MONTREAL — It’s Day 1 of a new Montreal Canadiens season with nowhere for the team to go but up.
They finished in 32nd place last year — in the unenviable position of having to stare up at every other team in the NHL — and though the brass wouldn’t mind if they repeated the feat for the best odds at landing generational talent Connor Bedard to add to what’s becoming one of the more talented prospect pools in the league, the coach and his players have no desire to wear that stink for another season.
Their process is beginning now, and the stories they author will be rich and enticing.
We can’t wait to dig into them. But before we do, here’s a glimpse at what’s at play over the coming weeks of Canadiens training camp.
Current salary cap space: minus-$10,239,166 million
GM: Kent Hughes
Head coach: Martin St. Louis
Assistant coaches: Stephane Robidas, Alexandre Burrows, Trevor Letowski
Unsigned players: None
How will the inexperienced coaching staff ensure player development is properly handled in training camp?
On a team that’s placed development as its top priority and isn’t expected to compete for a playoff spot — never mind the Stanley Cup — this season, the process starts right here in training camp.
It affects so many of the attendees, from 2022 first-round picks Juraj Slafkovsky and Filip Mesar to young defencemen Justin Barron, Jordan Harris, Kaiden Guhle, Mattias Norlinder and Arber Xhekaj, who are all in the mix to play NHL games over the coming months.
On top of pulling this team together and creating a tight bond within the room to get everyone in the mindset of defying considerably low expectations, Martin St. Louis and the Canadiens’ coaching staff will have to balance putting these young players to the test while also putting them in positions to shine. They will have to guard them against snap public reactions to good or bad pre-season showings while also honestly evaluating where they’re at in their development.
And while all of that seems fairly standard at any training camp, it’s still a delicate process to navigate for a relatively fresh NHL coach and a staff that has less experience than just about any other in the league.
Every decision they make, no matter how small, looms large in the big picture — especially in a white-hot market like Montreal.
Think about Slafkovsky, who was picked first overall in July and anointed a star from the moment he pulled on a Canadiens jersey. Everything St. Louis and his staff do with him over the coming weeks will be dissected to the nth degree.
If they decide to start him on what looks like the team’s third line and bill it as easing him in, people will say they’re not getting a proper look at what he can do with players like Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield, whom he’s likely to play with as a developed NHL product. And, conversely, if the 18-year-old starts with Suzuki and Caufield and doesn’t pile up goals right off the hop — even in less structured and meaningless pre-season games — the same people will immediately judge him unfit for this spotlight and say St. Louis and the staff rushed him.
Never mind that Slafkovsky’s about to take his very first strides under that scalding spotlight, and extending him a grace period to adjust to it seems apropos. Decisions with such highly touted prospects are rarely digested as rationally as the people making them hope they will be.
It’ll be fascinating to see how St. Louis frames his decisions and navigates all of that intense scrutiny because what he says publicly is also a big part of properly developing prospects like Slafkovsky.
Of course, the decisions he and the other coaches make ultimately rule the process. There isn’t much else to say about it until they start making them.
A training camp battle to watch:
The big one is on defence, where a few spots are up for grabs and the players competing for them are mostly under 23 years old.
Joel Edmundson, Mike Matheson, David Savard and Chris Wideman are locked in as the only veterans at the position, and that means this competition might extend beyond the other 17 defencemen who’ve been invited to camp — a subject explored in greater detail in the section below.
Of the 17, however, it really boils down to which three of Barron, Harris, Guhle, Norlinder, Xhekaj and Schueneman will shine brightest in practice and in exhibition games.
Barron has a slight edge to one of the spots as a right-shot defenceman, given that all the others shoot left and — aside from Harris — would be playing out of position to fill one of the team’s biggest holes.
Both players got their feet wet in the NHL last year, as did Schueneman, who’s been a pro for longer than all these young defencemen and played over 130 games at the AHL level.
The fact that the Michigan native is 27 years old and entering the prime of his career makes him a contender to lock down a spot on the Canadiens’ blue line.
Guhle also looked physically ready to do so a year ago, before he was sent back for what proved to be one final dominant season in the WHL and on the junior international scene. It’s not a stretch to suggest the 6-foot-2, physical defenceman is more prepared for a full-time role than any other player he’s competing against at this camp.
And then there’s Xhekaj, who impressed the Canadiens’ brass at rookie camp over the past week and brings a well-rounded — and extremely punishing — game that caught enough of Hughes’ attention throughout his final season in the OHL to have the GM mention him as one of the players he feels will help mitigate the loss of Alex Romanov via trade at this past draft.
You could say it doesn’t matter all that much how this plays out in camp because there’s a strong chance all of these players are going to be rotating through the lineup this season at one point or another.
But a season-long competition on the blue line starts right now and nothing will be more compelling than to see how the first leg of it gets settled.
Projected lineup out of camp/depth chart:
Note that this is a loose projection based on the current depth chart and the uncertainty that players are, in fact, healthy enough to start the season. It’s being made prior to the players even subjecting to medical evaluations, so nothing is a given until that happens and, naturally, this picture is quite fluid.
It’s going to be fluid throughout camp, and fluid throughout the season. As it always is.
We’re only basing this on what the Canadiens have right now, even if we can envision a few changes on the horizon before the meaningful games get underway.
For instance, with the team lacking experience on the blue line and wanting to protect the confidence of all the young players competing for spots there, it’s entirely imaginable the Canadiens turn to the waiver wire to fill the void. They have top priority on claims after finishing in last place last season, giving them ample opportunity to add to their roster without subtracting.
Not that they won’t be subtracting.
Be it through trade or waivers, the Canadiens likely have a body or two to shed up front to create both roster and salary-cap flexibility, so keep all of that in mind as you ponder these lines and pairings.
Juraj Slafkovsky-Nick Suzuki-Cole Caufield
Evgeny Dadonov/Jonathan Drouin-Christian Dvorak-Josh Anderson
Rem Pitlick-Kirby Dach-Brendan Gallagher
Mike Hoffman-Sean Monahan/Jake Evans-Joel Armia
*Paul Byron is listed as injured and is questionable to start the season on time.
Mike Matheson-David Savard
Joel Edmundson-Justin Barron
Kaiden Guhle-Chris Wideman
*Jordan Harris and Corey Schueneman in rotation
*With full knowledge that Primeau might outshine Montembeault in camp after a stellar showing in the 2022 Calder Cup Playoffs with Laval, his eligibility to be sent to the minors without being subjected to waivers puts him at a disadvantage in the competition — especially given the lack of NHL depth the Canadiens possess at the position.