MONTREAL — It was a National Hockey League-quality play, executed at full speed and with great determination.
Jake Evans stabbed at Damon Severson’s pass, stole the puck inside the Canadiens’ blue line, outraced Severson and nine-year NHL veteran Kyle Palmieri down the ice and uncorked a half-swinging snapshot that landed in the top-right corner of the net for a short-handed goal that gave his team a precious one-goal lead with minutes remaining in their pre-season game against the New Jersey Devils on Monday.
Evans centred a line with two players, Phil Varone and Riley Barber, who were near point-per-game producers in the AHL last season. Two players in their mid-20s who have already gotten their feet wet at the NHL level.
Behind them, 2017 third-round pick Cale Fleury was a standout on a defence pairing with Xavier Ouellet, the 26-year-old who’s slated to start the season in the American Hockey League after gaining 161 games of NHL experience over the last six years.
Montreal’s second-rounder from that year, defenceman Josh Brook, played alongside presumed top-six lock Brett Kulak and, after starting out nervously, got better and better as the game went on.
Up front, Nick Suzuki, the 13th-overall pick in 2017, showed off all the traits that have people referring to him as one of Montreal’s best prospects. On a line with Jordan Weal and Charles Hudon, Suzuki flashed his smarts all over the ice, generating quality scoring chances on offence and ensuring his line wasn’t on the other end of them in the defensive zone.
In net, Cayden Primeau, picked 199th in 2017, had the crowd chanting his name after making a 10-bell save on a two-on-one involving 2017 first-overall pick Nico Hischier and 180-game NHL vet Blake Coleman. He picked up the win in his NHL pre-season debut.
Ryan Poehling, the 25th-overall pick in 2017 who made his NHL debut with a hat trick and a shootout winner in a 6-5 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs last April, looked on from the press box. He couldn’t have been too far away from AHL coach Joel Bouchard, who was probably smiling ear-to-ear while thinking about what he’ll have at his disposal this season.
The Canadiens have to be excited about it. A year ago at this time, they had almost no one of note to pluck off the farm if they suffered an injury. They were beyond fortunate to have suffered so few over the course of the season, finishing with just 163 man games lost to injury or illness — the eighth-least amount in the NHL. And yet they still fell two points shy of a playoff berth.
If things go worse for them in that department this season?
“I think we’ll be better able to handle it,” said the team’s first-line centre, Phillip Danault on Tuesday. “I think (Canadiens general manager) Marc (Bergevin) has done an excellent job filling up the cupboard. There are a lot of guys competing for spots this year. It’s a good competition. It’s good for our team to have so many good young guys, a good group of veterans with Laval, depth at all the positions. I hope they all follow and are on the same page as we are up here. I see a lot of these guys capable of playing at this level.”
It’s the type of quality reservoir the Canadiens haven’t been able to drink from in recent memory. In four of the last five seasons, their AHL team has missed the playoffs. Last season, it finished seventh in its division and missed by 12 points.
“We had, I think, the second-youngest team in the league,” Bouchard said on the opening day of rookie camp, two weeks ago.
The Rocket was also exceptionally thin on NHL-capable talent.
But that won’t be the case this year.
“The guys that, whether they start the year here in Montreal and are extras or they start the year in Laval, it’s good to see bodies that are fit to come and play and legitimately contribute,” said Canadiens defenceman Jeff Petry on Tuesday. “It looks like we have a bunch. There’s more than a handful of guys that you can see have the skill. And though some of them are young and would be getting their first pro action, you can see they’re developing quickly, and we’re going to have a lot of depth to rely on beyond them if we need it.”
Should the Canadiens make it through camp healthy, should they remain largely unscathed as the regular season rolls along, Charlie Lindgren, Noah Juulsen, Matthew Peca, Karl Alzner, Dale Weise and Mike McCarron — players who all have NHL experience — could also be among those skating for Bouchard for long portions of the year.
They’ll only help make the Rocket a more competitive team, and that will help to create the type of environment needed to advance the development of the organization’s youngest pros.
“It’s good for the whole organization. The NHL team gets the type of cushion injury-wise that you need to have in this league — especially for a team that’s not as top-heavy, a team like the Canadiens, who rely on balance to succeed more than a number of other top teams do in the Atlantic (Division),” said an Eastern Conference scout via text message.
“If they’re not forced to rely on most of these players in the NHL, they still have a young group and those guys are gaining valuable experience all together in the American League — and probably in more of a winning atmosphere.
“That’s one of the biggest keys to roster-building now. It’s how you mitigate short-term and long-term risk and they look like they’ll be able to do that better this year.”