MONTREAL — With preseason matchups on the docket, several Montreal Canadiens players must do their best to prove their worth to the organization.
The competition at training camp has been fierce so far, with many youngsters rising up to complicate matters for management. In doing so, it’s going to force other players to up their game and establish their place within the organizational hierarchy.
One player everyone will be looking at is first overall pick, Juraj Slafkovsky. The 18-year-old will be in the spotlight, not only because he’s facing a heightened level of competition, but also due to his placement as a right winger.
If he’s capable of proving he can play both on the left and ring wing against NHL competition, Slafkovsky will have an inside track when it comes to finding a spot in an already crowded forward lineup.
Beyond his usage, the coaching staff will be keeping a close eye on his decision-making, which was a significant point of contention early on in development camp. He’s enjoyed a relatively good training camp since there, but there are still several red flags in his game, which is to be expected from any highly-touted prospect with such a raw skill set.
A simple, yet effective style of play against NHL competition will go a long way in convincing Kent Hughes and Co. that Slafkovsky has learned from his earlier mistakes and has become a legitimate option to start the year with the Montreal Canadiens.
Mike Hoffman is in a very different situation than his younger counterparts.
Given his contractual situation, he’s not at risk of losing a spot in the lineup, but there are a few good reasons why management is probably hoping he puts together a solid preseason.
First off, the Montreal Canadiens need talent on the roster, and it’s not just a matter of winning games, though that’s certainly part of it. They need players that will provide decent value to the fans that will spend their hard-earned money for tickets to Habs games at the Bell Centre this season.
The organization also needs veterans to help guide the youth movement that’s on the horizon, and though Hoffman isn’t typically labelled as a leader, he can offer valuable insight to skilled players attempting to earn a job in the NHL.
But, the most crucial, and perhaps the harshest reason the team is hoping he’ll play well, is that Hoffman is one of the likeliest players to be moved in the near future to alleviate the logjam up front.
The better he plays, the more interest he garners.
If there’s one player that has surpassed all expectations at camp, it’s none other than defenceman Arber Xhekaj.
His physical nature was well advertised, and consequently confirmed in Buffalo, but it was his play in scrimmages that lacked physicality which shone a bright light on his underrated skill set.
I was one of the people who made the mistake of writing off Xhekaj as a chaotic player that would never find success in the professional ranks. As it stands, I’m not sure there’s enough crow in Montreal to justify how poorly I judged his potential.
However, it remains to be seen whether he can control that aggression when he’s allowed to drive through his opponents with the force of a herd of bison.
“Historically, guys that play like him don’t have all the offensive attributes he has,” said Martin St-Louis. “So for me, to watch a big guy like that move like that, make plays, feel comfortable at the blue line, but also be mean, that’s exciting.”
Xhekaj can’t lose his identity by removing all physicality from his game, but he will have to prove he can control his aggressive nature when the game is on the line.
As a 23-year-old goaltender, Cayden Primeau is following the same path as numerous goaltenders before him: an extended stay in the AHL peppered with a mix of encouraging and disheartening results.
He’s looked decent so far, making a few impressive saves at the intra-squad game on Sunday, but he needs to be tested against NHL competition to show management that he’s closer to being an NHL-level goaltender than many believe.
With an incredibly solid AHL playoff performance under his belt, the hope is that Primeau can recreate some of that playoff magic throughout the entirety of the regular season.
A strong showing in preseason would be the perfect start to an important season for the young netminder.