BROSSARD, Que.— We’re almost a week into Montreal Canadiens training camp, so I thought this would be an opportune time to open up the notebook and share some observations.
“When you start guessing, you get yourself into trouble.”
It was a mantra of sorts, one uttered many times over the course of the dozens of informal sidebar conversations I’ve had with Carey Price since he was drafted fifth overall by the Canadiens in 2005.
I’d ask him something about his thought process, about his anticipation and his ability to read the play, and he’d predictably always say that when you start guessing, you get yourself into trouble.
I haven’t been able to get that thought out of my mind as I’ve watched the world-class goaltender from an angle I’m generally unaccustomed to watching him from.
Typically, the press is set up to watch from centre ice in Brossard, Que., but I’ve been stationed directly behind Price’s net for three of the four practices the Canadiens have held this week and, as a result, I’ve been paying particularly close attention to his work.
Now, it’s worth mentioning that when you isolate on Price during a practice, you’re bound to see him do some exceptional things. Exceptional things like this, for example:
Nouvel équipement, MÊME CAREY.
— Canadiens Montréal (@CanadiensMTL) July 15, 2020
But you can’t help but focus on just how simple he makes everything look. And, from this vantage point, that simplicity is magnified.
His movement is so fluid and efficient, and his technique is all inside the box. But it’s his patience that stands out above all else.
And it’s Price’s patience that stands out when you see how hard his teammates work to try to deceive him just to be able to beat him on a clean break.
On Tuesday, I watched Jordan Weal and Phillip Danault break in on Price in succession and both players threw multiple head-fakes before being easily turned aside.
Danault, on his very next attempt, came streaking down his off-wing, locked his eyes onto a spot behind Price’s blocker and shot at his glove. The 32-year-old goaltender never came close to biting on the fake.
You watch Price in a 3-on-0 drill and it’s all the same, and it’s really quite mechanical. I mean, that’s a situation where he is almost forced to guess in order to make a save, but he follows the puck and takes nothing for granted — waiting for the action to come to him instead of trying to steer it in a certain direction. And it probably wouldn’t surprise you to know Price typically makes more saves than he allows goals in those situations.
People often ask me whether or not I believe Price is as good as his peers do, and I always say that having the benefit of watching him practise every day tends to give me a slightly more informed perspective on how good he really is. And I’ll add that even though I don’t watch the league’s other goaltenders practise as often, I have seen them enough over the years — at visiting team practices and morning skates — to have some sort of base for comparison, and I have no qualms saying that I think he’s at the very top of the ladder.
At the end of the day, though, it comes down to what Price is able to do in the games. I’ll concede, it just hasn’t been enough over the past two seasons.
But if you watch Price practise as regularly as I do, it’s almost impossible to imagine anyone in the world being a better goaltender than he is. And, right now, he appears to be at the height of his abilities.
The guessing game
I’m probably not alone in abhorring the NHL’s new policy pertaining to injury/illness/absence, but this is the world we live in now.
So when Paul Byron was MIA at Friday’s practice, I didn’t go searching for answers to questions I’m not allowed to ask. There’s no telling if he’s hurt, or if he tested positive for coronavirus, or if he had a case of diarrhea, so I won’t bother speculating.
But I was curious how the other players might have felt about showing up for practice and noticing that a player who’s been participating all week is suddenly absent.
Or, how about when one of your linemates is pulled out and placed in an isolated group — like Danault was on Friday?
“It’s different, but it’s the same mentality we always have; everyone in the league is dealing with the same things and you’ve got to deal with the pieces you have,” said Danault’s right winger, Brendan Gallagher. “Obviously these are circumstances that are out of our control and as athletes we have enough things to worry about that you can control. Things that you can’t — it’s a waste of energy to worry about. It’s not ideal, it’s not perfect conditions for us, but you’ve got to make do with what you’ve got and just trying to find a way to get better each and every single day.”
“They were still able to get on the ice and skate, which we were happy about,” Gallagher said about Danault, Ryan Poehling, Cale Fleury, Victor Mete and Cayden Primeau, who all skated together prior to the main group hitting the ice on Friday. “But you’d have liked to have used this time together. But, like I said, everyone in the league is dealing with the same thing and you’ve just got to make do with what you have.”
Short note here: But without Max Domi at camp, and with Danault being removed from the main group, Jordan Weal lined up between Gallagher and Tomas Tatar on the team’s top line.
If that’s not indicative of how great a mismatch this could be between Montreal and Pittsburgh’s centres, I don’t know what is.
You can’t help but wonder what the 25-year-old is thinking as he hears that Byron was unable to practise, that “circumstances” forced Julien to isolate Danault and co. from the main group on Friday, and that Brett Kulak and Xavier Ouellet haven’t been able to participate in any of the team’s activities since Phase 3 began.
A decision is looming for the Type-1 diabetic, who also has Celiac disease. Perhaps it gets made within that seven-to-10-day timeline Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin advanced at the beginning of the week, but don’t be surprised if it gets delayed a bit.
