BROSSARD, Que. — It’s Wednesday, but it feels like Monday after Dominique Ducharme delivered bad news following Montreal Canadiens practice.
The coach said he has no confidence Carey Price, recovering from off-season knee surgery, will be able to join the Canadiens at practice before the season begins in Toronto next week. A non-COVID-related illness has kept the franchise goaltender away from the facility for several days and it’ll be a slow burn upon his return to get back into the rotation with his teammates and eventually appear in a game.
“There’s a progression: getting back on the ice and not going down too much, and then building him up and starting to work with the goalie coach, and then practise with the team and being ready to play games,” Ducharme said.
“But he’s not doing well right now. So, he’s going to take care of that, and we’ll handle the rest after.”
Joel Edmundson isn’t doing well, either.
Montreal’s steadiest defenceman last season arrived at this year’s training camp with an undisclosed injury that was supposed to have already healed by now but has only gotten worse.
“We found he wasn’t progressing well enough,” Ducharme said. “The trainers asked to do some tests, and the news wasn’t too positive on that front. He’s going to miss more time than we thought…
“Last week, we felt he was day-to-day. But now it’s looking like it’s going to be more like two-to-three weeks.”
Edmundson’s absence throughout camp has only highlighted how volatile the Canadiens might be on defence this season — and not just because they’ve given up at least six goals in two of five pre-season games. The depth of the group isn’t quite the same as it was a year ago, and some would argue it was thin then.
With captain Shea Weber too injured to continue his playing career, it was already anticipated the Canadiens would have a huge void on the right side. Edmundson’s situation creates a six-foot-four, 227-pound hole on the left.
Sami Niku, lefty, suffered a concussion just minutes into his pre-season debut. A lot was already riding on 21-year-old lefty Alex Romanov taking a big step in his sophomore season, and now it’s imperative he starts off well on that journey.
Still, you have to expect he’ll go through the regular ups and downs any player his age would.
Ups and downs are all Brett Kulak has known as a member of the Canadiens since 2018. He’s filled in the top-four admirably on occasion but still hasn’t found a permanent spot in the lineup.
A big part of the reason for that is the coaching staff doesn’t feel comfortable using Kulak the way his skills suggest he could be used.
If you can believe it, Kulak has only played a total of 41:19 on the penalty kill over his entire regular-season tenure with the Canadiens. And despite his skating and puck-moving ability, he’s played less than eight minutes on the power play over that same period.
When Ducharme was asked why that was the case on Wednesday, the answer was somewhat hard to dispute.
“I think the offence he brings is off a rush, off a broken play,” Ducharme said. “He skates well, he can jump in. That’s where he can bring some offence.
“But we don’t see him as a quarterback on top of the power play.”
It might have been worth testing that out a little as the Canadiens floundered with the man-advantage over the last two seasons, but you can’t go backward.
Chris Wideman, righty, is fighting to make the team. And right-hander David Savard acknowledged, after Tuesday’s 6-2 loss in Toronto, that it’s going to take him some time to get used to the system Ducharme is running.
We think 19-year-old lefty Kaiden Guhle is in the same boat, even if he’s shown well during training camp.
Still, the injury to Edmundson opens the door for Guhle to start the season with the Canadiens, and Ducharme acknowledged that reality.
But even if Guhle is with the team a bit longer, the plan is to get him back to the WHL’s Prince Albert Raiders as soon as possible.
“We’ll see what happens with Sami Niku,” said Ducharme regarding the possibility of keeping Guhle around.
“And there’s other things that could happen between now and Wednesday,” he added.
A trade or waiver claim to bolster the defence feels like one of them.
We’d suggest that’s the most likely scenario because the Canadiens surely know they’re at a major deficit with Weber gone and without Edmundson to start. They know an early injury to either Jeff Petry or Ben Chiarot could derail the entire season.
Price not being available until who knows when won’t exactly mitigate the issue, even with Petry and Chiarot healthy and Jake Allen in place to carry the load in his absence.
As we suggested, Wednesday wasn’t a good day for the Canadiens.
Poehling must ace final audition
It’s a perilous position to be in, but Ryan Poehling is going to have to get accustomed to it if he’s going to be in Montreal by the time this training camp breaks.
