It was an action-packed day at Montreal Canadiens camp, with five players — Dale Weise, Matthew Peca, Phil Varone, Xavier Ouellet and Karl Alzner — waived, with general manager Marc Bergevin addressing the media, and with a couple of injured players (Ryan Poehling and Carey Price) getting back on the ice.
But perhaps nothing was more intriguing about it than seeing 20-year-old Nick Suzuki placed on a line with Max Domi and Artturi Lehkonen.
The 13th-overall pick in the 2017 Draft, who was traded to Montreal last fall in the deal that sent Max Pacioretty to the Vegas Golden Knights, has been nothing short of impressive throughout pre-season. And though Bergevin said there’s still some evaluating to do before penning Suzuki into the opening-night roster, it’s becoming clearer and clearer he’s likely here to stay.
“When you look at young players, especially in Nick’s case, you look at where was he a year ago, where he is this year. So for me personally — and I could speak for our coaching staff — his training camp last year and today … it’s light years (ahead),” said Bergevin. “I think going to Owen Sound, having that (OHL) playoff run (with the Guelph Storm) … correct me if I’m wrong, I think he won the OHL scoring in the playoffs. I mean that really brought his game to a new level and what we’ve seen so far of Nick is we see the Nick that is maybe quicker than I thought we would get there. But again, he still has one game but he has played very well.”
DOMI IMPRESSED WITH SUZUKI
The man who scored 28 goals and 72 points in his first season with the Canadiens had nothing but good things to say about Suzuki on Thursday.
On the prospect of playing on a line together, Domi talked about Suzuki’s versatility being a factor in why it can work.
“I think you look at last year, and I hate to reflect on things in the past, but when you have a righty and a lefty and a righty who can take draws on his strong side and also trust it’ll go well for you it makes the chemistry that much better,” Domi said. “He has experience playing centre, so if I get caught deep I have total confidence that he’ll go low. Or if I’m not feeling great on my weak side on the faceoff, he can go in and snap a couple back on his strong side or vice versa.”
Perhaps even more interesting was what Domi said about Suzuki’s character — noting that the Canadiens have an extremely tight-knit team, the closest group he’s been a part of, and that he sees traits in Suzuki’s make up that allow him to fit in well.
“He’s just a good kid,” Domi added. “He works hard, he’s super respectful and quiet. Him and Poehling are more or less the same thing in that aspect — they’re both amazing players and both really good guys. They’re very different but both very good in their own way and I think in the future they’re both going to be a very big part of this hockey team. Again, got to skate with one of them today and he looked great out there. It’s great to have some chemistry with a young kid and hopefully we can keep building on it.”
BERGEVIN AND JONATHAN DROUIN RESPOND TO SPORTSNET REPORT
After Wednesday night’s game, we reported that an Eastern Conference executive confirmed that Drouin’s name “is definitely out there.”
When Bergevin was asked about that on Thursday, he quipped: “I don’t know where (those reports) come from. Most of those reports are from somebody in his basement in Toronto, so I don’t pay attention to that to be honest with you.”
When Drouin was asked about it, he said it wasn’t his place to comment.
“I don’t have a take on it,” he added. “I’ll let you guys tweet about it and talk about it. That’s your job, it’s not mine.”
What Drouin did say is that he believes he’s getting his timing back and that his game is going in the right direction.
The 24-year-old closed out last season with just one goal in his last 26 games and has only recorded one assist while dressing in four of the six pre-season games the Canadiens have played.
When asked to evaluate Drouin’s camp, Bergevin said, “I expect more, the coaches expect more, and I think Jo does too.”
“He’s a skilled player, he has talent, he has a lot of attributes, and I know last year he had a tough finish,” Bergevin added. “He had a good summer. Training camp is training camp. I mean he’s not the only one who’s not up to par right now.”
JESPERI KOTKANIEMI GETTNG AN EARLY DOSE OF SOPHOMORE-ITIS
The 19-year-old, who had 11 goals and 34 points as the youngest player in the NHL last season, admittedly has a lot of work to do to prove he’s capable of taking a considerable step forward this season.
