Well-rested Canadiens get opportunity to assert themselves in North Division

Jesse Fuchs and Eric Engels look at the Canadiens' trade for Eric Staal from the Sabres, which cost them only a couple picks for an experienced centreman.

BROSSARD, Que.— Jesperi Kotkaniemi, after spending one week on the NHL’s Covid Protocol list, joined his Montreal Canadiens on the ice for their first practice since last Monday morning.

Joel Armia, who was the other Montreal player placed on the list, remains in protocol and will be unavailable to the Canadiens for at least the next three games.

Following practice, Canadiens coach Dominique Ducharme couldn’t say much regarding Armia’s status.

“He’s still in the protocol and that’s something I cannot go deep into,” Ducharme said. “But within the next week or so, we should be having him back.”

It might take a little less time for Canadiens leading scorer Tyler Toffoli, who suffered a lower-body injury on Mar. 19, to return.

Toffoli, who has 18 goals and 27 points in 30 games, wasn’t at Monday’s practice, but he’s expected to be at Tuesday morning’s skate.

He won’t play Tuesday night against the Edmonton Oilers at the Bell Centre, but Ducharme confirmed forward Michael Frolik will make his Canadiens debut after spending the entirety of the season to date on the team’s taxi squad.

Livestream every game of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, blackout-free. Plus get the NHL Draft, Free Agency, Blue Jays & MLB, NBA Playoffs matchups and more.

Lines and defence pairings:

Jonathan Drouin-Nick Suzuki-Josh Anderson

Tomas Tatar-Phillip Danault-Brendan Gallagher

Paul Byron-Kotkaniemi-Artturi Lehkonen

(Laurent Dauphin) Michael Frolik-Jake Evans-Corey Perry

Joel Edmundson-Shea Weber

Brett Kulak-Jeff Petry

Alexander Romanov-Victor Mete

After practice, Canadiens defenceman Ben Chiarot, who’s recovering from surgery to repair a fracture in his right hand, skated on his own.

Schedule will be challenging, but it offers Canadiens opportunity to prove themselves

Tuesday’s game against the Oilers is the first of 25 the Canadiens will play in 43 days to finish their season. It comes after a week without skating and just one quick practice under their belts, and there’s no diminishing how big of a task that will be.

The week then ends with games against the Senators—one in Ottawa on Thursday and the other in Montreal on Saturday—and it’ll be the last one that features only three games for the Canadiens between now and May 11. They’ll have no more than two days between games and play five sets of back-to-backs. It’s going to be a grind.

But damn the excuses. The Canadiens have had more rest than any other team in the North Division, they’ve been relatively healthy all season and just had an extra seven days to heal up bumps and bruises. They haven’t lost any ground to the teams behind them, and with multiple games in hand on them and the teams in front of them, it’s time for them to assert themselves in a way they hadn’t over their first 31 games, over which they went 14-8-9.

“Hopefully we can get back and pick up where we left off and make sure that those bad habits don’t seep back into our game,” said Brendan Gallagher about the team’s inconsistent first half. “Because those things—especially with the limited practice time we’re going to have—it’s just something we can’t afford to happen.”

As for the opportunity the Canadiens have in front of them, Gallagher said he’s not thinking about the Vancouver Canucks and Calgary Flames, who are chasing his team in the standings.

“We’ve got to take care of our business and win hockey games,” Gallagher said. “If we do that, we’re going to be able to catch those teams ahead of us. When you speak of Toronto, Edmonton, Winnipeg, very good hockey teams, we feel like we compete with them on any given night. We want that opportunity to prove ourselves. We’re going to get a chance to play these teams coming up, very good hockey teams, and we feel like if we put our best effort forward we’re going to be right there with them. So, it’s a chance for us to go out there and prove it.”

Sign up for NHL newsletters
Get the best of our NHL coverage and exclusives delivered directly to your inbox!

NHL Newsletter

*I understand that I may withdraw my consent at any time.

