TORONTO, ON –The Montreal Canadiens training camp opened this weekend with 27 players in attendance (plus P.K. Subban awaiting his new contract at home), vying for up to 23 spots. The big news right off the bat, of course, was the team’s decision to send Scott Gomez back to Alaska, opting not to risk him getting injured this season having already taken the decision that he’ll be bought out come June. Many words have been penned on this move – not unlike what the New York Rangers are doing with Wade Redden – but with camp lasting only a week, the team needs to quickly focus on the players who are still around.
Without Gomez and the injured Petteri Nokelainen (expected to miss at least two weeks), the Canadiens are down to 14 forwards for likely 13 jobs. Tomas Plekanec also sat out the first day of camp, but is considered day-to-day with a rib injury and is probable to start the season with the club. Head coach Michel Therrien – in his first practice with his new team – came up with the following combinations out of the gates:
Max Pacioretty – David Desharnais – Erik Cole
Alex Galchenyuk – Lars Eller – Brian Gionta
Rene Bourque – Brandon Prust – Travis Moen
Ryan White / Gabriel Dumont / Colby Armstrong / Brendan Gallagher
Therrien was quick to indicate that this was only day one and he would experiment with different combinations, some of which might see Alex Galchenyuk at center or Lars Eller on the wing, but with no preseason games to truly put chemistry to the test, we might not have an idea of any real “working” lines until the team’s home opener Saturday against Toronto.
One thing you’ll notice is that especially with the departure of Gomez, it seems a given that Galchenyuk will spend at least the first five games of the season in Montreal, the limit before which the first year of his entry level contract would kick in. Even with Plekanec back, the Canadiens are lacking offensive forwards as you want competent wingers for both Pleks and Eller. Many are hopeful Rene Bourque will bounce back from an off-year, but if you can afford the luxury of having him on a third line with a young and gifted Danish centre, then you start talking about a team that could climb the Eastern Conference ladder towards battling for a playoff spot.
The challenge for last year’s training camp darling Brendan Gallagher is that he’s a right winger, meaning he slots in automatically behind both Erik Cole and Brian Gionta. Gallagher is adapting well to the pro game in Hamilton as one of a struggling team’s better offensive players. He would be served well by a stint with the big club to get a taste of regular season NHL action, but playing limited minutes with fourth line plugs also isn’t best for the development of his game. If Gallagher can earn a spot in the top-9 ahead of the many veterans in camp, then he may be given a “trial” of sorts not unlike Galchenyuk, though since he’s already at the pro level, there is no number-of-games restriction in his case. Still, there is perhaps no player whose chances of sticking are hurt by the lack of preseason games quite as badly as Gallagher’s given the hard-nosed style he plays that shows up a lot clearer in game situations.
That said, I’m still an advocate of Galchenyuk returning to Sarnia after his tryout is up. While he’s extremely talented and putting up big numbers, he still has quite a bit to learn on and off the ice, and a brief sample of NHL action will show him exactly what to work on while rounding out his OHL season. Thus, though Gallagher may be in tough for a spot out of the gates, if Galchenyuk is sent down to the Sting, there may be a need for additional secondary scoring at that point, and Gallagher may be a fit alongside the likes of Eller and Travis Moen. His size will be a drawback on a team looking to get bigger, but he makes up for it by playing a tough, intense, hard-nosed game, rarely ending a shift without putting someone on their rear end; be it his own by driving to the net, or a defender through a hit on the forecheck.
Another interesting player to watch early on will be Colby Armstrong. While he started in the fourth line rotation yesterday, a healthy Armstrong was once capable of 20 goals, and having just turned 30, if injuries are behind him, he still has productive seasons left in him. He’ll be a player trying to prove that the veterans still have game and that the Canadiens can afford to let the kids develop at their own pace in lower leagues.
If Galchenyuk may be limited to a tryout and Gallagher to short-term injury-replacement call-up, which of the kids at camp have a chance to stick? Look no further than Gabriel Dumont who it seemed would have to battle Scott Gomez, Petteri Nokelainen, and Ryan White for the fourth line centre job not long ago. Gomez is at home, Nokelainen on the sidelines, and unlike Dumont who leads the Hamilton Bulldogs in goals and points, White hasn’t played much competitive hockey since the end of last season. If it weren’t for his size, this might make Dumont the odds-on-favourite for the job (with perhaps White on his wing), though he’ll have to earn his shot in training camp.
