Canadiens Training Camp Preview: The competition is on at all positions

Canadiens Executive VP Jeff Gorton outlines the team’s and player’s expectations heading into 2023-24, says he knows fans want them to use the “P” word, but hopes they can remain patient during this rebuilding process.

MONTREAL — New year, same old faces.

There were no sweeping changes made to the Montreal Canadiens in the off-season, and that’s probably a good thing for a team intrinsically focused on growth and development. There’s a level of familiarity that’s now been established — between the players, the players and the coaches, and with the system and identity head coach Martin St. Louis and his staff built last season — and the hope is that catapults this team out of the NHL’s basement.

This is still a young group, which is now entering the second year of the rebuild Canadiens executive vice president of hockey operations Jeff Gorton and general manager Kent Hughes have embarked on. But it’s also a more experienced group — a fact that was probably front of mind for St. Louis when he said, at the team’s annual golf tournament on Sept. 11, that he feels the Canadiens are deeper at every position.

Sure, the additions of Alex Newhook, Tanner Pearson and Gustav Lindstrom give the Canadiens a centre/winger that should bolster the top-six forward group, a veteran winger for the bottom six, and an NHL-ready defenceman who can potentially unseat several more established ones in the pecking order. They make this team deeper just by stepping into the opening practice of training camp later this week. But, the growth experienced by the players who were already under St. Louis a season ago is the biggest factor in that increased depth.

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It should make the competition that much more compelling out of the gate.

St. Louis said it’s going to be a training camp to not only see who fits, but “to see who fits where.”

“It’s an external battle playing against other teams, but players need to understand it’s an internal one and have to seize the best chair they could have,” he added. “They can’t just be satisfied with the chair they’re in because someone could be stealing that chair. Having more depth will push that competition.”

Having some emerging prospects will, too, especially with management and the coaching staff more than willing to have their hands forced in shaping the roster.

It all gets underway on the ice this Thursday. Buckle up.

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Salary Cap Space: -$6,177,916M (will be $3,322,084 once Carey Price is placed on LTIR to start the season)

GM: Kent Hughes

Head coach: Martin St. Louis

Assistant coaches: Stephane Robidas, Alexandre Burrows, Trevor Letwoski

Unsigned players: None

Key new additions: Alex Newhook, Tanner Pearson, Gustav Lindstrom

PTOs: None


There are several to keep an eye on, and perhaps none of them are more intriguing than the one on the blue line.

Mike Matheson, Kaiden Guhle and David Savard are locked into the top two pairs, and the fight for ice time behind them won’t necessarily be decided in training camp.

We can see Arber Xhekaj rounding out the top four because he’s a multi-dimensional player. He brings a combination of size and toughness unparalleled by his teammates, he can kill penalties and contribute on the power play, and his skating lends as well to defending as it does to manufacturing offence.

Justin Barron, Gustav Lindstrom, Chris Wideman, William Trudeau and Logan Mailloux will all be in a battle to unseat Jordan Harris and Johnathan Kovacevic on the third pair, with all of them having an outside chance of doing it out of camp.

Still, expect each to play NHL games this season.

Up front

This might be where the apple cart gets flipped over, never mind upset.

Assuming the Canadiens want to continue with Kirby Dach up the middle, the battle for jobs on his wing should be spicy.

On one side, we see Josh Anderson — and that’s if Alex Newhook jives with Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield on the top line, where we think he’ll be placed so he can start on the right foot with the Canadiens.

But it’s on the other side of Dach where a number of permutations could be tested.

Can Juraj Slafkovsky, who was chosen first overall in the 2022 Draft, take this job and hold it? Will St. Louis prefer to slot Sean Monahan there to help Dach in the faceoff circle? Could Rafael Harvey-Pinard, who scored 14 goals in 34 games last season, give Dach the best opportunity at running a productive line that can support Suzuki’s? Or could Brendan Gallagher have the type of camp that pushes him back into the position his contract suggests he should be playing in?

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And then there’s the bottom six.

Jake Evans could knock Christian Dvorak down a line there, or both of them could be fighting with each other for a job altogether if St. Louis wants Monahan at centre.

On the wing, Pearson comes in eager to resume his career. The 31-year-old Stanley Cup winner, who was traded, along with a 2025 third-round pick, for Casey DeSmith on Tuesday, was limited to just 14 games last season after suffering a hand injury — ironically against the Canadiens — that required multiple surgeries to fix.

Sources confirm he arrived in Vancouver healthy a couple of weeks ago, began skating with his former Canucks teammates right away, and his $3.25-million salary suggests he has the upper hand in the competition for a spot on one of Montreal’s bottom two lines.

That makes the push Jesse Ylonen is making for a spot there an uphill climb. Ditto for Lias Andersson and Emil Heineman.

And if it’s uphill for those three, it’s up Everest for youngsters Owen Beck and Joshua Roy, who were wildcards before Pearson’s late arrival and are now … well … wilder cards.

Michael Pezzetta is also in a battle to keep his job on the fourth line. And now Joel Armia — who’s grossly underperformed since signing a four-year, $13.6-million contract in July of 2021 — is too.

All to say this picture is anything but set.

In net

Three NHL goalies are coming to camp and all of them could be starting the season with the Canadiens.

Samuel Montembeault has earned the starter’s role, but it’s his to lose, and one of Jake Allen or Cayden Primeau is going to have to have an outstanding camp to take it from him.

Primeau must pass through waivers if he doesn’t make the opening-night roster. He was billed as the goaltender of the future, but he needs to have a camp that suggests he’s a goaltender for right now.

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Will the Canadiens carry three goaltenders on the opening-night roster?

It’s a question that basically comes down to Primeau’s performance in camp.

He’s just now entering his prime, he’s yet to prove he can be a reliable NHL goaltender since signing out of Northeastern University in 2019, and a strong camp from him would almost force the Canadiens to keep him to avoid losing him on the waiver wire.

Even if he doesn’t knock it out of the park, it’s hard to imagine Hughes, who’s done a masterful job of managing his assets since taking over in 2022, would want to take on that risk.

It would be one he’d likely have to accept, however, if Primeau falls woefully short of expectations over the coming weeks.


The following is exactly that — just a projection of the opening-night roster, and it’s based purely on this writer’s opinion and nothing else.

It assumes Dvorak might not be healthy enough to start the season on time, even if he’s been skating with the regulars in Brossard since last week. It also assumes both Dach and Monahan will be in the middle of the ice. It has the Canadiens carrying just six defencemen (which shouldn’t be a problem, with them playing only two of their first eight games on the road before making their first extended road trip on Oct. 30) and assumes they’ll opt to keep three goaltenders on the roster to avoid losing Primeau on waivers.

Cole Caufield—Nick Suzuki—Alex Newhook
Juraj Slafkovsky—Kirby Dach—Josh Anderson
Rafael Harvey-Pinard—Sean Monahan—Brendan Gallagher
Tanner Pearson—Jake Evans (Christian Dvorak)—Emil Heineman (Michael Pezzetta)

Mike Matheson-Kaiden Guhle
Arber Xhekaj-David Savard
Jordan Harris-Johnathan Kovacevic

Samuel Montembeault
Jake Allen
Cayden Primeau

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