Staal has new lease on season

It’s easy to look at the $3.25 million Eric Staal is making this year, and the $86 million he’s made over his career, and downplay what he’s been through—especially with the pandemic affecting people in such drastic and awful ways.

Staal has a good life, access to whatever he wants whenever he wants it, and he plays a game for a living. It’s why the 36-year-old said on Sunday, in his first comments as a Canadien, he knows “there’s a lot of people dealing with a lot tougher situations.”

But we shouldn’t diminish what he’s been through mentally—separated from his young family and isolated in Buffalo, where the Sabres started their season in turbulence, had a Covid crash and then went 17 consecutive games without a win before he was traded to Montreal for a third- and a fifth-round pick in the 2021 NHL Draft.

“I had a few moments on the phone with my family back home and some tough times, for sure,” Staal said from his Montreal condo, while serving the second day of his third quarantine since December. “I have three boys — they’re 11, 9 and 6 — and they all play hockey and they all are busy with a lot of different things. They love having dad around. So, when I’m not around and going through some of the things that I went through over the last couple of months, it was for sure difficult.”

And now Staal is in Quebec, where the third wave of the pandemic is in full swing and restrictions don’t allow for his family to visit or join him any time soon.

Had Staal been traded to a team in the United States, that reunion would be imminent. Now’s it’s on hold for the foreseeable future.

And there’s only one way for Staal to make that sacrifice worth something, and that’s to go out and prove he’s a much better player than the one who had three goals, 10 points and a minus-20 rating through 32 games.

“It’s an exciting time for me as a hockey player,” he acknowledged, “and I’m going to try and take full advantage.”

And it’s the chance to be standing at the end, once again hoisting the Stanley Cup overhead, that has Staal reinvigorated.

Even if he’d like to play a top-line role, he knows he’s joining a deep team and he’ll have to earn whatever he gets.

“I just want to win, I want to be out there and win, be competitive, and try and help our group win games, wherever that is in the lineup,” Staal said. “I will do what I can. I feel like I’ve got some games left in me and that I can be a contributor. Wherever they have me start, I will work as hard as I can to make sure that I’m out there more than not. It’s about trying to win games. That’s what I’m here for and looking forward to.”

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

Staal knows winning. He’s a member of the Triple Gold Club, having won the Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006 and medals with Team Canada at the 2007 World Championships and 2010 Olympics.

His view on what it takes?

“When you’re with a group that is together and everybody is committed to doing whatever it takes to find success, individually everybody does,” Staal said. “That’s how I’ve tried to approach every team I’ve been on and every situation I’ve been in—being a contributor, but also having the team in mind and trying to do whatever it takes to win games nightly. That may not be me scoring two or three a night, but it may be blocking a shot or doing a little thing at the end of a game to help ensure a win. It takes everybody in different roles. When you find that or you have that, it becomes pretty fun to be a part of and it just snowballs.”

He has won on the international scene alongside Canadiens captain Shea Weber and fellow Triple Gold Club member Corey Perry. He has seen Brendan Gallagher and Carey Price do the same and watched Joel Edmundson, Jake Allen, Tyler Toffoli and Michael Frolik win the Cup. He knows the Canadiens have what it takes in their room.

As for on the ice, Staal sees some other key ingredients.

“I think the pace that they play at is a level to be successful nowadays in the NHL,” the Thunder Bay, Ont., native said. “I think this is a fast team, I think they move the puck quick, they transition the puck. Obviously, they’ve got a strong back end starting with Weber and (Jeff Petry). They’ve got great goaltending with Carey (Price). There’s a balance up front that they can come at you in waves. With the amount of games we have, the type of season it is, you’re going to need everybody in your lineup.

“I think the way that they played in the (post-season) bubble, beating Pittsburgh, I just think there’s a lot of mix of some guys that have been around a while and understand the game and veteran experience, but also some youthful energy and that pace and play as a group is what excites me and I look forward to diving in and practise and then starting the games.”

Staal’s earliest opportunity to play in one would be Saturday, at the Bell Centre, against the Ottawa Senators. We’ll see if he suits up for it.

