The Montreal Canadiens will soon be travelling to Toronto to enter the bubble and begin Phase 4 where they will play one exhibition game versus (vs) division rival, the Toronto Maple Leafs prior to their play-in series vs Sidney Crosby and his Pittsburgh Penguins.
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Currently, the NHL is in Phase 3, which means a shortened training camp in each NHL city. As the clear cut underdogs, the Habs are preparing as best as they can to try and surprise the hockey world and beat the Penguins. The odds are stacked against the Canadiens as the 24th-place, and final, team to enter this year’s play-in style playoffs. After being sellers at this year’s deadline, the Habs will need to rely heavily on their youth if they are to have any chance of winning. Each one of the young players has something to work on and to prove to themselves and the hockey world.
A benefit for the Canadiens is they’re playing with house money. If they win, they add the experience of beating a Stanley Cup contender. If they lose, they have the experience of playing in the playoffs and are entered into the Phase 2 NHL draft giving them a 12.5% chance of winning the first-overall pick in the 2020 NHL draft.
No matter what happens, giving the youth that general manager Marc Bergevin has been accumulating responsibilities in a playoff format will be a key in testing where they currently are in their development while helping them see firsthand what they’ll need to do to compete at the highest level. There are many competing for a roster spot in camp for all positions.
With a young group including veterans such as Max Domi, Jonathan Drouin and Arturri Lehkonen who are all 25 years old or younger, the Canadiens’ have a solid NHL ready core of young forwards, especially at center.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi had a horrible sophomore season but not all of it was his fault. Some even began to label him a “bust,” something that he definitely is not. Since the pause, Kotkaniemi has been working on one of his biggest flaws – his skating. He worked with a skating coach and arrived in camp with some added bulk and an extra jump in his skating speed. He also came in with a new focus and attitude.
“I just pretty much tried to forget everything of what happened during the season and just tried to reset my mind and my body for these playoffs. I’m feeling pretty good right now so hopefully I’m going to be in the lineup when the games start”Kotkaniemi’s newfound perspective is a vital moment for the Canadiens, Arpon Basu, The Athletic, 17 July 2020
During training camp, Kotkaniemi has been running drills on a third line with Lehkonen and Paul Byron, which indicates he will have a chance to return to his former role and provide depth offence. His line, if it remains intact, would be one that has softer defensive responsibilities as they aren’t matched up against Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. Kotkaniemi has a golden opportunity to gain experience and has a second chance to prove he is developing into the two-way top-six center he was drafted to become.
Nick Suzuki started the season as a fourth-line right winger. By the time the season was paused, he was head coach Claude Julien’s second-line center, trusted in defensive situations and on the penalty kill (PK). During the Phase 3 training camp, he is set to be the team’s second-line center again.
Suzuki is strong defensively, especially for an NHL rookie, yet he will have a steep learning curve to play head-to-head against Malkin. He will have an opportunity to watch Danault and learn how to match up against a top center in the NHL. How he fares in that role and how much offence his line can generate will become a key storyline in the play-in vs Pittsburgh.
Jake Evans, a seventh-round pick, spent four full years in the NCAA then two more seasons in the AHL. Thanks to taking the time to develop properly, he is poised to make his transition to a full-time NHL player as a bottom-six center. In his 13 games with Montreal this season, he proved he can be relied upon defensively. He was also strong in the faceoff circle with a 51.8% success rate, placing him second on the team behind Danault.
He has been lined up in training camp on a fourth line, so his role seems to be tied to that line as an energy line that can play 10 to 14 minutes per game. If he can prove himself in this series, it would make Bergevin’s job easier in the offseason as he wouldn’t need to acquire another bottom-six forward.
In this camp, Ryan Poehling has been lineup up as a spare, his role for this series seems to be that of a “black ace” – a player that will play only when injuries call for it. He is still part of the Canadiens’ future but with the center depth the team now has, he may need to shift to the wing. The Canadiens lack a power forward with size that can play in the top nine, so this play-in and training camp could help him show he is capable of playing his style on the wing.
The Canadiens’ top four on defence are already set, with the final roster spots available falling to the third pairing. Brett Kulak looks to be pencilled into the left side, the right side seems to have an open competition for a young player to step up and take for this play-in series.
Alexander Romanov was signed May 8, 2020, to an entry-level contract (ELC) with a start date to be determined, then on July 13, the Habs decided to burn off the first year of his ELC to allow Romanov to enter the bubble and practice with the team.
However, he will not be available to play in these playoffs. What Romanov will gain is the experience of a training camp and the intensity of a playoff, even if just in practice. This experience will acclimatize him to the team and its leadership core, making his eventual transition in the next training camp much easier.
My The Hockey Writers colleague Ryan Sporzer covered Noah Juulsen’s journey and role well here. It’s no secret, Juulsen has had serious injury issues this season. Upon his return from injury, he was only able to play one game in the AHL before the season was paused. Juulsen has something to prove.
I’m only 23, so I have a lot of years left. Being here right now is a great opportunity for me, so I just have to put the work in every day and hope for the best.Noah Juulsen
He will need to continue to play his simple, physical style defence to earn his roster spot. By proving to Julien that he can be responsible in his own zone, make the safe play to transition to offence and take little to no risks, he can earn a spot on that third pairing. His mobility and ability to play on the PK are two skills that can be of great help to the Canadiens moving forward.
Whoever earns the backup role to Carey Price will likely be glued to the bench for the entire playoffs. However, any goaltender that is brought into the bubble could benefit from the added practice time and facing NHL shooters. It can also help showcase that young goaltender to the coaching staff who can help identify points to develop before heading back home for a shortened offseason.
Cayden Primeau is one of the top prospects for the Habs. He has the potential to become an NHL starting goaltender, something no other goaltender in the Canadiens’ system has. This was his rookie professional season and he showed great promise, helping to drag Laval into a playoff race while making his NHL debut with two games (a win and a loss with a .931 save percentage).
Primeau can treat this as an extended development camp before moving back to his offseason training to prepare for his sophomore season where is slated to become the full-time starter in AHL Laval.
Michael McNiven is in the last year of his ELC and as a restricted free agent, he’s battling to prove he deserves a new contract. According to Trege Wilson of The Hockey Writers, McNiven may have the inside track on dressing as Price’s backup.
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He definitely proved he was a team player as he spent the season living out of his suitcase after being sent down from AHL Laval to the ECHL. As the Habs have no ECHL affiliate, he was moving from one team to the next to earn his playing time. He did this without any complaints and entered this training camp focused and ready, even taking Shea Weber slap shots to the head and quickly returning to face him again the next day
The Canadiens began their youth movement in earnest after the deplorable 2017-18 season and fans are starting to see the crop of young talent that Bergevin drafted and traded for finally making its way onto the roster. The odds are against the Canadiens in the play-in series vs Pittsburgh, and the team will do it’s best to try and upset the Penguins. Win or lose, in the long run, this series will be a key development tool for the team’s youth.