Brook emerging as potential third-pair upgrade on Canadiens’ blue-line

Montreal Canadiens players Artturi Lehkonen, left, Max Domi, centre, and Josh Brook look on during training camp in Brossard, Que., Friday, Sept. 13, 2019. (Graham Hughes/CP)

BROSSARD, Que.— Nick Suzuki opened Montreal Canadiens training camp at the centre of a line with sure-shot Jordan Weal and bottom-six hopeful Charles Hudon. Ryan Poehling was placed with two guys, in Matthew Peca and Phil Varone, who are starting off well behind pole position in the race to a spot on the team’s fourth line.

And then there’s Josh Brook, the 6-foot-1 defenceman from Roblin, Man., who was paired up with presumed top-six lock Brett Kulak.

Earlier this week, when Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin said at the team’s annual golf tournament that he was hoping an emerging prospect would battle his way into a position on the opening-night roster, it was only logical to assume he was referring to Suzuki or Poehling. You know, the 20-year-old forwards who were selected 12 picks apart in the first round of the 2017 Draft; the two most highly-touted prospects in the system not named Cole Caufield. So it was a stretch to think he was talking about Brook, who’s been given the best opportunity to shine right out of the gate.

Not to say it’s been a complete shock things have turned out that way. Brook, the big righty who was chosen 56th overall by the Canadiens in 2017, joined the American Hockey League’s Laval Rocket towards the end of last season and was able to get into seven of the team’s games after putting up the highest point total (75) of any defenceman in the Western Hockey League. He was a member of the 2019 Canadian World Junior team and a player anyone would’ve circled as one who might get an opportunity to get his feet wet at the NHL-level for a few games this season.

It’s just that it was hard to see that happening as early as October given that the Canadiens had several more established options to consider for a starting role on the right side of their third defence pairing.

It became less difficult to envision Brook in the role when he stepped on the ice and took his first rushes next to Kulak at Friday’s opening practice. And then Canadiens coach Claude Julien reduced the doubt quotient significantly with his comments later that afternoon.

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“I think it’s obvious when you look at what’s going on right now in training camp that we’re trying to prepare for the start of the season,” Julien said. “We don’t have 23 jobs available, we all know that. We’re starting with lines (and pairings) that we think we might like. It doesn’t mean it won’t change before the start of the season, but we have an opportunity to work together and do these things. But at the same time, we’ll give chances to several players who will be fighting for jobs and we’ll deal with that eventually on a game-by-game basis.”

For what it’s worth, Brook didn’t read too far into the coach’s decision to pair him with Kulak to start. “I’m kind of just doing my thing,” he said with a shrug of his shoulders following Saturday’s practice, and it’s probably best he approach this opportunity that way.

But there was no way for us to ignore what Julien’s decision signified. The coach could have started with 28-year-old Christian Folin, who finished off last season on the right side of the third pair and played steadily enough there to earn himself a one-year, one-way, $800,000 contract this summer. He also could have opted for Mike Reilly, who played 57 games on the left side of the blue-line last season and recently, according to a report in the Athletic, offered to play on the right side if need be.

Even Cale Fleury, the 2017 third-rounder who cut his teeth in 57 games with the Rocket last season, appeared to have a leg up on Brook coming out of last week’s rookie camp. And it was expected that Julien might defer to Noah Juulsen above all other options because the 22-year-old showed great promise before an eye injury suffered in November cut his 2018-19 season down to just 21 games with the Canadiens.

But it was on Saturday that Julien talked about what Brook could bring to the Canadiens as early as next month, and you’d have a hard time making a case that any of the other players in the competition for that job can offer what he does.

“We all know offensively he’s a gifted player,” Julien said. “He carries the puck well, he moves it well. I think he anticipates well, also.”

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The coach added that he wants to give Brook an opportunity to show he can be reliable in his own end, too, and he cautioned that some more seasoning in the AHL might be in order when all is said and done.

But Julien’s not just swapping Brook in for a look at some point; he’s starting him in the position because he knows this player could immediately prove to be an upgrade on the others in the competition.

For what it’s worth, a pair of Canadiens defenceman see the promise Brook holds, as well.

“I think he’s really good,” said 21-year-old Victor Mete, who’s lined up with captain Shea Weber on the team’s top-pairing. “Good shot, good feet, and he’s making solid plays out there. Even though it’s camp, he’s still making really good plays. I think he’s going to be able to push for a spot if he’s going to get the opportunity. It looks like he is getting that opportunity.

“I think he can really turn some heads.”

Kulak has been equally impressed.

“He plays the game with his head up and he can skate,” the 25-year-old Edmonton native said. “Brooksy’s got lots of tools. He can skate, pass, shoot. I think overall he’s a really smart D-man and he plays hard.”

With the Canadiens set to play four exhibition games this week, we’re going to find out in a hurry how Brook plays against top end players at this level.

Obviously, getting to do that in practice is giving him a sense of what he’s in for.

“These are the most skilled players I’ve ever played against,” Brook said. “So it’s learning on how to defend them and how to think and stay ahead of things.”

If he can manage to do that over the coming days, there’s a chance we’ll see him make his NHL debut come October. It’s something that’s more foreseeable now than it was at the beginning of the week.

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