Cole Caufield to debut with Laval Rocket next week

There was little doubt the Canadiens would assign Cole Caufield to the AHL immediately after signing him to his three-year entry-level contract on Saturday. They’ve got a cap space issue and there’s no reason to keep him on the NHL roster while he quarantines for seven days starting Monday.

But I was very skeptical, after hearing the news, that Caufield would play a game for the Rocket before suiting up for one with the Canadiens.

I wasn’t alone on that.

“There aren’t any good reasons to send him to Laval, outside of the money situation,” said an Eastern Conference executive who reached out after seeing this tweet.

“They’ll clear the space,” the exec continued. “Get him some NHL games, see what he can do and send him to Laval if he needs to go there. He will be happy to go there if he’s struggling in the NHL.

“Also, they need to see what they have. It will help determine what they need before the (April 12 trade) deadline. And the AHL isn’t the best place to see what they have in Caufield, even if it won’t hurt him.”

Also, Caufield is a game-breaker—a player who scored 30 goals and 52 points in 31 NCAA games with the Wisconsin Badgers and a shoo-in for the Hobey Baker Award—and risking him suffering an injury with the Rocket before giving him a chance to show he can be one with the Canadiens doesn’t seem wise.

But the current cap situation practically makes it necessary, unless something changes between now and when Caufield is able to start participating in team activities on Day 8 of his mandatory 14-day quarantine.

The 20-year-old confirmed on Monday that the plan is for him to first play for the Rocket, even if he feels prepared to step right into the NHL.

“I believe in myself and my skill and work ethic and stuff,” the Wisconsin native said before packing up and leaving for Montreal. “But the AHL’s a great league. A lot of good players come from it. So, I’m just going to try and play how I do and I think that will hopefully speak for itself.”

“I think it’s all based on how I perform and play where I’m at,” Caufield continued. “So, as long as I perform and do the right things, I think at a certain point I might be given that opportunity. As for now, I’m just focused on playing with where I’m at and I’m just excited to get going there.”

He wanted to be a pro a year ago, after he led the Big-10 in scoring as a rookie in Wisconsin.

But Caufield probably recognized it then—and certainly does now—that the decision to go back to school was going to serve him well, both physically and mentally.

“Just maturing on and off the ice,” Caufield said of the benefits of playing his sophomore season at Wisconsin. “College is a good place to be to grow yourself off the ice, with limited games and only games on the weekend. Getting that next year, extra time to put in in the weight room to better yourself, I feel a lot more comfortable. Last year I feel like it would’ve been forced for me to sign and go then, but this year I feel a lot more comfortable and I feel more prepared and ready for the next step. I’m excited to take this next challenge on.”

On the gains he made, Caufield said, “I’m 170 pounds now. I think that’s something that I feel a lot more comfortable with myself in, and I think just being more mature out there using my body protecting the pucks is something I also grew out this year.

“Getting to spend those extra three-four days in the weight room each week pays off during the season—and especially right now. I feel great.”

Badgers coach Tony Granato challenged Caufield right at the start and felt he rose to the occasion immediately and throughout the season.

https://twitter.com/EricEngels/status/1375559558052114438/photo/1

“I think my approach going into every game was to play the D-zone first and get out as fast as you could and go play with the puck,” Caufield said.

He executed. Even Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin recently noted how much better the kid was away from the puck, saying recently he was impressed with his performance in helping Team USA capture a gold medal at the world junior championship and his work to lead Wisconsin to a Big-10 championship.

Continuing to do it in Laval, under coach Joel Bouchard, isn’t going to hinder Caufield’s progress. As for the risk, hey, he could get hurt getting out of bed—even if the risk is imminently higher in a hockey game.

But we’ll see what happens over the coming week. The last one was a pretty good example of how much can change in seven days.

It’s also possible that, even if Bergevin makes a cap-clearing move or two, that the Canadiens delay on promoting Caufield. I don’t think the GM is done trying to improve the roster, and neither does Elliotte Friedman.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.