With P.K. Subban still not signed and Mike Commodore sitting out as he continues to nurse a tender groin, Therrien employed the following defensive pairs on day one:
Andrei Markov – Alexei Emelin
Josh Gorges – Tomas Kaberle
Francis Bouillon – Raphael Diaz
Jarred Tinordi – Yannick Weber
That Yannick Weber started out on the “extra” pairing with the youngster Jarred Tinordi indicates he may begin as No. 8 on his coach’s depth chart. Tinordi, the only rookie invited to camp on the blueline, is likely just here for the experience. He has played well enough in Hamilton, but his role – that of a defensive defenseman – is likely the most difficult one to transition from the junior level to the professional game. Thus, while he is making strides in the right direction, he’ll need to continue honing his craft with the Bulldogs before fans should expect him to make the jump. He got a call ahead of Nathan Beaulieu based on the make-up of the group of defenders in Montreal; Beaulieu has Weber, Raphael Diaz, and Tomas Kaberle to beat out as depth offensive d-men, while the group lacks the toughness Tinordi brings.
Kaberle is skating in the spot Subban held last year, and where he should be expected to start once inked. That leaves a battle between Kaberle, Francis Bouillon, and Raphael Diaz for the final two spots on D, with Bouillon likely having an advantage since he brings a different skill set than the other two and already has the trust of a head coach he previously played for right here in Montreal. Diaz may have a leg up in the battle since he had a strong start to the year in Switzerland, but Kaberle also played some games in Europe and comes to training camp in better physical and mental shape than he was in a year ago, so don’t count him out too quickly.
Commodore is in camp likely not to earn a starting job but to try to prove he’s worthy of a contract. He is currently on an AHL deal so Montreal may have extended him this invite to avoid him being snatched up by another organization. Like Tinordi, he is a better fit than an offensive-oriented blueliner which the team has in abundance, but by sheer numbers, he likely has little chance to be on the team’s opening night roster barring a trade or two.
Still, all players in camp will be given a chance to show they belong. Personally, I’d be looking for a line-up like this come next Saturday night at the Bell Centre:
Max Pacioretty – David Desharnais – Erik Cole
Alex Galchenyuk – Tomas Plekanec – Brian Gionta
Rene Bourque – Lars Eller – Colby Armstrong
Brandon Prust – Gabriel Dumont / Ryan White – Travis Moen
Josh Gorges – P.K. Subban
Andrei Markov – Alexei Emelin
Francis Bouillon – Tomas Kaberle
Games against rival squads Toronto and Boston generally require a little extra pugnacity in the line-up, so it’s possible that all four of the listed fourth liners draw in, though it’s unclear who might get the ax to make room. Armstrong has much to prove this season, but what better way to start than with a chance to show up the team that most recently cut him loose?
Similarly, Kaberle is sure to get up for a game against his former club, and if he’s going to earn his paycheck this season, might as well give him the benefit of the doubt from day one. Force a young and developing player like Diaz to take the job from him rather than the other way around.
Regardless of the final lines, it is certainly good to have Montreal Canadiens hockey to talk about. The Habs are back. But how back are they? Can this team rebound from a season in which they finished 15th in the Eastern Conference to compete for a playoff spot? I think it’s possible, though on paper the roster doesn’t stack up to that of the New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, or Boston Bruins, as examples. Even teams like the New York Islanders, Carolina Hurricanes, Buffalo Sabres, and – yes – the Toronto Maple Leafs will be better than they were, whether through additions or the maturation of young talent. Hockey is back everywhere, including in Montreal, but I would be hesitant to set expectations for this season anywhere above “transition year.”
Let Gomez’s contract come off the books. See what happens with the younger players and how they finish up the year. Assess what you have under a new coaching and management staff in preparation for a likely-t0-be-busy 2013 off-season. There’s lots that *could* go right, many players who were either unhealthy or underperforming last season that could bounce back, but it’s a lot of “if”s to bank on. The team has building blocks in place to return to respectability, and they are assets that can only be complimented by another stud top draft pick in June. I’ve mentioned before that I think it’s too early to give up on the season and join the “tank” train, but fans need to be patient with this group and not turn on the new leaders in place if things should go sour in their first season at the helm.
If the Canadiens aren’t the team to watch this season, then who is? I’ll conclude for today with a fearless start-of-training camp on-the-record prediction for this regular season’s final standings:
x – 1 – New York Rangers
x – 2 – Boston Bruins
x – 3 – Washington Capitals
4 – Philadelphia Flyers
5 – Pittsburgh Penguins
6 – Tampa Bay Lightning
7 – Carolina Hurricanes
8 – Buffalo Sabres
9 – Ottawa Senators
10 – Florida Panthers
11 – Toronto Maple Leafs
12 – New York Islanders
13 – New Jersey Devils
14 – Montreal Canadiens
15 – Winnipeg Jets
x – 1 – Los Angeles Kings
x – 2 – Chicago Blackhawks
x – 3 – Minnesota Wild
4 – St. Louis Blues
5 – Vancouver Canucks
6 – San Jose Sharks
7 – Edmonton Oilers
8 – Detroit Red Wings
9 – Anaheim Ducks
10 – Phoenix Coyotes
11 – Dallas Stars
12 – Colorado Avalanche
13 – Nashville Predators
14 – Calgary Flames
15 – Columbus Blue Jackets