Canadiens training camp notebook: Price doubtful to start season on time

Carey Price of the Montreal Canadiens steps onto the ice before facing the Philadelphia Flyers on Aug. 16, 2020, in Toronto. (Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)

BROSSARD, Que. — Status update on Carey Price via Montreal Canadiens coach Dominique Ducharme: The 34-year-old goaltender, who had off-season surgery to repair a torn meniscus, has gone from “if he’s not ready for Day 1 of training camp, he’ll be ready soon after” to “if he misses the first game of the regular season, we don’t think it’s going to drag on too long.”

Not exactly what fans of the team were hoping for 12 days into training camp and nine days from opening the season in Toronto against the Maple Leafs.

Price was supposed to be back on the ice Monday after a week-and-a-half off to ensure his rehabilitation remained on target and that no swelling was brought on by his previous training sessions, but he was unable to be at the rink due to a non-COVID-related illness. And Ducharme said that even though Price is scheduled to be back at the practice facility on Tuesday, confidence is starting to wane the Anahim, B.C., native will be prepared to start the season on time.

“For Carey, in the (rehabilitation) plan, he would’ve skated more lately,” Ducharme said.

The plan was for Price to skate regularly before joining his teammates at practice and perhaps appearing in one of the two final pre-season games scheduled for this week, but he hasn’t been on the ice much — if at all — since we snapped this video on Sept. 21.

Now that Price has been ruled out by Ducharme for both the game in Toronto on Tuesday and the one in Montreal on Thursday, we’re not sure there should be any confidence he’ll be prepared for next Wednesday.

It’s not alarming news, nor should it be too surprising — even if it’s upsetting for Canadiens fans. When the team announced Price was expected to miss between 10-to-12 weeks following successful surgery in New York, that put him at risk of being out until Oct. 15, so there was always a strong possibility Price wouldn’t be prepared to start the season on time — even if both he and Ducharme were holding out hope he might.

If Price remains on target with that initial projection, it’s still possible he’ll be prepared to start the home-opener against the New York Rangers on the 16th, which would certainly please what’s expected to be the first full-capacity crowd at the Bell Centre since March of 2020.

Before we get there, the Canadiens are scheduled to play in Buffalo the night after opening their season in Toronto, and that’s part of what made the acquisition of Samuel Montembeault (off waivers from the Florida Panthers on Saturday) compelling. The 24-year-old last played in the NHL a year-and-a-half ago, but he’ll play against the Maple Leafs Tuesday, and the game — along with every practice moving forward — will serve as an audition to see if he can face the Sabres next week and serve as Jake Allen’s backup for as long as necessary thereafter.

We know the Canadiens are comfortable giving Allen a lot of starts this season, but it’s doubtful they want to burn him out of the gate with back-to-back starts and possibly three starts in four nights if Price isn’t ready to go for the home-opener.

Cayden Primeau is an option. The former seventh-round pick in 2017 played very well in a 2-1 win at the Bell Centre on Saturday, and he has a bright NHL future.

But the sense is the Canadiens would rather get Primeau down to Laval soon to get him ready to start a lot of games with the Rocket this season.

Doing so is going to depend on what Montembeault shows.

“It’s a young goalie that we always liked,” said Ducharme. “We like his potential, he’s only 24. Obviously, with the situation in net right now, I don’t think (claiming him was) a risk. It’s a nice situation for him and for us because we can take a good look…”

Montembeault, a native of Becancour, Que., who grew up a Canadiens fan, is 9-8-3 with an .892 save percentage in 25 NHL appearances, and he believes this is his opportunity to show he can do better.

“It gives me a chance to really prove that I can play in this league and that they didn’t pick me for no reason and that I belong here,” he said after practising with the Canadiens for the first time Monday.

If Montembeault can do that, it’ll allow Price to take as much time as he needs before returning.

Other injury updates

Ducharme said Mike Hoffman (lower-body) is expected to resume skating at some point this week.

The 31-year-old, who signed a three-year, $13.5-million contract with the Canadiens this summer, hurt himself in his final training session before leaving for Montreal. The prognosis was, he could miss up to four weeks.

It remains doubtful Hoffman will start the season on time, but it’s a good sign he’s getting back on the ice.

Joel Edmundson has been skating on his own for much of the last week-and-a-half, but he wasn’t on the ice on Monday. Ducharme had originally hoped Edmundson’s undisclosed injury would heal in time for him to join full practice early last week, but that didn’t happen.

“For Eddy, it’s taking longer than we thought,” Ducharme said Monday. “It’s kind of a little bit stable. It’s not getting much better, but not worse, so they’re looking further to find out if there’s a reason for that. We’ll see more and we’ll know more in the next few days.”

It’ll be at least a few days before Cedric Paquette returns to practice. His lower-body injury is “slowly getting better,” according to Ducharme.

The coach didn’t have anything further on Mattias Norlinder, who suffered a lower-body injury late last week. Ducharme said he was still waiting for results on an MRI conducted Friday and added that Norlinder is “feeling better.”