Earlier in the week, Kotkaniemi was saying he wants to do everything better and that he wants to play a simpler game than what he had shown through his first couple of exhibition games. And he delivered with a better performance in Toronto on Wednesday.
Bergevin said Kotkaniemi needs to keep trending upwards.
“(It was) a bit of a slow start,” the GM added. “Again, it’s that famous second year. But Claude and the coaching staff have had conversations with him. It’s a process, he’s only 19. For sure he still has some things to work on but he’s going in the right direction.”
When asked if there was a chance Kotkaniemi might not start his season with the Canadiens, Bergevin said, “He still belongs, but things could change as certain dates approach. We will put together the best lineup that gives us the best chance of winning right from the start of the season. I still have until Oct. 1 to make decisions on our 23 players.”
Let’s see how Kotkaniemi looks on a line that will likely feature Drouin and Jordan Weal on Saturday.
CALE FLEURY LINED UP WITH BRETT KULAK
Fleury’s claim on a roster spot got much stronger with the way his competition — Mike Reilly and Christian Folin — performed in a 3-0 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday.
As a result — coupled with Fleury’s reliable play at both ends through exhibition — the 20-year-old defenceman found himself on the team’s third pair with Kulak for a second straight day at practice.
How Fleury performs in Montreal’s final pre-season game against the Ottawa Senators on Saturday may ultimately determine if he remains in that spot when the Canadiens open the regular season in Carolina on Oct. 3.
“(In) Laval last year (with the AHL’s Rocket), Cale had a really good start,” said Bergevin. “But as a first-year pro, after Christmas a lot of these young players kind of tail off, which he did. But he had a good summer, came to training camp in good condition and he has played well and he earned the right to get probably another game on Saturday.”
PRICE BACK ON THE ICE
For the first time since Monday morning, after he was told to rest and was kept out of action as a precaution so he could heal his lightly-bruised catching hand, Price was back on the ice ahead of Canadiens practice.
The 32-year-old skated for 30 minutes and did a few drills with goaltending coach Stephane Waite, but he did not field any shots.
Earlier this week, Canadiens coach Claude Julien said he expected Price might even be ready to play in Saturday’s game. But that seems like a stretch if he doesn’t return to full practice on Friday.
POEHLING BACK AT PRACTICE
After skating on his own for two straight days, Poehling returned to practice with the Canadiens and centred a line with Nick Cousins and Charles Hudon.
Bergevin said it was doubtful the 20-year-old, who was diagnosed with a concussion last Friday, will play in Saturday’s game.
Poehling has yet to receive the green light to practise with contact from the Canadiens’ medical staff, so Bergevin said his presence for Saturday’s game would depend on that changing and of course on how Poehling feels.
On the subject of keeping Poehling to play a fourth-line role rather than sending him to Laval to play big minutes, Bergevin said he’s not opposed to it.
“If you look back 15 years ago, a fourth line played five, six minutes. That’s in the past,” Bergevin said. “Now they play 10-12 minutes, so it’s good ice time. So I don’t have a problem if the coaching staff decides to use Ryan on the fourth line, even if he misses a game here or there. It’s just on the whole you don’t want a young player who plays two minutes or doesn’t play. That would hurt his progress. But there’s an expression I believe, ‘You can never leave a player in the AHL for too long.’”
On Poehling, Suzuki and Fleury, Bergevin added that, “If these young players could help the Montreal Canadiens and at the same time keep progressing then we’ll keep them around.
“If at some point we see that they’re tailing off or the pace is getting too fast for them as the level of NHL players, the vets get in better shape… Not ‘shape’ but their mindset changes. Guys who played 10 years in the league don’t come to training camp the same way as a kid. So as it picks up the first 10 games, if they can’t keep up and they don’t get the ice time that is going to help them in different situations then we’ll have to make a decision and that would be a possibility. As we know, the young players don’t need waivers, so that’s easy.
“But again, if they could help the Montreal Canadiens and be good we’ll keep them.”