Canadiens left with plenty of lineup questions after winless pre-season

Fredericton native Jake Allen discusses what it means to him to be playing in his home province of New Brunswick and talks about his favourite memory growing up in Fredericton.

The evaluation continued for Martin St. Louis and his staff on Saturday in Bouctouche, N.B., where the Montreal Canadiens played their eighth and final pre-season game and fell 3-2 in overtime to the Ottawa Senators.

Just how complete it is now for the coach and his assistants, though, is questionable. That he couldn’t ice a lineup that fully resembles the one he’ll start the regular season with come Wednesday made getting a real handle on what his team actually will be a challenge.

It feels like St. Louis has more questions than he does answers at this point, which would matter a lot more if the Canadiens were expected to be anything more than a bottom team this season.

But we digress.

How much could St. Louis really tell about Juraj Slafkovsky — the first-overall pick in the 2022 draft — without ever having watched him in a game with four lines of full-time NHLers rolling? What conclusions can he draw about chemistry between linemates when so little of it could be established during a camp that saw key players injured and too many of the 75 invited forced to stick around longer to fulfill the absurdly lengthy exhibition schedule?

“I’d have liked to have had everyone available for these last two games,” St. Louis told reporters after Saturday’s game. “But you can only control what you control, and that’s what we had to do.”

Surely, St. Louis got a good feel for things, but he’ll have to glean all the missing information during games that actually count for something.

We don’t take too much from these ones, nor do we think the 0-6-2 results are necessarily predictive of anything — other than the Canadiens clearly being a work in progress.

They’re firmly entrenched in a rebuild. Or, to put it more accurately, they’re building.

At least some of the pieces emerged as foundational over the last three weeks.

Take Kaiden Guhle, for example. He’s a 20-year-old defenceman poised to begin what appears to be a very promising NHL career. He was expected to earn a spot out of camp, and he delivered from Day 1 all the way through, rubber stamping it with his third goal of pre-season in Saturday’s game.

Guhle made crisp plays all over the ice, played smart and physical, and he showed just how far his offensive game has come over the last year. The 16th-overall pick in 2020 also made it clear he’s not only ready to play in Montreal, but that he’s ready for big minutes on the team’s blue line.

Kirby Dach, who’s still only 21, is entering his fourth season in the NHL looking like a player who was worth the first- and third-round picks sent to the Chicago Blackhawks to acquire him this past summer.

He’s a big centre who skates exceptionally well and plays a mature game at both ends of the rink, and he can build on a good start in Montreal to show he’s ready to start fulfilling the promise that saw him taken third overall in the 2019 draft.

And then there’s Slafkovsky, who gradually found a higher level as camp went along and played what St. Louis thought were his best games as the team wrapped pre-season in Newfoundland and New Brunswick.

Not too many people would’ve thought of Arber Xhekaj as a foundational piece of Montreal’s future core when he arrived at last year’s training camp as an undrafted defenceman. But the 21-year-old made a name for himself this fall by playing a rugged, in-your-face game that drew the ire of all his opponents.

That Xhekaj, who was a standout with the OHL champion Hamilton Bulldogs last year, is an excellent skater; that he’s composed, a capable puck mover and much more of an offensive threat than most would’ve assumed should have the Canadiens looking at him as a big part of their future.

The six-foot-four, 238-pounder, who was challenged throughout the pre-season and showed no hesitation to defend his teammates, could also be a big part of the team’s present. Barring a couple of trades or waiver claims, it’s unimaginable he’ll be anywhere but on the Canadiens blue line to start this season.

If we could say the same for Jordan Harris or Justin Barron, who have promising futures but don’t appear quite ready for full-time action in the NHL to start the season. The Canadiens likely wouldn’t have claimed Jonathan Kovacevic from the Winnipeg Jets on Saturday if they were.

The six-foot-four, 208-pound Kovacevic comes with just four games of NHL experience but, to his credit, has lots of pro experience at the AHL level. He’s a 25-year-old defenceman, signed for three years, and can, at the very least, fill a role until Harris and/or Barron show they’re more prepared to play regularly at this level.

This camp provided goaltender Cayden Primeau with a golden opportunity to show he can do the same after authoring impressive playoffs with the AHL’s Laval Rocket last spring.

But it would be impossible to suggest he took advantage of it, leaving Samuel Montembeault unchallenged in the race to back up Jake Allen this season.

Allen, who signed a two-year contract extension last week, was one veteran who showed quite well. Brendan Gallaher was another.

Nick Suzuki played brilliantly in his only exhibition game earlier this week but missed the first two-thirds of camp with a lower-body injury and the rest of it with an upper-body injury that the Canadiens say won’t threaten his ability to start the regular season on time.

He’ll have to play catch up, and so will Christian Dvorak, Mike Hoffman and Joel Armia, who are all currently nursing upper-body injuries.

The Canadiens will have to hope Mike Matheson won’t despite missing the final two games for “precautionary reasons.” If the pre-season was an indication of anything, it was that this team is going to rely heavily on the 28-year-old who came over in the trade that sent Jeff Petry to the Pittsburgh Penguins over the summer.

That Matheson played over 25 minutes in one exhibition game, and regularly skated on both special teams through all his others, tells you how big of a role he’ll play — especially with veteran Joel Edmundson out indefinitely with a back injury.

We know Suzuki and Cole Caufield, who scored a beautiful goal and led the Canadiens with four in the pre-season, will play huge ones.

But everything else is up in the air — from who will complete a line with those two to who will complete the team’s top-six forward group to what the defence pairings will look like on any given night.

Again, that’s not the biggest deal for a Canadiens team with no expectation to compete for anything but a lottery pick this year.

But these three weeks could’ve been used a bit more to build chemistry — and an identity — and they could’ve led St. Louis to learn a lot more about the collective than he likely did.

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