Sami Niku, who signed a two-way contract with the Canadiens after agreeing with the Winnipeg Jets to mutually terminate his deal, is concussed and isn’t expected back for “a little while,” according to Duchame.

We didn’t ask the coach, but we did check the Canadiens on the status of Shea Weber. We know the captain won’t be playing this season, with lingering injuries making it impossible for him to do so, but we wanted to know if the team had clarity from the NHL on whether or not they’d be permitted to place him on the long-term injury reserve list.

While the Canadiens haven’t received official word yet from the league on that, they’re not concerned about it; they expect to have clearance to place Weber on the list before the season starts.

Cole Caufield’s return clarifies picture up front

After missing a week with a shoulder injury suffered in warmup before the team’s Red-White scrimmage last Sunday, Caufield was back at practice and back on a line with Tyler Toffoli and Nick Suzuki.

That moved Brendan Gallagher to one with Jake Evans and Joel Armia.

The second line of Jonathan Drouin, Christian Dvorak and Josh Anderson remained intact while Mathieu Perreault centred Artturi Lehkonen and Alex Belzile.

When we asked Ducharme what Ryan Poehling should take from skating on an assumed fifth line with Raphael Harvey-Pinard and Jess Ylonen, the coach said the battle for a roster spot continues — and that Poehling would be skating on what could be seen as the third line for the game in Toronto on Tuesday.

New contract sets Evans up for strong start

This was security Jake Evans couldn’t turn away from — a three-year, $5.1 million contract extension finalized with the Canadiens on Sunday — and it should have him feeling prepared to contribute what’s needed from him this season.

Think about the road this player traveled to arrive at this point. He was drafted 207th overall in 2014, passed over by every team multiple times before the Canadiens called his name in the seventh round. Evans then spent four seasons at Notre Dame before spending the bulk of his first two years as a professional in Laval.

They were formative years that allowed Evans to develop into Montreal’s fourth-line centre last season, and he ran with that opportunity and performed well enough in the playoffs to enter the race to be the team’s third-line centre this year.

It was one thing to unlock that opportunity, but to be able to approach it with the support and confidence of the organization should go a long way towards ensuring Evans delivers.

He said on Monday that he was prepared to bet on himself and go year by year until he could prove he was worthy of a longer commitment from the Canadiens.

But when the 25-year-old was surprised with a three-year offer, he jumped at it.

“It was a no-brainer for me,” Evans said. “I love this city, I love the fans, I love the teammates here, and I think there’s something special growing here. For me it was a huge sigh of relief to know I can be here for a while.”

It was a good bet by the Canadiens, too.

Jesperi Kotkaniemi being plucked away by the Carolina Hurricanes via offer sheet opened the door for Evans to take on more responsibility, and the team investing in the player to pull through right now can only help him meet expectations and prove to be an excellent value player for years to come.

Giving him Armia and Gallagher as linemates won’t hurt.

“We really believe in him,” said Ducharme. “I think he’s under the radar a bit. Not that people don’t see that he’s a good player — he contributed things at the end of the season and the playoffs — but it might be a year where he can open some eyes and really have everyone realize how good he can be.”

It would’ve been the Toronto native’s ambition regardless.

But Evans had a good line about the shift in mentality this new pact brings.

“I was usually proving people wrong,” he said, “now it’s proving people right, I guess.”

Evans added his approach to doing it won’t change, though.

“I don’t think I’ve proved much in the NHL,” he said. “I’m extremely happy where I’m at right now, but I want to keep going and I want to prove to a lot of people that I can be a solid, top player in this league, and I just want to keep pushing myself.”

There’s a sense Evans can offer more offensively after putting up just five goals and 16 points through his first 60 NHL games before adding two goals and an assist over his first 13 playoff games, and Ducharme believes he should be able to do it while facing off against some of the top lines in the NHL.

Again, Evans is playing with strong linemates. And he also produced close to a point per game at Notre Dame and 83 points in 118 games with Laval, and that’s pedigree to suggest he has it in him to do more at this level.

Kaiden Guhle a step closer to NHL debut

With Edmundson sidelined, the Canadiens have gotten a better look at Guhle than they may have planned for.

The 16th pick in the 2020 Draft is likely destined to return to the WHL’s Price Albert Raiders, but not immediately. He’s made it to the final phase of training camp paired with David Savard while Chris Wideman moved to a pairing with Ben Chiarot and Alex Romanov continued to skate with Jeff Petry, and there’s a chance that’s where he’ll be when the Canadiens start the regular season.

That will depend on how the 19-year-old performs between now and then, and it’ll largely depend on Edmundson’s status.

But Ducharme didn’t strike the possibility of Guhle starting the season with the Canadiens.

“He’s a youngster who’s progressing well, whether it’s in games or practices,” the coach said. “He’s a smart player who’s adapting well…

“I think he’s skating well, and this is good experience for him and we’ll see where we’re at as the season’s starting.”

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