Heavy Competition at Canadiens’ Training Camp

KotkaniemiRC

Well here we have it folks. After a busy summer following a disappointing season, Canadiens’ General Manager Marc Bergevin pulled one last rabbit out of his hat by trading disgruntled captain Max Pacioretty to Las Vegas and finds himself with a good hand entering the upcoming season. In a rare September trade in the NHL, Bergevin looks like Sam Pollock with what he received in return, particularly after seeing what the Carolina Hurricanes got for Jeff Skinner and, more recently, what the Ottawa Senators received in return for Erik Karlsson. This last trade should also make Habs’ fans feel a whole lot better about receiving Shea Weber in return for P.K. Subban as well. Now that the pieces are in place, it’s show time!

This training camp promises to be one of the most competitive we’ve seen in many years in Montreal. Bergevin and his right-hand man Trevor Timmins have done a fantastic job at replenishing the pipelines of young, quality prospects and NHL-ready players, who are ready to prove that they belong. Guys at the point in their career where they can’t take their foot of the pedal because others are just as hungry as they are to take their spot… and they’re fully capable of doing it! That’s what is called a healthy competition. This forces players to compete and coach Claude Julien will appreciate that a whole lot.

What’s nice also this year is that there will be some heavy competition at all positions. Yes, even at centre! While Bergevin failed to bring in immediate help at that position over the summer, he and his management team did bring in tons of quality depth in a position of dire need and it could start paying off as early as this year, although it’s more likely to happen in a year or two. Let’s have a look at those battles and see who could come out on top.

IN OUT
Dominique Ducharme J-J Daigneault
Luke Richardson Dan Lacroix
Joel Bouchard Sylvain Lefebvre
Max Domi Max Pacioretty
Joel Armia Alex Galchenyuk
Matthew Peca Kerby Rychel
Tomas Tatar
Nick Suzuki
Xavier Ouellet
Hunter Shinkaruk
Michal Moravcik
David Sklenicka

 

CENTRE

  • AUDETTE, Daniel
  • DANAULT, Phillip
  • DE LA ROSE, Jacob
  • DROUIN, Jonathan
  • FROESE, Byron
  • KOTKANIEMI, Jesperi
  • McCARRON, Michael
  • PECA, Matthew
  • PLEKANEC, Tomas
  • SUZUKI, Nick

From last season:

  1. Drouin
  2. Danault
  3. Plekanec
  4. Froese / De la Rose

Drouin, Danault and Plekanec are shoe-ins. Peca was acquired for the NHL and De la Rose is NHL ready. Froese is in a position to lose his spot from last year, replaced by Peca in the depth chart. In my humble opinion, I would return big Mike McCarron to the wing. Youngsters Kotkaniemi and Suzuki would need the camp of a lifetime in order to crack the line-up this upcoming season, but it would be a mistake to count them out at this point as both have offensive flair matched only by Drouin at that position.

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Newcomers Tomas Tatar and Nick Suzuki

WING

  • ADDISON, Jeremiah
  • AGOSTINO, Kenny
  • ALAIN, Alexandre
  • ARMIA, Joel
  • BITTEN, William
  • BYRON, Paul
  • CHAPUT, Michael
  • DESLAURIERS, Nicolas
  • DOMI, Max
  • GALLAGHER, Brendan
  • HUDON, Charles
  • LEHKONEN, Artturi
  • PEZZETTA, Michael
  • SCHERBAK, Nikita
  • SHAW, Andrew
  • SHINKARUK, Hunter
  • TATAR, Tomas
  • VEJDEMO, Lukas
  • WAKED, Antoine
  • WARD, Joel

From last season:

  1. (Pacioretty) – Gallagher
  2. (Galchenyuk) – Shaw
  3. Byron – Lehkonen
  4. Hudon – Deslauriers

Unlike your traditional media, I prefer talking about a Top-9 forward group instead of a Top-6, particularly in a star-deprived line-up like the Canadiens’. In my humble opinion, they will try to have three balanced offensive lines who can contribute by committee to compensate for their lack of sniper(s). Newcomers Max Domi and Tomas Tatar, acquired in the off-season, are guaranteed a spot on the Top-9, replacing Pacioretty and Galchenyuk. It doesn’t look like Shaw and Byron will be ready to start the season, giving two guys a chance to prove themselves early on. It could look something like this:

  • Domi – Gallagher
  • Tatar – Armia
  • Lehkonen – Scherbak
  • Hudon – Shinkaruk
  • Deslauriers – Addison – McCarron (if moved to the wing)

