle the puck so well,” Chiarot added. “I think he’s one of the most undercover players in the league and I think teams are starting now to realize how good he is and how dangerous he can be. You see him strip pucks all the time from defencemen, kind of like a (Pavel) Datsyuk that way where he can pick your pocket real quick. He’s a great player for us and he’s only getting better.”

scowan@postmedia.com

twitter.com/StuCowan1

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