The Montreal Canadiens will finally begin the on-ice portion of training camp at their team facilities in Brossard on Sept. 22. With them, 74 players will either prepare for their NHL seasons, try to supplant a current roster player or do what they can to be noticed by management to earn a larger role in the team’s plans or earn a professional contract. However, before on-ice sessions at camp could begin, they delivered some bad news to the fans as they announced that newly-named team captain Nick Suzuki (lower-body injury, out for two weeks) and Joel Edmundson (lower-body injury, out indefinitely) will join six others at camp on the injured list.
The main reason for such a large pool of players is that there will be eight pre-season games to play in a short amount of time, and it will be important to provide rest between games to allow practices to occur as well. Despite that large group, there are only a select few openings on the roster that are truly up for grabs.
Canadiens’ Veterans Expectations
While most of the hockey world expects very little from the Canadiens this season in the way of wins, the players and coaches don’t feel the same. As competitors, they have set their sights much higher with Edmundson telling the media that he expects the team to make the playoffs.
Later, when asked the same question about expectations, head coach Martin St. Louis gave a more measured response saying “I don’t know if we’re rebuilding or not. The expectations can change over the course of the season.” While the players say that the team will not tank, the holes in the roster on defense, the transition in goal from Carey Price, and the lack of a proven star forward say differently. The expectations from the fan base however are far different, as they range from the team finishing 32nd overall again, to being competitive in every game, but still, a team picking in the top 10 of the 2023 NHL Entry Draft.
Either way, players must view training camp with the right mindset, and St. Louis will need his first NHL camp as coach to get the players’ minds right. They will need to keep the hope to compete, but they will also need to focus on developing their individual games as well as part of the larger team plan.
Open Competition at Canadiens Camp
There’s going to be some serious competition, not just for any openings but for roles on the roster as well. As camp progresses there will be internal battles for ice time, as noted at the start, there will also be injuries which create a temporary opportunity for other players and prospects.
The biggest area of improvement awaiting attention is on special teams. As camp progresses, St. Louis will no doubt tip his hand on the system he will employ on both the power play (PP) and the penalty kill (PK). Last season, the PP finished 31st in the NHL with a pitiful 13.7%. This is where established NHL players looking to improve their income on their next contract will compete. Cole Caufield, Jonathan Drouin, and Evgenii Dadonov are all in line for new contracts, but only Caufield is expected to get that from Montreal. This area would keep the score in most games close and also help the team be more competitive.
On the PK, while St. Louis will likely rely on his veteran defensive players, it opens the door for younger ones to step in and try their hand at the craft. If they show promise or that they can perform in that role, it could provide them with more ice time, but also give general manager (GM) Kent Hughes the option of trading out a veteran.
At first glance, few positions have an open competition. At forward, with 16 players under NHL contract, it was more likely to be a competition for roles as mentioned above. However, with Juraj Slafkovsky coming into camp as the most recent first overall pick, he will be given an inside lane to earn a top-nine role. The hope was to see him play a preseason game aligned with Suzuki and Caufield, but the injury to the captain means that will not happen. What could be seen however is Kirby Dach moved up into the top offensive role with the two young wingers. If the chemistry is built between Dach and Slafkovsky, that could become a third-line duo to start the season.
The largest open battle will be on defense, specifically on the left side. With Edmundson out indefinitely, that leaves two NHL positions open. The camp will be especially entertaining to watch as Kaiden Guhle, Jordan Harris, Matthias Norlinder, and Arber Xhekaj battle it out for those jobs. The two most likely to win out would be Guhle and Harris as Harris has some NHL experience, albeit only eight games, and Guhle is already seen as NHL-ready but also can play a style similar to the one Edmundson does.
There is also an opening on the right side, someone to fill in a second-pair role, maybe even with some PP time. Justin Barron is the name expected to win that role. His skill set is ideally suited to the desired style of play, and he has a full season of professional experience to his credit, including five NHL games. While Madison Bowey was brought in as depth and could have an outside chance to start the season in Montreal, what could be an interesting twist in the competition for that role is if St. Louis experiments with Harris on the right side. During his time at Northeastern in the NCAA, he played the majority of his ice-time on the right side, and he can also provide the same style of play the Habs are looking for.
For anyone watching the drama unfold at camp, there will be lineups to critique and players to discuss. It will be St. Louis’ job to prepare the Canadiens to be ready to compete on opening night against the rival Toronto Maple Leafs, but his season-long goal will be to provide opportunities for development. There will be ups and downs over the course of camp and expectations will need to be tempered, but for fans, it will be time to watch the progression of the rebuild and enjoy the ride as the young core develops.
Blain is a regular contributor as a THW Writer. For over 7 years he has been a part time journalist and podcaster covering the NHL, the Montreal Canadiens and its affiliates. He has made appearances on various television and radio stations as well as podcasts to discuss the Canadiens, and the NHL. Blain 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 and his goal of being a trusted source of information and entertainment.