The organisation is hoping that Scherbak is ready to take the next step. Charles Hudon showed flashes of what he can do and will be looking for more consistency, with the help of his mentor Plekanec, who took him under his wing last season. I kind of like the fact that Armia is flying under the radar for Habs’ fans and media as he will open many people’s eyes this season. People forget that he was third string behind Blake Wheeler and Patrik Laine on right-wing in Winnipeg, and the Canadiens don’t have that quality or right-wingers after Gallagher. Chaput, Agostino, Bitten, Pezzetta and Vejdemo will be pushing hard to make an impression and any of them could very well sneak in there. My personal dark horse is Jeremiah Addison, but I really liked what I’ve seen from Vejdemo and Bitten at rookie camp.

Ouellet
Xavier Ouellet

DEFENSE

  • ALZNER, Karl
  • BENN, Jordie
  • BROOK, Josh
  • DESPRÉS, Simon
  • FLEURY, Cale
  • JUULSEN, Noah
  • LERNOUT, Brett
  • METE, Victor
  • MORAVCIK, Michal
  • OUELLET, Xavier
  • PETRY, Jeff
  • REILLY, Mike
  • SCHLEMKO, David
  • SKLENICKA, David
  • TAORMINA, Matt
  • VALIEV, Rinat
  • WEBER, Shea

Just as it did last season, the absence of Shea Weber will give someone an opportunity to showcase what they can do. At the end of last season, it was something like this:

  1. Reilly – Petry
  2. Mete – Benn
  3. Alzner – Juulsen
  4. Schlemko – Lernout

Only Petry, Alzner and Benn are pretty much guaranteed a spot to start the season. Schlemko has the most to lose as many youngsters are showing signs of being ready to contribute in the NHL, with Reilly and Mete starting a couple of strides ahead of the others. Juulsen did well with Alzner at the end of last year but don’t count out Brent Lernout folks. Rinat Valiev will be pushing hard and we’ve heard a lot of good about the two Czechs Moravcik and Sklenicka. Let’s not forget that Matt Taormina had 52 points in 63 games with the Rockets, finishing second on the team in points! Then you have Xavier Ouellet and Simon Després with NHL experience and lots of talent. That’s a lot of healthy competition and some will likely force the hand of GM Bergevin to trade in order to make room for the most deserving. Yes folks, it will be an improved defense over last year.

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Charlie Lindgren

GOALIES

  • LINDGREN, Charlie
  • NIEMI, Antti
  • PRICE, Carey

Price says that he’s in the best shape of his life and wants to make amend. That doesn’t look good for those trying to put the puck behind him and it’s reassuring to both fans and the team. Yes, the Canadiens signed Niemi, who did well backing up Price at the end of last year, but it would be a huge mistake to count Charlie Lindgren out. He is NHL ready and it wouldn’t be a stretch to see him steal the spot of backup. Although, it’s also possible that even if he beats Niemi to the job, he could start the season in Laval to get more games. It’s the old dilemma: is it better for a goalie to be a backup in the NHL or a starter in the AHL?

Yes folks, the on-ice preparation for the 2018-2019 NHL season is starting and players, coaches, management and fans are chomping at the bit to see what will pan out comes October and who will be in the line-up on October 3rd in Toronto for the season opener. One thing is for sure: the competition will be intense. Enjoy the ride folks, your team will be competitive and will provide an effort unmatched in recent years. Go Habs Go!

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Still Many Reasons for Optimism for The Habs

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The biggest mistake fans and media personalities make every year is to rely too much on the past season’s performances for their assessment of what the upcoming season will bring. While some veteran players can, for the most part, be counted on year in, year out, there are many factors to take into consideration and whether it’s done on purpose or not, too many are being overlooked. Injuries, team chemistry and development are some of the main factors regularly overlooked by most, and are key reasons for disappointing or over-achieving seasons by some players or even some teams.

Much has been said and written about the Montreal Canadiens’ off-season and most hockey “experts” and “not-so-experts” seem to place the Habs at the bottom of the league once again. This negativity is justified by the fact that team GM Marc Bergevin, in spite of address this need through the draft, has failed, once again, to find an immediate solution for his team at the centre position. An aging Tomas Plekanec – who will get to play his 1,000 NHL game in the Habs’ uniform – will bring some much needed depth at that position but he is no longer a top-6 player. It seems like the team will have to rely, once again, on Jonathan Drouin and Phillip Danault to pivot the top-two lines.

The forgotten – or ignored – intangibles are certainly present however. While loaded with skills, the inconsistency and lack of effort by departing troubled-child Alex Galchenyuk has been replaced with a true team-first player in Max Domi, who will bring a Brendan Gallagher-like type of effort, with more skills.

