Montreal Canadiens training camp is nearly complete. There is one preseason game remaining on Oct 7th versus the Ottawa Senators. While game outcomes in the preseason mean nothing in the standings, a team being blown out, even if the roster is half-filled with American Hockey League players supported by a few NHL-level players like Brendan Gallagher, will never reassure a fan base.
Despite a Stanley Cup Final appearance last season, it’s clear the Canadiens are still in the retooling phase as they aren’t considered contenders yet. Even so, the team is still trending upwards from the cellar that they began in.
This training camp is a pivotal one for the Habs as they must have a good start to their season if they hope to earn a playoff spot in a very tough Atlantic Division. Here are three takeaways from training camp that may help or hinder that start.
Canadiens Training Camp Takeaway 1: Few Openings, Few Takers
Despite the losses from last season’s roster at center in Phillip Danault and Jesperi Kotkaniemi as well as on the blue line with the injury to team captain Shea Weber, there weren’t many NHL jobs available for new arrivals or prospects. There were really only two spots available for the taking on the roster, one being a bottom-six center, the other a bottom pair defender.
Even though there were few openings, there was no one that came into camp and proved they deserved these jobs with an impressive camp. The center job will be explained below, on defence, however, the battle started with Mathias Norlinder, Brett Kulak and Chris Wideman. The Canadiens’ blue line needed to add mobility as a balance for its big-bodied stay-at-home defenders, and all three added that aspect. Norlinder was going to be a long shot at this camp as Alexander Romanov was going to be given a larger role. Head coach Dominique Ducharme has signaled his need for mobility and veteran leadership by creating multiple pairs with a young mobile player with a veteran.
From the camp so far, no one has stolen a job or moved up the depth chart as Norlinder is likely to return to Europe for one more season and Kulak and Wideman will likely battle all year for that third pairing role. There will be added pressure on Romanov to take the next step in his development as it will be necessary if the Canadiens’ blue line is to remain at least as effective as it was last season when it finished 18th in the NHL in goals allowed.
Takeaway 2: Poehling
At center, the competition was down to Jake Evans, Ryan Poehling and Cedric Paquette. The competition was which two of these three would get to fill out the roster. Evans had all but one spot guaranteed as he had been a trusted member of last season’s club and was signed to a three-year extension this week.
This left the competition between Poehling and Paquette. Paquette has a Stanley Cup ring and is known as a good bottom-six player that brings energy and speed. Yet, to Ducharme’s credit, Poehling has been given every opportunity to seize the center role.
“We’re getting our answers, that’s what we’re saying, the longer you go, the answers become more clear”– Dominque Ducharme (Dominique Ducharme’s plans for the Canadiens were based on an ideal world that is looking unrealistic, Arpon Basu, The Athletic, 06 Oct 2021)
In this camp, Poehling has shown glimpses of his potential as his underlying advanced stats look strong, creating a positive difference in high danger chances with 11 for and 7 against while controlling possession with a 53.41 CF%, all while having a majority of zone starts in the defensive and neutral zone. He has also won 58.49% of his faceoffs. However, the eye test has shown that he has lacked a consistent aggressive approach in his game.
Takeaway 3: Canadiens’ Prospects Aren’t Being Rushed
In the past, young players would be rushed into the NHL to fill gaps in the NHL roster. There has been more than a few arguments on message boards and social media about the development of Victor Mete and Kotkaniemi and if they were rushed, or if they had earned their positions.
However, at least as of this season, that won’t be the issue with the young players arriving at camp. With a roster that has very few roster spots up for grabs, this camp provided the new wave of prospects more of an opportunity to gauge where their development is currently at instead of showcase their skills for a job.
One example is Poehling, who, after a great season in the AHL last year, management is allowing the young center to provide a body of work in this camp to show if he belongs or needs more development time. This is a stark departure from how prospects were handled in the past. A slow start or a single poor showing would have killed any chance, but instead, he is provided with every chance to prove his worth. In his case, if he is sent back to the AHL for more seasoning he will have a much clearer view of what he will need to improve upon to make the NHL leap.
General manager Marc Bergevin filled the roster with inexpensive veteran depth players on one-year deals. This was his way of ensuring the roster would have serviceable NHL players while the youth showcase themselves. A player like Mathias Norlinder who was arriving from Europe had the opportunity to come in and take a job, but if he proved unable, there was an option to fill the bottom of the lineup. In a case like this, it also increased the internal competition for the job. Signing the depth veterans can also be seen as an implied acknowledgement that the Canadiens are focussing more on the future and giving their prospects more time before they are thrown into the NHL fire.
Players like Kaiden Guhle, Jan Mysak and Jesse Ylonen were able to demonstrate their level of NHL readiness and provide them with a clearer path of what they need to continue to work on. Some players need more work, some very little. But this camp, for them, was about showing if they are ready to take the next step.
This camp wasn’t one that displayed many surprises as the depth chart was essentially unchanged. However, there is hope in the future with young players who showed they are close, and also, that management is not rushing their development. None of that will help this season’s playoff hopes in a very deep Atlantic Division. This camp proves that the Habs will need to show resilience, play the team system with more confidence and have some luck if they want to earn a playoff position.
Blain is a regular contributor as a THW Writer, and for over 7 years he has been a part time journalist and podcaster covering the NHL, the Montreal Canadiens and it’s affiliates. He has been a contributor for various other websites and publications working as a staff writer and freelance journalist. For over 7 years, he has been a trusted source due to his goal being to keep hockey fans entertained and informed with the most credible information available. He has made appearances on various radio stations and podcasts to discuss the Canadiens, and the NHL. He has taken the lessons on integrity, ethics, values and honesty that he has learned as a 28 year veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces and applied them to his work as a journalist to guide him in informing his readers.