TORONTO, ON – “Ottawa defeating Montreal decisively 6-1 tonight. And good luck to the Senators, better luck next time Montreal Canadiens. This series is done.”
It was with those words from Bob Cole that the 2012-13 Montreal Canadiens went quietly into the night four months ago. But the funny thing about sports is that no matter how last season ended, the dawn of a new one brings with it hope and optimism. Rosters turn over, players get older, injuries heal, and fans of 29 teams have a chance to forgive and forget errors that meant their club wasn’t crowned champion in June.
In the case of these Canadiens, whose Cinderella season of play beyond all expectations was cut short by a suddenly health Ottawa bunch, the group that will report for training camp physicals Wednesday doesn’t look all that different on paper than that which was outclassed in the first round. Back are most of the heroes, just like many of the goats, each given another chance to prove themselves on a fresh sheet of ice.
Do the similarities between this year’s Habs and last year’s eliminate all intrigue and excitement from a camp which seems to include only few if any spots up for grabs? Certainly not, and thus below are detailed five storylines arising from Monday’s release of the training camp roster and which will be answered in the coming days and weeks.
1. Removing the Vail
Typically, there are few surprises when a team announces its training camp roster. The Canadiens invitation of Matt Lashoff on a tryout basis had been leaked days earlier, and despite chatter over the summer, Brenden Morrow’s name did not appear on the list. None of the tryouts from rookie camp survived the first axe, while all members of the 2013 draft class – save Jacob De La Rose and Artturi Lehkonen who are already playing in Europe – will have their first true professional experience.
But there was one mysterious omission from the 55 names the Habs put forward on Monday: 2012 4th round selection Brady Vail. Numerous reports on Vail’s rookie camp performance were less than glowing, with some going as far as to speculate he may have a minor injury to justify his poor play. But the Canadiens haven’t shied away from inviting injured players to camps in the past, allowing them to be around the group and simply keeping them from the on-ice sessions.
Things seemed promising for the versatile two-way center who had been touted as a sleeper from the 2012 class and who was deemed one of his league’s top defensive forwards. He had started 2012-13 nearly matching junior star Alex Galchenyuk point-for-point on the Ontario League’s leaderboard, but was unable to sustain such a pace (due in some part to his shifting to play defense for a spurt when his team encountered injury troubles), finishing the year with a modest three point improvement on his prior season. Still, Vail, 19, got a taste of pro hockey at the end of the year when he was signed to a tryout with the Hamilton Bulldogs after his Windsor Spitfires failed to qualify for the OHL playoffs. Coach Sylvain Lefebvre limited the youngster’s ice time, playing him mainly on the fourth line with Kyle Hagel and Zach Stortini (other than a couple of games of reprieve in the top 9), but the Florida-native was still able to impress on numerous occasions, generating chances in the offensive zone and helping to kill penalties.
Vail was also an early cut from Team USA at the National Junior Evaluation Camp in Lake Placid this summer.
Certainly his absence from the camp is puzzling, particularly when the likes of Jeremy Gregoire, Martin Reway, Connor Crisp, and Stephen MacAulay will all be in attendance, and it will be something to monitor moving forward, given he is the only member of Montreal’s 2012 draft class to have yet to sign any form of contract with the organization. Marc Bergevin will need to decide on Vail’s future by year’s end, at which time the team must either sign him or relinquish the rights to a not-long-ago promising prospect.
2. What if Gionta can’t go?
Speaking of once promising prospects, the ongoing rehab of injured winger Brian Gionta may open a door for Louis Leblanc to get back into the organization’s good graces. While Marc Bergevin and Gionta himself have both indicated that the arm injury shouldn’t keep Montreal’s captain out of the line-up long, there is a real possibility that he won’t be ready for October 1st, and as such, a number of players will be competing to show they should be next in line at forward.
Leblanc is truly a story unto himself, having regressed substantially following a pro rookie campaign that included 42 games with the Canadiens in 2011-12. Leblanc was expected to be a leader on the Bulldogs’ roster last season, but instead managed only 18 points in 62 games on the cellar-dwelling squad. Certainly, his early season high ankle sprain didn’t help, as it is deemed a difficult injury to bounce back from. Thus, hope remains for the 22-year old Quebecer, but with an impressive group of forwards ready to hit the pro ranks at season’s end, this will be a make-or-break year for Leblanc.