Pundits will also ignore that usually productive goals’ scorer and team captain Max Pacioretty had his worst season since 2010-11 and it’s very unlikely that, at 29, he will continue on such a slump. It’s also very, very unlikely that the NHL will see Carey Price, its best goaltender, allowing over three goals per game and barely reaching the not-so respectable level of .900 saves percentage. Those two alone will account to more wins for the Bleu-Blanc-Rouge for sure and that, in spite of missing a couple of key pieces in their line-up to start the season.

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Carey Price / Max Pacioretty

Last but not least, people tend to forget that young players often do improve from season to season, something a bit mind-boggling to tell you the truth. Here are some of the team’s young players who, with the exception of Pacioretty and Price, should improve over last season based only on the fact that they have gained on maturity and, hopefully, in their development…

MAX DOMI

Much has been said about his goals’ scoring (or lack of there of) by those who were opposed the trade of Galchenyuk but let’s be realistic here: Domi is a great talent. He’s a more talented Gallagher and he has produced at every level. At 23, he’s only a couple of seasons removed from an 18-goals and 52 points rookie season. And you know that this guy will be pulling in the same direction as the rest of the team. My prediction is that he will rapidly become a fan-favourite in Montreal.

JONATHAN DROUIN

Yes, the transition to centre came with bumps and bruises for him, to the point of being unfairly judged as a flop by some of the fanbase, particularly those who hate Bergevin’s guts. But Drouin finished strong, with 20 points in his last 29 games, including a stretch of 13 points in his last 14 games of the season. Would it had been preferable to move him back to the wing? It’s my opinion that yes, Drouin would benefit from playing at his natural position but he has shown that he can improve over last season’s production even if utilized at the centre position.

ARTTURI LEHKONEN

After an 18-goals rookie season, the notorious sophomore jinx appeared to have hit Lehkonen last year, until he too caught fire towards the end of the season. He scored seven of his 12 goals in his last 15 games of the season so everything points into the direction of the 23 year-old bouncing back for the upcoming season.

CHARLES HUDON

One word would, in my opinion, describe Hudon: streaky. Still, in his rookie season, he finished with 10 goals and 30 points, showing good offensive attributes. As he gains in maturity, experience and confidence, he is one of my favourite candidates amongst young players to have a breakthrough season. He has the hands and the nose to the net to make it happen. He reminds me a bit of a former Habs, Christopher Higgins, in his style of play.

JACOB DE LA ROSE

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Jacob De la Rose (right)

We often forget that De la Rose is only 23 years old! Yet at the World Championships in the Spring, he played a key role for Gold medalists Sweden. De la Rose, who was playing in his first-ever tournament as a member of the Swedish senior side, logged 16:32 of ice time in the Gold medal game. That could very well have given him the boost of confidence he needed to take the next step in his NHL career for next season.

MIKE REILLY

Okay, I have a soft spot for Mike, having seen him play for the Penticton Vees in the BCHL. He was, in my opinion, the best defenseman to wear that uniform since none other than Duncan Keith (who was 16 at the time though). I liked that acquisition by the Canadiens from day one and the potential is immense with this guy. I do feel like he can become a good top-4 defenseman in this league and he’s ready to take the next step… given the opportunity.

NIKITA SCHERBAK

This kid impressed from the day he spoke to the media at the draft after the Canadiens made him their first pick. He is excitable and he loves playing hockey. He did suffer a couple of setbacks, injury-wise, but he has the speed, the size and the skills to make an offensive impact in the NHL. I would be very surprised if Scherbak didn’t make the team and, by the same token, provide some much needed offense to a team in desperate need of just that.

JOEL ARMIA

Few know this guy and several downplayed his acquisition. Those people looked at the stats, forgetting that he was playing the wing behind Blake Wheeler and… Patrik Laine! Selected 16th overall by the Buffalo Sabres, Arnia still managed 12 goals and 29 points from his 6’3″ frame. I would not be shocked one second if Armia was the surprise of the year for the Habs.

You will have noticed that I’m purposely leaving out young defensemen Victor Mete, Noah Juulsen and Brent Lernout, all of which could provide a push and force Bergevin to unload some veterans in order to make room for them. Get excited Habs’ fans. Don’t let the Negative-Nancy on the Twitter-universe, radio sports show or garbage newspaper reporters get to you. There are many, many positive news to get anxious about for the upcoming season and we – those who cheer for the logo in front of the jersey – can sign along with the great Anakin Slayd!