QUEBEC CITY — One glance at the lineup sheet told you what the endgame was.
Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Tom Wilson, and at least a few other players who won the Stanley Cup for the Washington Capitals last spring had travelled to Quebec City for their pre-season game against the Canadiens and Montreal coach Claude Julien had countered with three defencemen who are battling for one job available on his team’s blue line this season.
Victor Mete, Noah Juulsen and Karl Alzner had all been practising with the group that dressed for Montreal’s 5-2 win over the Capitals Thursday, but they were left in Montreal. The idea was to see if any one of David Schlemko, Xavier Ouellet or Simon Despres would rise to the occasion.
Of the three of them, Schlemko was the one who stood out in Julien’s eyes.
“He moved the puck well,” said Julien after the game. “It’s obvious he made a couple of mistakes on the penalty kill, and it’s possible that was due to fatigue. But the rest of his game — good vision, calm, not afraid to go get the puck in the corners, and he made good decisions.”
Now Schlemko will have to keep making them, because he has the most to lose here.
He’s is in the penultimate year of a four-year, $8.4-million contract and he’s staring at a potential buyout if he can’t show some of the promise that had the Canadiens trade for him in June of 2017.
The odds were stacked against Schlemko last year, when he suffered a hand injury on the first day of training camp. But he never found his footing after playing in his first game on Nov. 29.
“He was forced to play catch-up last year. It’s good to see him in good health now,” said Julien. “I think we’re starting to see his true colours, and so far I like the camp that he’s having.”
Ouellet was on the receiving end of some praise from Julien as well, which bodes well for him with cuts expected on Friday.
He appeared in only 45 games for the Detroit Red Wings last season and was made a healthy scratch for the other 37. If he loses out in this race, he could find himself back in the AHL for the first time in three years after signing a two-way contract worth a little bit more than the league minimum with the Canadiens on July 1.
And then there’s Despres, who signed a five-year, $18.7-million deal with the Anaheim Ducks in 2015 and was bought out of it in June of 2017 after concussion issues had limited him to just 33 games over the deal. He’s with the Canadiens on a tryout, attempting to resurrect his NHL career after spending last season with Bratislava of the KHL.
It was an up and mostly down battle for the 6-foot-4, 233-pound Laval native on Thursday. On one shift he started off the rush with a great lead pass before finishing it with a quality scoring chance at the other end. On another he turned the puck over twice for quality scoring chances against while the Canadiens were on the power play. It was all good and bad and nothing in between.
When you stack up the performances of all three players on Thursday, you still have to wonder if they hold a candle to what Mike Reilly offered in Montreal’s 5-2 loss to the Florida Panthers on Wednesday, even if Julien said Schlemko’s did.
The 25-year-old Reilly was acquired from the Minnesota Wild in exchange for a 2019 fifth-round draft pick at last year’s deadline and was expected to be a depth defenceman for the Canadiens. He ended up dressing for 19 games, collecting eight assists in the process while having issues in his own end.
But if the smooth-skating and speedy Reilly can play as consistently as he did on Wednesday, it should put him ahead of all the others on a team hoping to play a faster brand of hockey than the one that landed it in 28th place last season.
“He was my best defenceman tonight,” said Julien on Wednesday. “My first reaction, from what I saw, is that he was my best defenceman in the game. He made great plays with the puck, and where he showed a clear improvement was in his gap. Last year I would say that he was backing up too much and giving away too much space to the other team. But he played tighter in his game tonight.
“He’s made progress and we like his game.”
That puts Reilly and Schlemko out in front of the pack.
The competition between them to round out a group that currently includes Jeff Petry, Jordie Benn, Mete, Juulsen and Alzner should only ramp up as we move on to the next phase of training camp.