Much like the season to follow, this has the potential to be the most unique training camp we’ve ever witnessed—with the Montreal Canadiens trying to integrate two new top-six forwards, two new bottom-six forwards, two new defencemen and a new backup goaltender without the benefit of exhibition games.
You have to wonder how (if) they’ll all come together in the 10 days that precede a 56-game sprint to the playoffs that starts with a six-game, cross-country road trip.
Will the Canadiens even have the benefit of everyone being healthy and eligible come Day 1 of camp? It’s far from a guarantee.
Several players were late to arrive back in Montreal, with the NHL’s return-to-play uncertain up until recently. Anyone who traveled from outside the country has to submit to a mandatory seven-day quarantine and produce four negative tests before being permitted on the ice, and given that COVID-19 is raging like a five-alarm fire across Europe, the United States and Canada, it’s possible that some players could contract the virus in their travels.
How the Canadiens would deal with that reality is anybody’s guess. We’ll have to wait and see.
Meanwhile, there are some pertinent hockey questions that must be answered in camp—three of them, in particular, that stand out as the most pressing ones.
Current Cap Space: -$1.1 million
General manager: Marc Bergevin
Head coach: Claude Julien
Assistants: Dominique Ducharme, Luke Richardson, Kirk Muller
Unsigned players: None
1. Can Ryan Poehling steal a spot?
If you wrote Jake Evans into Montreal’s lineup in pen, you may not believe Poehling can get in.
The wings are stacked and Evans is a step ahead in the race to the fourth-line centre role, so that’s two strikes.
That Poehling can be sent to the taxi squad or American Hockey League without waivers is another reason against him earning a spot.
But we can’t think of a player with more to prove than Poehling, and we have to believe he’s beyond motivated to do it in the little time he has.
It’s easy to forget the trajectory the 2017 first-rounder was on before he suffered a concussion in the middle of last year’s training camp. Buoyed by the confidence of his incredible NHL debut in the final game of the 2018-19 season, when he scored a hat trick and added a goal in the shootout against Toronto, he was earning his way on to the roster. Then the injury hit and he never quite found his footing thereafter.
If Poehling’s 27 games with the Canadiens last season were unremarkable, the 36 he played with the Laval Rocket, scoring just five goals and 13 points, were disappointing.
Still, he came to Phase 3 training camp in July with a chance to earn his way into some play-in/playoff action.
But it was evident right off the hop that Poehling wasn’t prepared for that opportunity, and we can only imagine how he felt watching Evans, Alex Belzile and Charles Hudon dress for games while Poehling was relegated and locked into Black-Ace duty.
We’re even more interested in knowing how Poehling felt watching Jesperi Kotkaniemi go from probably not having a spot to taking Max Domi’s place, and how he felt watching Nick Suzuki become Montreal’s most productive centre in the bubble. If Poehling took the right lessons out of that experience, the door is wide open for him to author the biggest surprise at this training camp.
If the Lakeville, Minn., native has used his time off well—if he’s gained a lot of muscle, improved his skating and focused himself on playing the power game that will better enable him to pierce through at the NHL level—he could be a threat.
Camp starts on Poehling’s 22nd birthday and he could give himself the best gift of all by sprinting out of the gates.
2. Where will Alexander Romanov line up?
Assuming Romanov has already made the team, which isn’t exactly an astronomical leap considering how everyone in the Canadiens’ brass has talked up his ability, the focus will be on where he starts.
The 20-year-old, who turns 21 three days into training camp, is a smooth-skating, energetic player. It remains to be seen if there’s much offence to his game, but consensus is that he’s elite at killing plays and that he has a physical edge to his game that grabs your attention.
“He’s a really competitive player,” said Canadiens defence coach Luke Richardson on a recent Zoom call with media members. “We saw that on the first day, the first practice (in the bubble) he laid out a couple of our guys. We weren’t expecting him to do that, but he’s competitive. A no-apologies type of player.”
Is Romanov a player who can jump right on to a pairing with Shea Weber?
Even if he has complementary skills to Weber’s, it might be a bit much to expect Romanov to handle first-pairing minutes and play against the opposition’s best forwards night-in, night-out before he’s even dressed for an NHL game.
But what if the kid shows he’s a step up from a third pair? Perhaps a place next to Jeff Petry isn’t out of the question.
And if he’s just good enough to be a capable partner for either of those two players, the Canadiens will take that, too.
3. How will the lines be assembled?
When we last spoke with Canadiens coach Claude Julien, on a Zoom call back on Oct. 22, he had a paper lineup in front of him that he chose to keep to himself.
"I can do (the lines) right away, but they'll probably change tomorrow,” he said. “That's the nice thing about our forwards—we can move players around here and there and still have good lines. It's exciting; we have some depth and we have choices we can make as we go along—from game to game or even in the middle of a game. It gives our team more balance."
Even knowing that to be true, we’re as curious as anyone to see what Julien’s going to start with.
Will Toffoli play his natural position at right wing, or will he shift over to the left?
Will he want to see Jonathan Drouin and Suzuki build on the chemistry they displayed together in the bubble?
Who out of Artturi Lehkonen, Paul Byron and Joel Armia gets a spot in the top-nine?
Even if Julien’s excited to have the flexibility to mix things around and sees that depth and balance of his lineup as an advantage, he still needs to have the patience to allow chemistry to develop on his lines.
Up against the clock, with an abbreviated training camp and no pre-season games, how the coach manages that situation will be the most compelling story of these 10 days.