BROSSARD, Que. — Caution: This is not an article about Juraj Slafkovsky.
On Day 1 of his very first Montreal Canadiens training camp, the first-overall pick in the 2022 NHL Draft would’ve made for a layup of a main story. Instead, shortly after arriving at the team’s south shore practice facility, we in the media were informed of injuries to four of the most secure players scheduled to participate in camp and, with respect to Slafkovsky, the kid was relegated to footnote status.
Considering that none of these players were listed as injured prior to submitting to Wednesday’s physicals, the news sent shockwaves throughout the room — and then the fanbase, which responded hyperbolically on social media.
The first update was that newly minted Canadiens captain Nick Suzuki is out two weeks with a lower-body injury.
Josh Anderson and Jake Evans were also both listed as “day-to-day” with upper-body injuries.
And then the biggest shocker was that Joel Edmundson was listed as out indefinitely with a lower-body injury.
He missed all of last year’s training camp and was limited to just 24 games due to a back injury that was initially categorized as a lower-body injury and Canadiens coach Martin St. Louis was unable to say on Thursday whether or not the injury he’s dealing with now is related.
“We don’t have enough details,” St. Louis said in a statement that was later added to by executive vice-president of hockey operations Jeff Gorton, in an interview with TSN Radio, in which he said Suzuki and Edmundson had collided during an informal skate roughly a week ago, leaving Edmundson with a back injury.
If he misses a significant period of time, the Canadiens don’t have anyone to replace him.
The 29-year-old, who was named an alternate captain on Sept. 12, has assumed a huge role with the Canadiens. The six-foot-five, 224-pound defenceman also takes up a lot of space in the room, and even more of it on the ice, where he combines reach, physicality and an unheralded puck-moving ability that none of Montreal’s other proven defencemen can provide.
Edmundson’s potential long-term loss would exacerbate the team’s biggest concern — not wanting to rush the development of several young defencemen vying for full-time jobs in Montreal.
The Canadiens were only counting on Edmundson, David Savard, Mike Matheson and Chris Wideman as the veterans on the blue line, and that was going to necessitate trusting at least a couple of those young players in more elevated roles than they might’ve otherwise been ready for. And now, at least one of those young players will have to move up and prove they can help fill the void.
It’s a lot to ask.
“For sure, sometimes you accelerate things a little and sometimes those players aren’t ready for that acceleration,” said St. Louis. “But we’ll have more information in seeing how those players handle that in the way they play. Not having Eddy today, or this week, we’ll focus on the other guys and see what they show us.”
We don’t know what Suzuki will be able to show us before the season begins.
The 23-year-old is scheduled to return a week before camp wraps but, as is always the case with injuries, timelines aren’t fixed.
St. Louis said Suzuki was injured in his preparation for the season.
The good news Gorton confirmed in his radio interview is that Suzuki’s injury shouldn’t impact his ability to start the regular season on time.
But one would think starting late in camp isn’t ideal for a player who’s entering Year 1 of an eight-year, $63-million contract and looking to take a big step forward as captain of the Canadiens.
Should we read much into Evans taking part in Thursday’s conditioning drills and Anderson abstaining? Perhaps not in terms of the severity of their injuries.
But it does suggest that Evans’ upper-body injury didn’t prohibit him from participating in the hard skating sessions, while Anderson’s did.
The drills were physically demanding, “and even more mentally demanding,” said St. Louis.
But none of them involved pucks.
If they had, we might have more to report on Slafkovsky’s first official on-ice session at an NHL camp.
With full practices and scrimmages scheduled for Friday, expect all eyes to be on him — from where he lines up to what he does with his first big opportunity to show what he can do.
And yes, we’ll likely spill a lot of ink about all of it thereafter.
Line(s) of the day
One came from a good friend, who called shortly after we arrived in Brossard and asked, “What are you doing there? Just watching these guys skate in circles?”
Ironically, that’s exactly what we were doing.
A player that caught our attention during all of this was Matheson, who’s known for his skating.
The 28-year-old Montrealer, who came to the Canadiens in the trade that sent Jeff Petry to Pittsburgh this summer, will also be known here for his talking before long.
This snippet from Matheson really caught our attention, and colleague Marc-Antoine Godin of The Athletic perfectly encapsulated why when we were talking to him about Matheson following the media availability:
“I think what I (was) able to do in Pittsburgh was just find a bit more of a groove where I was playing well defensively and not trying to push offence and just letting it come to me but also just using my abilities to generate,” Matheson said. “So, not just taking my foot off the gas pedal completely, but I think I’ve learned to pick my spots a lot better. Nobody wants a hit-or-miss player out there where it’s, ‘Oh that was awesome, and then not so much the next time.’ That’s such a big part of being a defenceman, and it’s not easy and I’m not saying I’m perfect at it either, but it’s a constant thing to keep getting better at.”
He was minus-25 over his final two seasons with the Florida Panthers, and then he was plus-21 over two rebound years with the Penguins.
Matheson also set career highs in goals (11) and assists (20) in 74 games with Pittsburgh last season.
“He reminds me of Petry when Petry first got here in 2015,” said Godin when we asked him his opinion.
It was exactly what we were thinking as we listened to Matheson describe his game.
