Brossard, QUEBEC — Hundreds of fans piled into the Montreal Canadiens south-shore practice facility Friday to take in the first on-ice session of the team’s 20-day training camp.
But the fans in attendance were deprived of the chance to see the players they’re most intrigued with.
Goaltender Carey Price, who missed all but 12 games last season due to injury, and defenceman Shea Weber, who was traded to Montreal in late-June, are both currently trying to help Team Canada capture the World Cup of Hockey. And defenceman Mikhail Sergachev, who was selected ninth overall in the 2016 NHL Draft, is day-to-day with an upper-body injury.
All three players are expected to be back at some point next week. But until they return, most of the focus will be on the competition for jobs—which promises to be as fierce as ever with 24 of the 61 invitees to camp in possession of a one-way contract.
McCarron and Lehkonen at the head of the forward class
"We want to make sure they’re not just knocking on the door; we want them to hammer on the door," said coach Michel Therrien in reference to the team’s young prospects.
"This year, I’m ready to go and I’m ready to tackle this main camp," said McCarron Thursday.
The Michigan native made his professional debut with the AHL’s St. John’s IceCaps last season, notching 17 goals and 21 assists in 58 games before joining the Canadiens for the final 20 games of their season.
"Big Mac worked extremely hard this summer," said Therrien. "He’s lighter, he’s quicker and he knew he needed to work on those things if he wanted to be established in the NHL.
"Well this is only the first day, but I like what I saw [in rookie camp]. He was a veteran there and he acted like a leader."
As for Lehkonen, who’s coming off an outstanding year with the Swedish Hockey League’s Frolunda Hockey Club, the belief is that he might have what it takes to steal a job on one of the top three lines. His 16 goals and 17 assists in 46 games before scoring 11 goals and eight assists in 16 playoff games to break NHL legend Daniel Alfredsson’s club record for most points in a playoff run speak to the type of potential he has.
"The next few days are going to give us [a chance] to see what’s his read, what’s his speed, what’s his hockey sense about playing with NHL players," said Therrien. "We’re going to give that opportunity to that young kid because that kid—he’s going to play with us or he’s going to go back [to Sweden]."
Taking on one or both of McCarron and Lehkonen, who are both on entry-level contracts, would force the Canadiens to subject a player or two to waivers or make a trade to make room. Their respective performances will be monitored very closely as camp moves along.
Different type of competition on the blue line
Sergachev—once he’s healthy enough to participate—is going to have to be a superstar to convince the Canadiens to make room for him on defence this season. By all accounts, that’s not beyond his ability, but keeping him means trading an established NHL player.
As of right now, Weber, Andrei Markov, Jeff Petry, Alexei Emelin, Nathan Beaulieu, Greg Pateryn, Mark Barberio and Zach Redmond are all in the mix, and the biggest thing to look out for is how the pairings get formed.
Last season, Therrien said 37-year-old Markov would ideally be limited to 22 minutes per game. If the coach intends to stick with that plan, putting him with Weber doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
Can Beaulieu prove he’s ready for the assignment on Montreal’s top pair?
"This will be my third full season, and I know what it takes," said Beaulieu. "I know I’m the guy to fill that big spot. It’s just a question of me proving it to the organization, and I’ve basically been told they’re going to give me every opportunity."
As for the bottom pair, there’s a real competition between Pateryn, Barberio and Redmond to grab a regular spot next to Emelin. If two of them play well enough, they could force the Canadiens into finding a new team for the Russian defender who’s set to earn $4.1 million in each of the next two seasons.
The competition behind Price
This is Al Montoya’s job to lose. The 31-year-old signed an $850,000 contract with Montreal after going 12-7-2 and posting a .919 save percentage as Roberto Luongo’s auxiliary in Florida last season.
That’s tough news for Mike Condon, who performed exceptionally as Price’s backup last season before struggling in the starter’s role.
Both Montoya and Condon are likely to remain with the organization—management would like to have two seasoned goaltenders behind Price—but one of them will be subjected to waivers upon being sent down to the AHL.
That’s five goalies competing for one job in the NHL and two in the AHL. The organization will likely have to trade at least one of them before these three weeks are up.