The Montreal Canadiens had a rather entertaining training camp last season.
Not only did four rookie defencemen earn a job on the blueline, a situation that’s almost unheard of in the history of the NHL, but they also had to consider the impressive play of forwards such as Emil Heineman and Filip Mesar as they weighed which league would be best suited to their development.
The potential battles at training camp this season are set to include fewer rookies, however, there should still be a considerable amount of internal competition, which usually brings out the best in young hockey players.
Let’s take a (very) early look at some of the potential battles we might see once training camp opens.
Top Line Woes
With the team intent on using Kirby Dach as a center in their long-term rebuild plans, the most pressing question the team has faced over the last year and a half will once again need to be answered.
Who will play on the top line with Cole Caufield and Nick Suzuki?
Rafael Harvey-Pinard represents a fun, if not somewhat underwhelming option. He’s a hard worker, and his style of play definitely suits star players such as Caufield and Suzuki, but we also have to consider that it would perhaps be the shortest first line in the league since the unfortunate Canadiens rosters that once featured Saku Koivu, Oleg Petrov, and Valerie Bure on the top line.
I’m a strong proponent of focusing on talent before size, and I have no qualms about a roster that features several talented players who happen to be short, but there’s also a point of diminishing returns when your top line can barely activate automatic doors.
Fortunately, Suzuki has old-growth oak trees for legs, and Harvey-Pinard plays with the energy of a border collie that broke into a Redbull factory, which mitigates some of the size concerns.
Nick Suzuki with a beauty of a pass and it's Rafaël Harvey-Pinard with the goal! pic.twitter.com/21MnM7K1gj
— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) February 1, 2023
The Canadiens could look into a re-hash of Josh Anderson on the top line, but statistically speaking, he’s best suited for a role that does not include facing the opposition’s top line. When he played with Suzuki and Caufield, all three suffered a downtick in results.
And then there are the wild card options.
With Jesse Ylonen and Juraj Slafkovsky in need of more ice time, we could end up seeing a very young, and very talented top line, though it’s safe to say they’ll have to impress at training camp if they’re to be considered.
Given all the question marks surrounding the first-line composition, it also feels like we’re nearing a situation that involves splitting up Caufield and Suzuki, to spread the talent around in the lineup, making the Montreal Canadiens a much more balanced team.
We’ll delve into that subject further as the season approaches.
Dach is likely going to anchor the second line, acting as a cheat code for head coach Martin St-Louis by immediately improving the line’s ability to create off the rush.
His shooting coach Tim Turk confirmed that one of Dach’s greatest strengths lies in his ability to create time and space for his linemates, which is why a player like Alex Newhook seems to be an ideal match.
— NBC Sports Hockey (@NBCSportsHockey) May 22, 2021
As for the other wing, once again the team has a bevy of options, though none of them stand out as the pack leader. Josh Anderson showed impressive growth in the second half of the season, which means he could be effective when it comes to capitalizing on Dach’s offensive prowess. The same could be said of Brendan Gallagher, whose results were very encouraging when he wasn’t dealing with an unreasonable number of injuries.
With Sean Monahan anchoring the third line, the Canadiens should be able to ice two or three lines per night that actually produce decent underlying numbers, but it remains to be seen if veterans such as Joel Armia and Christian Dvorak will be given priority over younger players such as Ylonen and Slafkovsky.
Unlike the previous season, there aren’t too many Montreal Canadiens forwards in play. At least not yet.
That means players like Michael Pezzetta don’t have to worry about being sent to the AHL unless the team decides to add more depth. But it also opens up options for players like Emil Heineman or Joshua Roy to make some noise at camp.
Heineman, in particular, had a great showing last year, which was enough to rocket him up the prospect depth charts. Another strong showing at camp may be too much for Kent Hughes and Co. to ignore, especially when we consider that the team needs more shooting talent throughout the lineup.
Filip Mesar, Lias Andersson, and Sean Farrell are likely destined for the AHL, but they do have a chance to position themselves as the best option for a call-up should an injury occur.
Montreal Canadiens Defensive Corps
There will almost be a dozen defencemen vying for just seven jobs, which should set up some fierce competition on the blue line.
Realistically, David Reinbacher and Logan Mailloux aren’t quite ready to make the jump to the NHL, but they will be given an opportunity to prove what they can bring to the table.
William Trudeau and Gustav Lindstrom will also be in the mix, but we should consider them long-shot options, at best.
The most interesting camp battles on the blueline will center on which player will be the odd man out. Mike Matheson, David Savard, and Kaiden Guhle are most likely locks, leaving just four spots for Arber Xhekaj, Johnathan Kovaecvic, Jordan Harris, Justin Barron, and Chris Wideman.
Jordan Harris’ goal pic.twitter.com/lX6E3qqJ3j
— Habs Fan TV (@HabsFanTV_) November 18, 2022
Personally, I believe Harris should be a lock, and that sentiment extends to Kovacevic since he was the best right-handed defenceman last season, but I’m not certain the coaching staff agrees.
From a performance standpoint, sending Wideman to the minors seems like an easy call, though we should also consider that sending a player like Barron and Xhekaj would actually be conducive to their development, whereas watching most of the games from the pressbox would rob them of precious developmental opportunities.