He’s been in the spotlight since it started two weeks ago — a 22-year-old former first-round pick primed to finally break through to the NHL with a spot that’s right there for him to fill — and it’s been getting hotter and hotter with every passing day.
In one respect, it’s burning him because nothing else going on with the Canadiens — outside the injuries — has commanded nearly as much attention, and his game is being over-analyzed and, to a degree, over-criticized.
Poehling hasn’t been bad. By the numbers, he’s been fine. At five-on-five, he’s got a 52.9 per cent Corsi rating, a 52.3 expected-goals percentage, won at least 55 per cent of the faceoffs he’s taken in each of the four games he’s played and has only been on the ice for two goals against. Also, he’s done it all without more than one bonafide NHL player on a line with him.
But there’s nothing in the eye test that would lead anyone to suggest Poehling has grabbed this golden opportunity by the throat. And if all the attention he’s getting is part of the reason for that, it’s a red flag.
This is what it is to be a Montreal Canadien, to play in a town where a fourth-line centre will face almost as much scrutiny as the starting goaltender, and it’s an inescapable reality.
If this factor isn’t at the root of the tension in Poehling’s game, what is? Because he looks like a guy doing all he can not to lose a spot rather than one trying to win one outright.
The door is still wide open for the Lakeville, Minn., native to do it. His main competition, Cedric Paquette, remains sidelined with a lower-body injury and isn’t guaranteed to start the season on time — even if Ducharme said he’s confident he will be.
With Paquette out, only 11 regular forwards are healthy with 13 spots to fill.
Fringe guy Alex Belzile remains at camp. Jesse Ylonen is here, too, after these cuts were announced by the Canadiens Wednesday morning.
The Canadiens have released the following players from training camp:
Must clear waivers before being assigned to Laval:
Assigned to Laval:
— Canadiens Montréal (@CanadiensMTL) October 6, 2021
But neither of those players are in the running to be this team’s fourth-line centre, and the only way both of them are sticking around through next Wednesday is if Poehling no longer is either.
The good thing is his final test should provide the most accurate read on his ability to actually play the role. Poehling will enter it on a line with Belzile and Mathieu Perreault— beneath what’s expected to be the three top lines on opening night — and he has to come out of it showing more than he has so far.
Cole Caufield betting on himself
This is part of Cole Caufield’s mystique: he’s young, he’s brash, seemingly always in a good mood and he’s extremely confident.
You see it in how Caufield plays, in the way he displays his all-world talent and the way he already has a knack for coming through in the big moments.
So, it shouldn’t be that surprising Caufield wasn’t backing away from former USA teammate Trevor Zegras suggesting he’d score 40 goals this season.
“I love that,” Caufield said when we asked him about it at the start of camp.
“I think that Trevor’s the only one that said it. I don’t know how many people agreed with it, but I’m on Trevor’s side.”
When we asked how many points Zegras would put up over 82 games with the Anaheim Ducks this season, Caufield said 70.
He had a lot more to say here:
In addition to the standard “it would be a dream to play for USA at the Olympics” answer, we appreciated Caufield’s response to the follow-up on whether or not he’s gunning for a spot.
“Obviously,” he said.
Hardest shot goes to…
Full disclosure: the only reason we asked Allen about this today was because Cayden Primeau told us, when we interviewed him for the same rapid-fire segment we did with Caufield, that Romanov has the hardest shot on the Canadiens.
Allen appeared to be more focused on the forwards.
“Hardest shot — there’s always two different things I always say: there’s practice shots and game shots,” the goaltender said. “A lot of guys can really zing the puck in practice; there’s no pressure on you, you can just fly down the wing and no one’s on you.
“(Jesperi Kotkaniemi) did have it last year. His wrist shot was next level and he could really get it off. But I would say hardest and heaviest right now is Josh Anderson. He’s not a shooter like Cole, or like (Tyler Toffoli), but when he gets it and he releases it and that puck hits you with the thud, you can feel it through your equipment. There’s not many guys that really have that strength and power behind it, and Cole isn’t too far behind.”
Jonathan Drouin said Anderson has the most underrated shot.
He had some other interesting things to say in this video we released on Twitter earlier this week:
If you had to guess: Which Montreal Canadiens player was voted worst dressed by his teammates? @EricEngels put the @CanadiensMTL to the ultimate test with some rapid fire questions. pic.twitter.com/L1UG5R3vtL
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) October 5, 2021