Top Cheese: September 2018 Edition

TopCheese

Here are a few thoughts on different topics surrounding the Habs’ as training camp is in full gear and the Canadiens are working at making amends for a poor season last year. Feel free to share on Social Media and post your comments as they are always welcomed.

Three exhibition games down, four more to go and while no one should read too much in pre-season results, the fact is that this year is a lot better for fans’ morale than what the team showed at the same time last season when they won two of the eight games they played. So far, they beat the New Jersey Devils and the Washington Capitals, while dropping a game against a veteran-filled Florida Panthers’ line-up. It is exciting to see a bunch of new faces in a Habs’ uniform and the battles for a spot are very interesting to watch as well.

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Let’s get this out of the way immediately: Max Domi deserves to be suspended for a sucker punch on Florida Panthers’ defenseman Aaron Ekblad. It was clear that Ekblad wanted nothing to do with fighting Domi and those putting the blame on the defenseman for “not defending himself” or “not expecting the punch” are way out of line. No, he did not expect it and no, he did not protect himself… nor should he have to. If we can tell Ekblad’s intentions on TV, Domi should have been able to see the same looking into his eyes. Habs’ fans spent years defending Alexei Emelin because he couldn’t fight because he had a metal plate by his cheek and they now blame Ekblad for refusing to fight because of his concussion history? I’m sorry folks but that doesn’t sit well with me.

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Back when he was the NHL’s Vice-President and in charge of discipline, Brian Burke – who loves the rough stuff and fighting in hockey – condemned Tie Domi‘s sucker punch on then bad guy Ulf Samuelsson. “If anyone thinks that it’s an acceptable response to a verbal taunting, I’ve got news for you because it’s not.” Tie received an eight game (regular season) suspension for his action.

This action by Max Domi doesn’t define him as a hockey player or as an individual and people, particularly those who aren’t happy about the fact that Marc Bergevin traded Alex Galchenyuk for him, should not hold that against him or make an early judgment.

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Now on to more positive news. A few  young prospects are doing very well for themselves so far at camp. One of them is none other than the Canadiens’ first pick at this year’s draft, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who seems more and more comfortable as pre-season progresses. In a Cinderella-like story, he scored his first goal in a Habs’ uniform in his first game at the Bell Centre, and while fans are discovering his great skills, he is showing good composure for such a young man. Jokingly (and to rub it in a bit), I posted this after his goal:

 

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Another young man doing things well and drawing praise from everyone is Nick Suzuki, acquired in the Max Pacioretty trade along with Tomas Tatar and a second round pick. He’s showing great composure with the puck and finds himself on the right side of the puck defensively as well. And he’s only 19 folks! Claude Julien likes what he sees of him and you can be sure that he will be given every opportunity to show what he can do before the team makes a decision in his case.

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Last but not least, defenseman Josh Brook has also opened the eyes of many as did Victor Mete at last year’s camp. Not the biggest guy, he makes quick decisions with the puck and plays his angles very well. All of that while wearing number 76, a number which, by the way, was handed to him by the organization, not because he asked for it (so don’t be too quick to hate him). If we go by performances only, he ranks third amongst right-handed defensemen at camp, with only Jeff Petry and Noah Juulsen surpassing him on the right side. Unless the team suffers further injuries, it would be unlikely to see him earn a spot in the opening day line-up but he will be on the radar.

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Jonathan Drouin was flattered to see that he had an “A” on his jersey for the game against the Florida Panthers and he had this to say:

“I want to lead this team … I want to be one of the leaders on the squad.” ~ Jonathan Drouin

When asked after the game if management was sending a message to Drouin by putting an “A” on his jersey, Julien said:

“A couple of things. Jonathan came in this year in much better shape than he was last year and he did a lot of good things during the summer. We’re playing preseason games and those guys, you reward them for those kind of things. Tonight with our lineup I thought he was worthy of wearing an ‘A’ and I wanted him to wear it with pride and play the way we wanted him to play and that’s the reason he got the ‘A’. We’re moving them around. We’ll probably get some new ones tomorrow as we play it game by game.”