The right wing role won’t be handed to Montreal’s 2009 first rounder, however. First, he will need to be better than Mike Blunden – something he couldn’t achieve last season – and now must also outclass other veterans in Martin St. Pierre and Nick Tarnasky. Blunden, Tarnasky, and Gabriel Dumont would probably be better fits to replace George Parros out of the gate, he who is also uncertain to be ready for opening night, but the Canadiens have shown willingness to promote Travis Moen or Brandon Prust in the line-up while inserting additional grinders to fill-in for lost skill players short-term.
If the need for a higher skill quotient is recognized, however, Leblanc still faces challenges from a trio of darkhorses to make the squad out of camp.
First, perhaps even a bigger surprise than Vail’s omission from the camp roster was an unexpected inclusion: 19-year old Sebastian Collberg. Despite having signed his entry level contract with the Canadiens, Collberg will play a final season with Frolunda of the Swedish league before coming over to North America. Thus, given that Frolunda has recently completed the European Trophy tournament (qualifying for the finals in December) and will now begin SHL preseason play, the news that the Habs had received permission from the Indians to have Collberg join them for camp was a pleasant surprise. Collberg has gotten rave reviews at the two Montreal summer camps he has attended since being drafted, and didn’t look out of place during a two-game stint in Hamilton at the tail end of last year. He was a standout at the summer’s Lake Placid World Juniors tune-up camp for Team Sweden, registering two goals and two assists in two games before being forced out due to a knee injury, but has since recovered, even producing three goals and a helper in five games of European Trophy action.
Collberg is a pure sniper with good skating ability. It is doubtful he is ready for full-time NHL action, as he still needs to round out the rest of his game, but he would be eligible to play up to nine games with the Canadiens before returning to Frolunda (assuming the conditions of his loan permit such a thing) without starting year one of his contract.
Like Collberg, another player who could receive up to a nine-game look without a commitment is Charles Hudon. Hudon’s skill level continually turns heads in development camps, and he fit in well on an end of season tryout with the Hamilton Bulldogs despite his young age. Having just turned 19 in June, he will ultimately be returned to Chicoutimi for a final junior season, but if the team needs a forward to fill in for a few games in October, he has every bit as much potential to earn the job as the others on this list. The concern with Hudon is his nagging back injury which kept him out of last year’s World Junior Championship and which remains an ongoing problem. Hudon is playing through pain, still not at 100 per cent, and it’s unclear at this point what it means for his ultimate development as a player.
Finally, there’s Christian Thomas, perhaps Leblanc’s biggest competition for a top nine job, whether out of the gate or over the course of the coming season. At a glance, the winger’s game isn’t that different from Gionta’s, making him seem the most natural replacement. At 5’9”, Thomas is another diminutive winger who compensates for his lack of size with high end offensive abilities. Thomas is a strong skater and isn’t afraid to go hard to the net, but most noticeable of all is his arsenal of NHL-calibre shots (sound like Gio much?). Both Thomas and Leblanc should get a look in preseason action, which will be a first real opportunity to compare them side-by-side (other than briefly at July’s development camp) given Leblanc’s experience ruled him out of rookie camp.
3. The Battle on D
The Canadiens have an injury hole to fill on the back end as well, with news that Alexei Emelin may not be able to return to the line-up until December. For most of the summer, it seemed like the Canadiens would be willing to let the rookies battle it out for the opportunity to start the season with the big squad. Most believed giant-sized Jarred Tinordi held an inside track for the position given his role in the playoff series against Ottawa following Emelin’s injury. But memories are short in the NHL, meaning what happened last year is fully in the past, and Tinordi will again have to prove himself as most worthy among the young blueliners.
Then things changed. The signing of Doug Murray in August threw a wrench into the aspirations of the defensive prospects, even if none of them will admit it. Now, if a youngster wants to be in the line-up at home against the Toronto Maple Leafs, he will have to force Bergevin’s hand to sit either Murray or Francis Bouillon – barring further injuries, of course.
Tinordi isn’t the only one contributing to this backlog. His closest challenger is likely Greg Pateryn, arguably Hamilton’s true top defender last season (even though his flashier partner Nathan Beaulieu received that title.) Like Tinordi, Pateryn is a sizeable defensive blueliner whose game is more shutdown than muscle, but who never backs down from throwing a check when the opportunity presents itself. Pateryn is coming off impressive performances at both July’s development camp and the recent rookie camp, and will undoubtedly be given a chance to leave a greater impression on the Habs’ brass during exhibition play than he did in a nervous and uninspired three game call-up last year.