Could we be looking at a scenario where Domi only joins up with the Canadiens in Toronto, once they’ve safely entered the bubble of the hub-city? I can’t say for sure, but I wouldn’t discount it.
All I know is what I’ve been told, which is that Domi desperately wants to play but also wants assurances he’s entering as controlled an environment as possible.
Here’s Canadiens coach Claude Julien on the environment around the training facility:
“Well, all I can tell you, and I said that the other day, our medical staff and even our training staff, the equipment guys, everybody involved has done an unbelievable job,” Julien said on Friday. “No matter what happens, I honestly can tell you they can’t do any more than what they’re doing right now. They’re doing an unbelievable job, and hopefully that unbelievable job will turn into being able to bring all the players we want to bring. That’s the bottom line, so I have no issues there and I have no concerns. We have to adjust with what’s happened in this world today with a positive outlook and an open mind and that’s what I’m trying to do.”
I asked Jesperi Koktaniemi about whether or not his time away from the game, during the NHL’s pause due to COVID-19, offered him fresh perspective on his struggles as a sophomore in the league.
“I just pretty much tried to forget everything of what happened during the season and just try to reset my mind and my body for these playoffs,” the 20-year-old responded. “Feeling pretty good right now, so hopefully I’m going to be in the lineup when the games start.”
I followed up.
“Were you just trying to forget because you were disappointed?”
“I do that every summer,” Kotkaniemi said. “Don’t try to think too much about what’s happened in the past. Just think about what’s happening in the future.”
I can identify with that. I’m all about that, actually.
Anyway, I digress…
Before I asked my questions, I told Kotkaniemi that I can’t recall ever seeing him act so seriously. I did that because it’s been a long-running gag between us that I always had to tell him I needed a serious answer to my question (the kid had a tendency of answering everything with a joke).
I wasn’t surprised to see Kotkaniemi laugh after I shared that observation, but I was somewhat intrigued by how serious his tone was throughout his first interview since early March.
I was really intrigued when Julien said just a few minutes later that he too noticed a more serious approach from the big Finn.
“I think it’s just a maturity situation in his case,” Julien explained. “What I see from him is he’s still an excellent person off the ice, as always, but what I’ve seen is that once he’s on the ice he’s much more serious about his game. So that is part of every young player who makes the NHL, you always see a maturity. Whether it’s players in the past that I came across or coached, I saw the same progression.
“At the start, when you’re a young player you’re excited to be in the NHL, you have a big smile on your face, everything is great. But at one point you realize this isn’t an easy job, it’s a very demanding job. So as you mature you see how you have to separate the time to just live and have some fun and the time where you have to be serious and do everything possible to improve as an athlete. So that’s what I see in the development of KK.”
What I’ve seen is a faster, stronger player on the ice.
And, if you’ll ignore my amateurish video skills, there’s also this:
Juulsen getting up to speed
I wasn’t sure what to expect from Noah Juulsen after migraine and vision issues robbed him of most of the past two seasons.
I don’t think we’re at a point where I can accurately project where he’ll land on Montreal’s depth chart come play-in time, but I see a player who doesn’t appear remotely out of place.
It would seem Julien concurs.
“I like what I’m seeing,” the coach said Friday. “We’re talking about an injury that slowed his development for probably a year-and-a-half. He just started playing again when the season was stopped. I really like what I’m seeing. He’s got good mobility and everything. This is a good experience for him to come practise and be part of this training camp, and eventually we’re going to have decisions to make. He’s a right-handed defenceman who had good moments with us. When he suffered his injury, he obviously took a step back because of the fact that he wasn’t in action much over the last couple of years.”
But now Juulsen appears to slowly be moving forward.
I asked the 23-year-old if he’s finally gotten to a place where he doesn’t have to worry about what tomorrow will bring in terms of symptoms.
“No issues, no setbacks, no nothing,” Juulsen said. “So I’m happy the way everything’s gone and I hope it keeps going that way.”
Juulsen’s teammates are certainly pulling for him, too.
“You talk about dealing with adversity — not a lot of people have dealt with what Juuls has dealt with over the last couple of years,” Gallagher said. “It would have been pretty easy to go in the other direction and kind of given up on himself, but he just stuck with it. He trusted the advice he was getting, he trusted what the professionals were telling him, when he needed to put in the work he put in the work, and he looks good.
“He looks like he’s ready to get back to normal, and you’re happy for him. It was a really freak accident, a freak thing that happened (Juulsen was hit in the face by two separate shots in a game against the Washington Capitals in November 2018), and what he’s kind of had to deal with throughout couldn’t have been easy. But he’s handled it the appropriate way and you see where he is now — I think you can’t be anything but happy for Juuls, and you’re just looking forward to what he can be in the future.”
I don’t know about all of you, but I’m wondering what Juulsen can be in the present.
At the height of his abilities, he can stabilize Montreal’s third defence pairing in a way Fleury and Christian Folin just can’t.
The question is, can Juulsen get there now?