MONTREAL — Everyone tuned up? Good. Great. Grand. Fantastic.
Another pre-season has come and gone — thank heavens, it’s over — and the real fun can now begin. Or at least it can start five days from now when the Montreal Canadiens play their season opener in Carolina.
Before we get there, we have a few observations to share on what we’ve seen in exhibition, on the young, emerging talent that helped the Canadiens build a 5-2-0 record over the last 16 days, on some veterans rounding into form, on the decisions that still need to be made before rosters are finalized Oct. 1, and on a few other odds and ends.
Here are our takeaways from training camp.
Nick Suzuki a safe bet to begin season with Canadiens
It became patently clear that the 13th overall pick in the 2017 NHL draft was making this Canadiens team well before he pickpocketed Jean-Gabriel Pageau and scored the overtime goal in Saturday’s 4-3 win over the Ottawa Senators.
We knew Suzuki had the smarts, that he had the versatility of playing wing and centre, and that he could be just as effective on the penalty kill as he would be on the power play. But the one question the London, Ont., native had to answer in camp was whether or not he was physically prepared to start his season in Montreal.
With a speedier skating stride and some more muscle added to his 20-year-old frame, Suzuki made it abundantly clear in his first few days at camp that he was up to that challenge. Now that he’s excelled incrementally, and against better players as the pre-season wore on, it seems like a no-brainer that he’s here to stay.
Canadiens coach Claude Julien wouldn’t confirm Suzuki’s place following Saturday’s game.
“He keeps playing well,” Julien said. “He’s showing he wants to start the season here, but we don’t have any announcements to make tonight. Over the coming days we’ll surely have some. We still have to reduce our roster to 23 players, so decisions will be made over the next few days.”
If the Canadiens still have one to make on Suzuki, it should be about who he lines up with against the Hurricanes on Thursday.
On Saturday, Suzuki lined up with Max Domi and Artturi Lehkonen and appeared to be right at home.
Tough decisions looming on Poehling, Fleury
The two other 20-year-olds left at camp have left the impression they’re ready to join the Canadiens right now.
Whether they do will come down to asset management and whether the Canadiens are willing to expose certain players on one-way contracts to waivers.
Despite missing a week with a concussion and being limited to just two pre-season games, Ryan Poehling showed that he’s physically prepared to play at this level.
“He had a good game tonight,” said Julien on Saturday. “He continues to show his worth and for a guy who didn’t play for a week, he rebounded well.”
Poehling’s worth is in his size, his hockey sense, his versatility in being able to play at both ends of the ice, at centre and wing and at even strength and on the penalty kill.
If the Canadiens are willing to expose Charles Hudon to waivers, it will be easier for them to keep Poehling around. And given that Hudon hasn’t been able to find his way into regular playing time with the Canadiens over the last year—and that the team now has several NHL-capable players at its disposal, players who have already passed through waivers—you have to think they will be willing.
As for Cale Fleury, who played 15:20 and finished with five shot attempts and four hits against the Senators, he left quite an impression.
“He was great,” said Canadiens captain Shea Weber after Saturday’s game.
Fleury was unquestionably better than Mike Reilly and Christian Folin in the competition for who gets to play alongside Brett Kulak on the team’s third defence pairing.
But here’s the rub: Folin, who has 228 games of NHL experience and has a digestible contract (one year at $800,000), is susceptible to being picked up by another team if the Canadiens decide to waive him. And though Reilly might prove less appealing given his two-year, $3-million contract, waiving him is also a risk.
The Canadiens’ depth on defence isn’t quite what it is up front, and that opens up the possibility that Fleury will start his season in Laval, with the AHL’s Rocket, despite the fact that he’s earned a job in Montreal.
If that’s what ends up happening, don’t expect Fleury to be in the minors for long.
The vets have found their games
Whatever concerns there might have been about how Phillip Danault and Tomas Tatar appeared in their limited pre-season action, they were alleviated on Saturday.
“They were better tonight, absolutely,” said Julien. “It just goes to show you that when we say, ‘guys, this is pre-season,’ when we get all wound up about certain guys, but it is pre-season. The same thing’s happening in every organization, so right now you can see that they’re finding their game and they’re becoming the players that we knew from last year.”
Danault had a goal and an assist on one for Tatar on Saturday and both players looked like the ones who formed a dominant line with Brendan Gallagher last season.
And perhaps of greater significance, aside from a glaring and rare puck-handling error, Canadiens starting goaltender Carey Price was all-world on Saturday after missing some time over the last week with a bruised catching hand.
Price made 34 saves against Ottawa and saved his best for last, stopping Anthony Duclair on a breakaway and turning aside two quality scoring chances in overtime.
Odds and Ends
• We saw a lot of good from newcomer Ben Chiarot over the course of training camp, and one thing he won some points with was his handling of Ottawa’s Bobby Ryan following Ryan’s extra stab at a puck Price had frozen in Saturday’s game. Chiarot didn’t hesitate; he grabbed Ryan, dropped his gloves and engaged him in a fight. He also finished the night with three hits. His physicality is a dimension the Canadiens desperately needed on their blue line.
And give the former Winnipeg Jet some time to adjust to playing in the East, where speed and the transition game is much more apparent than it is in the West.
• Unless the Canadiens can work out a trade, expect goaltender Charlie Lindgren to be exposed to waivers before the team’s 23-man roster is submitted to the league.
• The power play is a work in progress, but people will say it’s the same old power play that finished 30th in the NHL last season after it came up blank on five opportunities in Saturday’s game.
We don’t see it that way, not that we’re suggesting it will magically surge to the top of the league all of a sudden.
Julien said on Friday he’s looking for “focus and cohesion” on the power play. We saw those elements at hand in Saturday’s game.
The Canadiens worked the puck well down low with the Senators taking away Weber’s one-timer. Weber snuck down as a back-door option, and they were a bounce or two away from scoring multiple goals as a result. There’s some stuff to build on there.