While Tinordi and Pateryn may be better fits for Montreal’s current needs, a pair of young offensive d-men will also be trying to prove they are furthest along in their development. The known commodity is Beaulieu, a dynamic skater with slick offensive ability and an accurate point shot. Beaulieu has the talent to be a fixture on Montreal’s top four in the coming seasons, but for the most immediate future, disappointing summer camp performances and off-ice questions may contribute to opening the door for a darkhorse to make his NHL debut.
That darkhorse is 23-yeard old blueliner Magnus Nygren, a 2011 fourth rounder who was crowned the Swedish league’s top Swedish defenseman last season. Nygren’s top talent is his booming slapshot, a skill which helped him score 13 goals and 32 points for Farjestad last year. He also uses his 6’1” frame effectively in engaging physically, making him more than a simple powerplay specialist and hopefully helping his transition to North American hockey in his first year on this side of the pond.
Realistically, however, all four of the prospects in question could benefit from starting the season with the Hamilton Bulldogs. For Beaulieu and Nygren, it will be an opportunity to continue developing their defensive games. For Tinordi, it would be a chance to work on improving his physicality and positioning. For Pateryn, the currently most complete player of the four, it would primarily be time to up his confidence level so that he is better prepared to seize an opportunity once it presents itself. The onus will be on them to outplay grizzled veterans like Murray and Bouillon to stay with the Canadiens, as Davis Drewiske is a more fitting seventh d-man to sit in the press box over a young player who will best develop by getting into game action.
4. Whose Position is it Anyway?
Moving away from unproven prospects, many eyes in Montreal will be on the battle at the centre position. No fewer than five players could legitimately slot into that role on any of the top three lines, meaning – assuming no trades or injuries – two will begin the season on wing.
Tomas Plekanec may be the only lock to retain the centre role as the club’s number one pivot. A two-way force about as likely to lead the team in scoring as anyone else on the roster, Plekanec will continue to get top minutes at even strength, on the powerplay, and on the penalty kill. However, that isn’t to say there are no questions in his regard. First, if he is to carry such a heavy workload, will Rene Bourque and Brian Gionta truly be the best fits as his wingers again this season? Or will Michel Therrien finally put him back with more dynamic forwards, the likes of which he hasn’t seen since his most productive days with Alex Kovalev and Andrei Kostitsyn. More concerning with Plekanec is the dip in intensity in his play (though the effort level remains) and his diminishing impact on the game come late season and into the playoffs.
If Plekanec at age 30 is slowly entering the downside of his career (not that this is a foregone conclusion), Lars Eller should be seen as his most natural heir apparent, and deserves a fair shot at the number two centre job. At the time of Eller’s scary injury against the Senators, he had debatably been the Canadiens’ top forward overall for weeks. Eller brings much-needed size down the middle to the team, which in and of itself should make him a favourite to stay at centre, and finally began to add more consistent offensive production to his strong defensive play. If he can pick back up where he left off, he adds critical scoring depth that makes the Canadiens – a team with less top end talent than many other contenders – a difficult-to-defend threat. He appears to be off to a good start with ten pounds of added muscle from heavy summer workouts that should help his somewhat inconsistent physical play.
The incumbent that Eller will need to dethrone in taking on a greater role is 5’7” David Desharnais. Desharnais’s favoured status comes from a 60-point season centering towering talented wingers Max Pacioretty and Erik Cole in 2011-12, but he can only rest on his laurels for so long; Eller finished last season ahead of Desharnais in points and is almost three years younger. The challenge becomes Desharnais’s lack of strength and weak defensive game, making him a less than ideal winger (due to difficulties winning board battles) and an unconventional third liner as a one dimensional player. In fact, Desharnais himself indicated last week that while he’s willing to play wherever Therrien tells him to, he’d be less effective on the wing. Can a player with four years and $14M left on a fresh contract be a healthy scratch insurance policy for an injury to Eller or Plekanec? Unlikely, so in theory he should be the other player in the middle of one of the top three lines.
