The Montreal Canadiens’ Rookie Camp isn’t designed to show off refined prospects, which means these games aren’t as important but to showcase where they are at in the development and what areas need improvement. For some prospects, it gives them professional training camp experience, how to prepare themselves to play at that level, and what they should work on for the future. For others, the tournament is to show they deserve an invitation to the main training camp.
In this tournament, several players demonstrated that they have advanced since last seaso,n while others impressed. A few players made an impact. Here’s what we learned about them.
The Canadiens’ 2022 first-overall pick, Juraj Slafkovsky, was touted as the big, fast, skilled winger who can play with power. In the first game, he showed that he can use his size and speed to generate offence.
He can also attack with the puck in any zone without fear. He can go to the dirty areas, the corners or the slot, and the opposition is unable to outmuscle him or take him off his lane.
Some will point to the score sheet since Slafkovsky isn’t dominating and piling up points. His ability to drag two defensemen below the goal line so they can try to separate him from the puck will prove to be an important skill moving forward as it creates space above the goal line that other skilled players can exploit. In such a short tournament, playing with new players who have yet to even practice together, points are not as important as other aspects of their game. His consistent effort and work ethic were evident in his two games, and that will provide the basis for a young forward to develop his game properly.
Owen Beck didn’t wow anyone with a highlight reel goal or an impressive hit. What he did do was play a complete game with little to no errors. This is the strength of his game: his hockey IQ. Using that, he can read a developing play and choose a course of action, which is why he always seemed to be in the perfect position at all times, be it on offence or defence. That skill set, along with his speed and ability to get the puck to the opponent’s net make him well suited to today’s style of play in the NHL.
If fans are looking for a comparison, they need only look back a few years to when Tomas Plekanec wore a Canadiens sweater. Like Plekanec, Beck plays a solid two-way game, is strong on face-offs, and can be relied upon to fill a defensive matchup role and provide some offence. If he can continue to develop that style of game, he will be a home run pick by the general manager (GM) Kent Hughes’ first NHL Draft.
Despite coming over last season to join the Canadiens’ American Hockey League (AHL) Laval Rocket, Emil Heineman was unable to play due to injuries, thus making this rookie tournament the first time Habs fans were able to see him against North American competition. The 6-foot-1, 20-year-old winger entered the tournament looking rested and prepared. His game is simple yet effective as a straight-line player with an excellent shot, good speed, and the size to compete well for loose pucks and along the boards. It didn’t take him long to get noticed, scoring the first goal of the tournament for the Canadiens’ rookies.
While Heineman is expected to be headed back to Sweden at the end of his time at training camp, he did demonstrate some of the skill set that may have enticed Hughes to ask for him in the Tyler Toffoli trade with the Calgary Flames. He will, however, need to work on developing his defensive game as well as his decision-making skills in the offensive zone to add layers to his game that would make him a quality NHL player.
The Canadiens’ blue line assassin, Arber Xhekaj, entered the rookie tournament looking to prove he deserves a long look at the Habs’ main camp, and he made his case a convincing one. He played to strengths, providing physicality, defensive positioning, and even some mobility that helped moved the puck up ice. While he does need work on puck handling and is prone to take undisciplined penalties, those aspects of the game can be refined. His ticket to an NHL job, however, will rest on his physical play and his ability to play with a mean streak.
In the final game of the rookie tournament versus the Ottawa Senators, he laid several punishing hits, and that drew the attention of the 6-foot-4, 215-pound Zachary Massicotte. The ensuing fight didn’t last long as Xhekaj proved to be too much for the 21-year-old forward-looking to earn a job from the Senators’ organization.
The 2022 edition of the Canadiens rookie camp provided fans with an opportunity to see first-hand the next wave of young players who will be crashing on the shores of the island of Montreal in the coming seasons. While some will arrive sooner than others, it did show that the prospect pool has begun to have the depth necessary for management to build a future on, one that might even include a chance to win the ultimate prize in hockey, the Stanley Cup.