Canadiens think Ales Hemsky could be a ‘nice surprise’

MONTREAL—It may not be where Ales Hemsky sticks, but there’s a sound reason for why he’s started off training camp on what would have to be considered the Montreal Canadiens’ top line.

Plain and simple: The Canadiens want to know if Hemsky can take advantage of playing with top-flight offensive producers like Jonathan Drouin and Max Pacioretty.

There was a time when Hemsky was nearly a point-per-game producer at this level, but that was almost a decade ago, and the injuries the 34-year-old has endured since have naturally inspired doubt that he could still be a productive player.

Even Hemsky wasn’t sure what he was capable of anymore after a right hip injury all but obliterated his 2016-17 season.

"I was doubting, [wondering] if this is the end," he said on Saturday, reflecting on his time rehabbing from the surgery he underwent following the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.

But he had benefited from the experience of having surgery on his left hip a few years prior and turned what would’ve been a six-month recovery for just about anybody into a four-month one. Hemsky returned to the Dallas Stars lineup on Mar. 2, and he found a way to score four goals and add three assists in 14 games between then and the end of the regular season.

"That was important for me, to just prove to myself I’m ready and I can play," Hemsky said. "That [14] games was huge for me to come into the summer and train again and just be happy about myself and get the confidence up."

Hemsky, right, played for the Czech Republic in the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. (Mark Blinch/CP)

His confidence appeared to be in fine form as the Canadiens took to the ice at the Bell Centre Sunday for an intra-squad scrimmage.

On the very first shift Hemsky forced a turnover off Karl Alzner’s stick and came very close to slipping the puck through Carey Price’s legs to open the scoring.

On another sequence he interrupted a breakout in the offensive zone and started a cycle that led to a dangerous opportunity for Drouin.

In the second half of the game he stripped a puck off Jeff Petry and set Pacioretty up for a one-timer in the slot.

It wasn’t a seamless performance. There were shifts where Hemsky lagged; his reaction speed appeared a tad slow and a few of his passes missed the mark.

But at the other end of the ice he was fairly reliable. There he was breaking up a nice rush by Phillip Danault, covering defenceman Joe Morrow, who had stepped up at the line to apply some pressure. He showed his composure by patiently waiting in the shooting lane, corralling a blocked shot and starting the rush the other way. And he was generally well-positioned throughout.

"I just want to play responsible hockey," Hemsky had repeated several times on Saturday. "I want to help those two guys score a lot of goals, but in another way I want to play the same hockey I played in Dallas. I want to play responsible hockey and not go back to that just offensive mindset [where you] make a lot of mistakes. I think that’s behind me."

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That’s all well and good, but he was signed by the Canadiens to help replace some of the scoring lost when Alexander Radulov left the team and signed a five-year deal with the Stars.

Drouin sees a player capable of doing exactly that.

"He’s smart," Drouin said. "There’s no panic in him. I’ve seen that when I played against him. He doesn’t panic when he gets the puck, he tries to make plays. [He’s a] very smart player. I think he has a lot of skill. Had a lot of injuries in the past, but you definitely see the hands in practice. So far so good."

Health will be a determinant. It hasn’t always been an uphill battle for Hemsky in that regard, having appeared in 151 of 164 games from 2014-2016 before deciding the wear and tear on his right hip required a fix last season.

"He’s in very good shape right now," said Canadiens coach Claude Julien in French. "We think he could be a nice surprise. If that’s the case, it’s going to help us tremendously—to the point that we are in need of wingers who can produce like’s he’s capable of producing."

To that end there’s no harm in starting Hemsky off with a couple of players who can help him prove he can still do that.