This is where it gets complicated. The organization has repeated over and over that someday Alex Galchenyuk will be moved back to his natural centre position. The young phenom is coming off a strong rookie campaign playing almost exclusively on the wing, and Therrien won’t commit to a time frame to shifting him to centre, but one would think his apprenticeship in that role should begin sooner rather than later. Therrien has been quoted as saying that Galchenyuk is ready for and would receive more responsibility, though exactly what that entails remains to be seen. For now, the 19-year old American is probably the most likely of the group to kick the season off at left wing.
Last of this group is the newcomer, Daniel Briere. After playing center most of his career, Briere was shifted to right wing last season in Philadelphia to decidedly poor results. Like Desharnais, Briere has expressed willingness to play wherever the Canadiens want him to, but if Bergevin and Therrien want to get the most out of their prize free agent signing, would it not make sense to play him where he is most comfortable? Will the team be forced to draw less than Briere’s best performances just because of the inflexibility that comes with having a Desharnais on your roster? Would that not be a case of putting the cart before the horse? In any case, like Louis Leblanc, Briere is a bit of a story unto himself, in that wherever he plays, he needs to rebound from a couple of poor seasons. The positive is that even in a tough 2011-12 campaign, he was still above the point-per-game mark in the post-season. Theoretically, Briere enters camp as Michael Ryder’s replacement on the right wing, but if you want to give the player a fair shot, he needs to at least be tried in the middle.
While preseason isn’t as critical for veterans as it is for rookies, it often produces signs of chemistry (or lack thereof) and thus yields opening night’s line combinations. Thus, look for all five of these players to be tried at centre, and at least the last three on wing, in order to determine the optimal fits.
5. The Veteran Keys to Success
Do preseason and training camp in fact matter at all for veterans? The media and fans seem to think so, entering with a critical eye and making judgments from day one. Players don’t seem to feel the same kind of pressure, using it as a form of tune-up and encouraging detractors to “chill out.”
But there is no question that the spotlight will be shining extra brightly on a couple of veterans whose play will go a long way in determining the fate of the 2013-14 Canadiens.
The most obvious one is Carey Price, the originator of the infamous “chill out,” quote from a couple of years back. While the Canadiens *may* have found a long-term replacement with the selection of Zach Fucale, the fate of the team for the next few years lies squarely on Price’s shoulders. Frankly, the B.C. native didn’t have to be at his best last year, with the Habs controlling the flow of games and outshooting opponents more than they had at any time in recent memory. And he wasn’t, with that becoming all the more noticeable as the team slumped late in the year. The Canadiens – and Team Canada at the Sochi Olympics – are counting on a bounce back performance from the 26-year old to get his development as a top tier starter back on track. Be prepared for a barrage of reports on every puck that sneaks by him and his subsequent body language right from camp’s opening.
The second vet facing the heat is defenseman Andrei Markov. The 34-year old Russian may have been the team’s MVP through the first few games last year, but his play noticeably worsened starting around midseason. Admittedly, the 74 games (including KHL and playoffs) he played last season were 21 greater than any year since 2008-09, but given how gassed he looked come post-season, there is a legitimate question as to whether he has enough in the tank to be on his game for a full season. Will Markov come into camp rested and rejuvenated? That is the hope of all, along with a subsequent better management of his ice time by Therrien and J.J. Daigneault to keep him fresh (does he really need to kill penalties?).
If, however, Markov looks more like the slow and depleted defenseman we saw at the end of last season, then the voices proclaiming him as “finished” will get increasingly louder. The Canadiens don’t have a legit and ready top pair d-man to replace him with, and the talent drop-off from P.K. Subban to the next Hab blueliner will become an enormous chasm. Unfortunately, this is what happens when you’re waiting for prospects to mature, and stuff the bottom of your depth chart (Bouillon, Murray, Drewiske) as placeholders rather than adding to the top end and letting better players slide down the ranks.
There is no shortage of questions to be answered as training camp gets underway Wednesday and players take to the ice for the first time Thursday. Due to the number of preseason games the team plays, it’s hard for Bergevin and staff to trim the roster too quickly, though we may see a first wave of cuts following the second game on the 16th, and then another either after the back-to-back against the Hurricanes on the 22nd, or following the third game in four nights on the 24th (which would leave two preseason games with the “final” roster). The Hamilton Bulldogs should receive plenty of send-downs prior to the opening of their preseason on September 27th, given the Canadiens will have completed their exhibition schedule by that time.