Petry struggled mightily to find the right balance between his offensive and defensive abilities and tasks as a young player with the Edmonton Oilers but was on the verge of striking it when he was acquired by the Canadiens.
Then, from 26 to 32 years old, Petry blossomed and authored career year after career year.
As Godin appropriately pointed out, Matheson fits the same profile as a player and appears poised to do the same thing — and he’ll be counted on to do it immediately by the Canadiens.
“Obviously, he’s going to be counted on for a lot of minutes, I’m sure,” affirmed St. Louis. “And I think he’s a guy that can play a lot of minutes (with) the way he skates. So, in terms of how I see where does he go from here? I think he’s going to have an opportunity here to really take his game to another level — one with definitely his playing time, and two with the brand that we want to play. I think it really fits him.
“So, how much growth he gets from here? It’s going to be up to him. But we’re going to support him to grow as much as he can.”
Matheson said the foundation of his growth will depend on finding consistency in “being more rock solid and dependable back there.”
There’s more to it than just that, though.
“I’d like to get a bit more sophisticated offensively,” Matheson added. “Hoping that I’ll have a bit more of a role to do that here, be able to generate a little bit more offensively without adding a bunch of risk either.”
He said the key will be getting the right amount of repetition to find the poise needed to make the right moves skating the puck up the ice, and to make the right plays straddling the offensive blue line to allow his natural creativity to shine through.
Again, the parallel with Petry is easy to see.
Speaking of right-handed defencemen, Wideman delivered the last memorable line of the day when he was asked if he finally found a place to live in Montreal after admitting earlier it wasn’t an easy process.
“I was staying at Cole (Caufield’s) place in the guest bedroom, so it was like being at home taking care of my son,” he said. “But my son sleeps more. He’s nine months, and he sleeps more.”
Gallagher healthy for the first time in a long time
With the exception of a cut on his nose, suffered when Wideman accidentally punched him in the face giving him a hug, Brendan Gallagher is 100 per cent healthy.
Last season, he was suffering so much he couldn’t walk up the three steps to the podium at the Bell Centre without a noticeable limp.
On Thursday, Gallagher practically leapt onto the riser he was given for his lengthy media scrum.
“Last season was a grind from the start,” he said. “Hopefully put that behind us all and kind of move on. It was a good summer for me — I was able to get back to the regular routine I was used to. Body feels good, feels ready to hopefully be in there for 82 games and be that guy that your teammates can rely on.”
Knowing Gallagher, not being able to do that through a season that saw him only produce seven goals and 24 points and only appear in 56 games was probably even more painful to him than what he was dealing with physically.
He comes into this season out for redemption most people don’t think he can achieve.
“(Being doubted is) part of being a professional athlete,” the 30-year-old alternate captain said. “There’s been people doubting me for the last decade. There might be more (now), but, at the same time, for me, it doesn’t really motivate me or it doesn’t really add a chip on my shoulder or any of that stuff.
“I’ve always played for people that have supported me along the way, and I have so many people that are in my corner as well and have pushed me along and those are the people that you want to prove right. When you come to the rink every day with a positive attitude, it goes a long way. For me, it’s simplifying the mindset and having an idea of what type of player I’ve always been and just knowing that I’ll be able to go out there and produce on the same level I always had and be a good player and be accountable and reliable to my teammates is really all I want to do.”
He’ll have to score more goals, too.
One of the things Gallagher said he focused on during his on-ice summer training was his shot, with St. Louis providing guidelines for how he could do it, and that could prove very beneficial in the process of lighting the lamp more often.
“It’s not changing the way you shoot; it’s adding different types of shots,” he said. “If you can take five-to-10 minutes at the end of a skate to work on stuff like that, it just adds to what you have as a player.”
There’s more Gallagher has been working on — much of it to be unveiled as we move along.
“There’s a lot of things that Marty talked about towards the end of last year, and you’re able to reflect on it over the summer, and now it feels a little bit more natural, feels a little bit more comfortable,” he said. “I’m definitely looking forward to a full season… Getting to work with him for a full season is going to do a lot for our games.”
Don’t sleep on Dadonov
There’s much to uncover about the soft-spoken Russian who came to the Canadiens in the trade that sent Shea Weber to the Vegas Golden Knights over the summer.
However, Matheson, who was teammates with Evgenii Dadonov in Florida, offered an interesting spoiler.
“I think he’s a very underrated player, to be honest,” the defenceman said. “Even in Florida, he was on a line with (superstars Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau) and was always kind of the forgotten one of the three, and I think his value is underrated in that sense. I think he does so much down low to keep cycles alive, to create space for his linemates, and then obviously on the power play I think he’s one of the best bumper guys in the league. He’s so good at just being where he needs to be to support the play and keep the play alive. You see a lot of power plays be one and done, and I think he’s a huge reason why a power play isn’t that.”
Of the 124 goals Dadonov has scored in the NHL, 31 of them have come on the power play. And 26 of his 141 NHL assists have also come on the man-advantage.
Given those numbers — and the little details Matheson was referencing to describe what makes him so effective in one of the hardest power-play roles to excel at — the Canadiens should probably be using Dadonov in this capacity.
With 20 goals and 43 points in 78 games with the Golden Knights last season, Dadonov will likely prove useful in other capacities, too.