BROSSARD, Que.— One week into Montreal Canadiens training camp, a compelling competition is taking shape at both ends of the roster.
For a team that made it a point of emphasis to get younger and faster one year ago, there are several candidates knocking on the door to help them advance that agenda. Many of them are showing well so far.
Here are some notes on what we’ve seen from those players — and a couple more on the team in general as we get set for the second week of training camp.
Participating in your first NHL training camp can be a sobering experience, even for a highly-touted goaltender like Cayden Primeau, who faced shots from some of the league’s best players as a member of Team USA at the world championships last May.
Asking his father, Keith, a veteran of over 900 NHL games split between the Detroit Red Wings and Philadelphia Flyers, what he had heard from his son after his first day on the ice opposite Carey Price and some of the Canadiens’ top players, the answer we got reinforced that reality.
"I think people have the potential to lose sight sometimes of how young these players are," Keith said. "Cayden just turned 20. As much as I like say he’s very even-keeled and his temperament — he’s got such a great disposition — there’s still a lot of nervous energy there. After the first day of practice, he texted me, ‘Terrible.’ One word. Then it was, ‘Well, I started out good, but then a couple go by and it just became overwhelming. There’s a lot of things to work on.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, there’s an adjustment period.’
"So it’s easy to lose sight about any of these kids who are 18, 19, 20 years old. They’re confident players, they always have been, but even Jesperi Kotkaniemi, for example, Ryan Poehling, Nick Suzuki — they’re young. They’re men, but they’re young, and there’s just so much upwards movement for them before they’re fully developed. I know that excites people, but you just hope they don’t race to get to that point."
It’ll be a long road for Primeau, who hopes to see a lot of action with the American Hockey League’s Laval Rocket this season.
The good news is, Primeau didn’t appear overwhelmed at all on Monday, when he registered a 4-2 win over the New Jersey Devils in his NHL pre-season debut.
Josh Brook, on the other hand, did.
After he was placed on a defence pairing with presumed top-six lock Brett Kulak at the beginning of camp, it wasn’t a stretch to suggest Brook was starting with a leg up on the competition. It was a test, no doubt. A show-me-you-can-handle-it assignment that, with his talent, he should be capable of handling.
But Brook started nervously in Monday’s game before settling into his puck-rushing, puck-moving style in the third period.
On Thursday, he’ll get another chance to show what he can do when the Canadiens welcome the Florida Panthers to the Bell Centre for their third game of the exhibition schedule.
What does Canadiens coach Claude Julien want to see from him?
"It’s just maybe showing us that he can be a solid, good defenceman," Julien said after Thursday’s morning skate. "We don’t expect him to be a real physical player, but defend well, move the puck well. Just the whole package, I would say. Josh excels in the offensive part of his game. But, at the same time, those players that play that way are also good with their sticks at defending and positioning and all that stuff. So just to see if the second game gives him the opportunity to be even better."
One player who’s shown really well through the first two exhibition games is defenceman Cale Fleury, who was taken 31 picks after Brook was in the 2017 Draft.
Xavier Ouellet, who spent a large portion of last season as Fleury’s partner in Laval, had some good thoughts on the progress we’ve seen there. He said it boils down to what he sees in Fleury’s character.
"He’s a really good kid," Ouellet said. "He’s a student of the game, he loves learning, he listens, he’s easy to coach and he’s easy to play with. These are great qualities. I think the whole season last year in pros kind of shook him up in a good way, showed him a bit of what it takes, and he took it on and had a good summer of training and he looks good physically and is playing well."
Julien also likes what he’s seen from Fleury.
"He certainly doesn’t seem intimidated," the coach said. "He’s thrown some big hits, he’s made some good plays, he’s skating well, moving the puck quick. He’s had two solid games. Again, we have to say that we’re happy with what we’ve seen. But, at the same time, like anybody else, as camp progresses and the teams get a little better we’ll be able to continue to evaluate him in much tougher situations. But he’s certainly, so far, been very good for us."
On Wednesday, playing in Bathurst, N.B. on a line with Riley Barber and Nick Cousins, 20-year-old Ryan Poehling flashed some of the same brilliance he showed in his tear-the-roof-off-the-Bell-Centre debut at the end of the last season.
To see Poehling strip the puck off Mike Hoffman, streak down the ice at full speed, make a tantalizing move on Aaron Ekblad then give Alex Belzile a tap-in shorthanded goal in Montreal’s 4-3 win over the Panthers was really something.