You can bet that Drouin appreciated the gesture and that he is slowly but surely taking on a bigger leadership role, even at the tender age of 23. Moved to the wing while Domi was available, he seemed more comfortable.

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Speaking of letters on the jersey, much has been said and written about the vacant spot left by the departure of team captain Max Pacioretty. Who will be his replacement? Do they need to have a captain? Here’s my humble opinion on the topic: Yes, yes they do need a captain. And they have two very solid candidates for the position:

Brendan Gallagher is a born leader. He was captain of the Vancouver Giants in the WHL and has been wearing the “A” on his jersey for a couple of seasons now with the Canadiens. No one will outwork him so he’s a leader by example. And in normal time, I’d say: give it to him.

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Shea Weber should be the team’s next captain.

But when you have a guy like Shea Weber on your team, a Mark Messier Award winner, an alternate captain for Team Canada, former captain of the Nashville Predators for many seasons, you simply cannot pass that along. Weber is not the type to be phased or intimidated by reporters. As a matter of fact, he’s the one who brings the fear of God in them, as did guys like Bob Gainey and Larry Robinson back in the days. And if he stands up in the dressing room, you bet that everyone is listening. In my opinion, he will be the Canadiens’ captain. Whether it’s announced before the season starts or when he’s ready to come back, we’ll see.

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When Marc Bergevin told everyone at the end of last season that there needs to be an attitude change in the dressing room, he wasn’t talking about Weber – who was out with an injury – or about Brendan Gallagher. He wasn’t talking about Paul Byron or even Jeff Petry. Seeing the moves that have been made this summer, the finger was obviously pointed to Pacioretty, who completely folded like a towel when things got tough, and about Galchenyuk whose effort simply wasn’t there.

But something tells me that he wasn’t impressed with his biggest leader, Carey Price, and I’m convinced that he had a long talk with him. Bergevin committed a lot of money in Price and most see him as one of the team’s biggest leaders. But much like Pacioretty, he too seemed to have packed it in early last year. True leaders don’t do that. Look at Jonathan Toews and Connor McDavid. They gave it all in spite of their teams’ lack of success. Bergevin wants Price to have that mentality. He needs Price to be like them… and he will.

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Love him or hate him, Marc Bergevin did extremely well in comparison to his peers in his trades of big name players. When you look at what the Buffalo Sabres received for Evander Kane (conditional 1st, conditional 4th and former 5th round pick Danny O’Regan), and what Don Waddell and the Hurricanes received for Jeff Skinner (2nd, 3rd and 6th round pick and former 3rd round pick Cliff Pu), how can someone not be happy with what the Habs receive for Pacioretty? Getting a 20-25 goals’ scorer in Tomas Tatar, three years younger than Pacioretty and under contract for another three years, former first round pick Nick Suzuki and a 2nd round pick is an excellent return. Further, he convinced George McPhee and the Golden Knights to pick up $500,000 of Tatar’s contract for each year remaining on his contract?

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Then rewind a bit… Many fans are still hurt by the fact that P.K. Subban is no longer in Montreal but the Canadiens received Shea Weber in return! Shea freakin’ Weber! Pierre Dorion probably wishes he could have received a Weber in return for a much, much better defenseman than Subban when he traded his captain Erik Karlsson to San Jose. What did he get? In exchange for Karlsson, the Senators received four players: Chris Tierney (career high 40 points), Dylan DeMelo (bottom pairing defenseman), former 1st round pick Josh Norris and former 5th round pick Rudolfs Balcers. They also got a 1st and a 2nd round pick and if Karlsson re-signs with the Sharks, they get another 2nd round pick. Now if you’re from the school that quantity equals quality, you will like this one but most hockey experts are unanimous in saying that Doug Wilson robbed Pierre Dorion in this one. This trade makes Bergevin look like Sam Pollock!

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So here you have it folks! Your Canadiens are NOT is as bad of a shape as some want you to believe. As a matter of fact, they are in pretty good hands in spite of what those who are still butt-hurt by the Subban trade are trying to make you believe. The future is bright and the sun will rise again tomorrow in Montreal. Enjoy this time of year and hop in for the ride, it will be a fun season! Go Habs Go!!!

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Heavy Competition at Canadiens’ Training Camp

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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.

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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!