3 Storylines to Watch at Canadiens’ 2022-23 Training Camp

With the rookie camps and tournament complete, the Montreal Canadiens’ main training camp will open, and with it, a new season has officially arrived. The 2022-23 season will be the first full season under the new management team, but more importantly, the first complete season under the leadership of head coach Martin St. Louis. Under his guidance, the Canadiens re-awakened last season, becoming a competitive team again. Due to such a horrible first half of the season, however, he was unable to lead the Habs out of the NHL’s cellar.

This fall, there will be many storylines worth following beyond watching the eight preseason games. Some will dominate the media coverage, while others will go almost completely unnoticed; however, all of them will be worth paying attention to.

Canadiens Veterans

There will be veteran players that fans will want to see integrated into St. Louis’ system. Mike Matheson is one. How the left-handed puck-moving defender will fit in is a storyline on its own. Coming off of a career season with 31 points with the Pittsburgh Penguins, he will be considered a de facto top-pairing defender.

With the rebuild in full swing, it is time for the general manager (GM) Kent Hughes to begin offloading veterans, especially those on expiring contracts. However, their contracts may carry a significant cap hit, but these players also haven’t been performing as well as expected.

The obvious veteran here is Jonathan Drouin, but Mike Hoffman also has something to prove. He arrived last season expected to improve the Canadiens’ power play (PP). That didn’t happen, and there are still two seasons left on his three-year deal worth $4.5 million. The 32-year-old winger will need to improve his production if he hopes that a contending team sees him as worth trading for.

Mike Hoffman Montreal Canadiens
Mike Hoffman, Montreal Canadiens (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The exception is the forgotten Hab, Evgenii Dadonov. Coming off of a 20-goal season, he may be the most valuable veteran trade asset worth moving when training camp begin. He will likely be placed in an offensive role to help him produce to add value. While he most likely will be traded at the deadline.

All Eyes on Canadiens’ Youth

Once camp kicks off, players like Kaiden Guhle, Jordan Harris, Justin Barron, and Jesse Ylonen will be in an all-out battle to earn an NHL roster spot for opening night. One young player whose story will have a major impact on how the season unfolds is Kirby Dach. In his case, he is in a battle for which role he will earn. Will he be a top-six centerman, or will he be shifted to a third-line role with minimal PP time? At only 21 years of age, he has yet to reach his potential, and with a fresh start after being traded to Montreal, he will be motivated to prove he was worth the four-year deal he signed in early September.

Related: Canadiens Rookies Impress at 2022 Rookie Tournament

The biggest story, pun intended, will be the play of 2022 first-overall pick, Juraj Slafkovsky. He will likely start the season with the Canadiens. However, there are no guarantees. Throughout camp, who he will be paired with will be a sign as to what role management expects of him. While the hope is he plays with Nick Suzuki, which may happen at some point in the pre-season, it is more likely he will be paired with a center expected to play lower in the lineup, such as Christian Dvorak. But Slafkovsky’s performance will dictate each decision, and he has set the bar high for himself.

 “I want to dominate”

-Juraj Slafkovsky (from “’I want to dominate,’ Canadiens’ Slafkovsky says of rookie tournament,” Pat Hickey, The Montreal Gazette, 15 Sept 2022)

Realistically, he will need time to adjust to NHL competition but also adjust to playing alongside others who can match his skill level. In the past, he was the “go-to guy” and needed to be to drive the play. Now, he doesn’t need to be. He will need to adjust and learn to stop trying to do everything, learn to rely on his teammates and trust they can help him. Once he does that, it will all fall into place. It would be unrealistic to expect him to fully adjust during one training camp, but any steps towards that will be part of the story for him moving forward.

Canadiens’ Special Teams Concepts

The PP concepts and how they will deploy players will be a factor. With the depth of offensively capable forwards, it wouldn’t be out of the question to see a five-forward PP. Just having a fresh start may be enough to kick the team’s woeful PP into gear. The Canadiens’ improvement in the second half of the 2021-22 season under St. Louis was no mirage.

Martin St. Louis Montreal Canadiens
Martin St. Louis, Montreal Canadiens head coach (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

There were significant steps forward in the team’s overall game. On special teams, there was a slight shift in philosophy, not so much in the system deployed, but in the personnel used. The PP is the better example as St. Louis began to use Cole Caufield in a shooter’s role on the top unit. In 37 games, his point production of 13 points meant he ended up factoring into 39% of all PP goals over the entire season. Just this adjustment alone could mean a significant improvement for a PP in desperate need of help. Yet, his development will still be the main goal of the season.

“I don’t like to lose, but do I want to win in the short-term mindset goal, so to speak, at the price of not developing the young guys that are going to help you win for years? No. I don’t want to risk that. I want to have the young guys, the prospects, the players that are here now reach their full potential.”

– Martin St. Louis (from “Canadiens St. Louis places focus on winning, development,” Montreal Gazette, 1 June 2022)

On the penalty kill (PK), there will be growing pains as the young defencemen and forwards are being groomed to fill these roles. It won’t be a surprise if St. Louis does rely more heavily on his veterans such as David Savard and Joel Edmundson to do the heavy lifting in this area. The storyline here will be to see if the Canadiens adopt the more aggressive puck pursuit style of PK used by successful teams. If they do, it may be a good fit for the young players in the lineup, who all boast speed, mobility and size.

Overall, the 2022-23 Canadiens training camp will be where fans look for a vision of the future. Being the first time the new management’s plans can be put into use. They will have the coaching staff that fits their vision, supported by a newly added player development department to focus on individual players and skills. Also, they will have access to an analytics department that will be able to quantify parts of the game that the staff feels are important and can work in conjunction with development. The rebuild is in full swing, and the storylines that develop at this camp will give a window into the team’s future.

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