"It was obviously an unbelievable play," said Canadiens associate captain Brendan Gallagher, who watched the game from home. "I think it shows the kind of confidence he has in himself. I know it’s pre-season, but when you can go out there and make an impact the way he has I think it shows a lot about his character. I see a lot of young guys showing a lot of moxie so far in training camp and he’s definitely one of them."
You want moxie? Here’s a quote from Poehling, taken minutes after the team’s red and white scrimmage last Sunday, that screams moxie.
"Everyone has their opinions on what you can and can’t do," he said. "I try to avoid ‘em as much as I can or at least prove people wrong. I hear things here or there, so it’s motivation to try to prove them wrong."
You mean like when you were drafted 25th overall in 2017 and people said that at your top-end you’d be a good third-line centre, Ryan?
"It’s just funny because I heard that as well and then I play two more years, I get world junior MVP and people started saying I’m going to be a good second-line centre," Poehling said. "So where does this cap end? People are always putting limits on you, so for me it’s just to play to my potential and prove people wrong."
One other note on Poehling. On a team that depends on the speed and tenacity smaller players like Byron, Weal, Gallagher, Tomas Tatar, Jonathan Drouin and Max Domi bring up front, you can’t help but wonder if the Canadiens view Poehling’s size as an element they need in their lineup from Day 1 of the regular season?
"We certainly are aware that we need a good mixture of size and skill," said Julien. "From Kotkaniemi coming in last year and being over six-feet tall, and Poehling same thing, and Poehling probably even a little older, a little stronger, that size does matter."
Nick Suzuki isn’t short on moxie, either.
The 20-year-old got together with Brook and Primeau to watch Wednesday night’s game and came away impressed with what he saw from Poehling.
I asked him on Thursday morning if watching Poehling excel got his competitive juices flowing ahead of a game he’ll play in with Paul Byron and Jordan Weal as linemates.
"I think every time you get out there, you want to show something special," Suzuki said. "I think there’s a little competition but both of us having been cheering each other on since the start. It’s fun to compete, and both of us are working for jobs in the NHL, and I think both of us can make it happen."
If Suzuki’s going to make it happen, it’ll be a function of how much stronger and faster he looks right now versus where he was a year ago at this time.
Don’t think we didn’t notice that Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin went out of his way to mention Suzuki’s improvement in those departments not once, but twice in this interview with Kyle Bukauskas on Wednesday.
And here are Julien’s comments on the subject:
"Not only is (Suzuki) stronger, but he’s also quicker. He did really work on his pace, but the biggest thing too is that he agreed (he needed to). He knew after camp (last year) that he needed to bring his pace up and it’s not something like we had to convince him to do (it). We told him this is what you need to do to be a real effective player at our level. So kudos to him to doing the work to become that."
It’s nice for Alex Belzile to be getting a bit of recognition here as a 28-year-old on his first NHL-AHL contract.
"His work ethic, his compete level is as good as it gets," Julien said about the Saint-Eloi, Que., native who had 19 goals and 35 assists in 74 games last season with Laval.
Because he performed so well in Wednesday’s game, Belzile is getting another chance to show what he can do against the Panthers on Thursday.
It was one week ago, as the Canadiens were preparing to open training camp, that I crossed paths with Noah Juulsen, who said he had a fantastic summer working out and getting himself back into game shape after an eye injury limited him to just 24 games last season.
"It did a lot of skating and work with a number of NHL guys out west," Juulsen said. "I’m ready."
I asked the 22-year-old defenceman if he was feeling any lingering effects from being struck twice in the face by pucks in a November game against the Washington Capitals and he said there were none and that he was feeling great.
Two days later — and one day after participating in his first practice — Juulsen was kept off the ice for precautionary reasons after showing up to the Canadiens’ practice facility with a headache. And on Tuesday of this week, the team announced he’s seeking a second opinion on persisting headaches.
"It’s something we’re 100 per cent in support of given the injury we all know he suffered last season," said Julien later that day. "His injury wasn’t a concussion, but it remains important, for him and for his family, to get a second opinion. Like I said, we support him 100 per cent in that decision.
"At the end of the day, his health is the most important thing. He’s seen our doctors, and to get a second opinion, for him and his family, hopefully validates what we see here. At the end of the day, it’s about doing the right thing."
Amen to that.
It was a trying year for Juulsen, whose peripheral vision only returned at full capacity after four months of rest and recovery. The Surrey, B.C., native showed great promise before all of this went down. Here’s hoping he can dive right back into the process in the coming days.