By JD Lagrange – As yet another NHL season is upon us, hockey “experts” and fans have pulled out their crystal balls to make predictions on the upcoming season. Ignoring the fact that they’ve set records for man-games lost to injuries two years in a row, downplaying the changes made both on the ice and to the medical staff, few are giving the Montreal Canadiens any chances of improving this upcoming season. And that’s not counting on the young players developing and improving…
Canadiens’ head coach Martin St-Louis has prepared his team during training camp and he seems to have made some decisions when it comes to the opening night’s line-up against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday. Here is what the combinations look like and a quick assessment from yours truly.
22 Caufield – 14 Suzuki – 17 Anderson
Is Josh Anderson the perfect winger for the Canadiens’ dynamic duo of Caufield and Suzuki? Maybe not. But what he does bring is speed and physicality. He will create space for the team’s two most talented forwards and is capable of imposing respect if opponents want to take liberties against them. He has also been scoring 25 goals per 82 games since joining the Canadiens. This line has a lot of potential.
15 Newhook – 77 Dach – 20 Slafkovsky
It seems like at times, Dach and Slafkovsky had developed some chemistry. Adding a speedy and gritty winger appears to be a smart move by coach St-Louis. If these three can find each other on the ice, it could be an interesting combination. It is a very young line however. Newhook, a natural center, can help Dach take some faceoffs on his strong side as well.
70 Pearson – 91 Monahan – 11 Gallagher
Monahan had an excellent camp. With six points in four games, only Suzuki provided more points for the Canadiens. This will definitely be the team’s “veteran line”, with a combined total of 1,946 regular season’s games amongst them. All three, however, have been struggling with injuries as of late. Gallagher only played 37 games last season, while Monahan (25) and Pearson (14) have played even fewer games. If healthy, this line does have some potential as well.
49 Harvey-Pinard – 71 Evans – 56 Ylönen/55 Pezzetta
Harvey-Pinard has the ability to move up and down the line-up during in-game situations. This will be an energy line that will be defensively responsible. Evans’ progress has been stagnant, particularly on offense, but he’s a sound player for the most part. Ylönen has finally done enough to earn a spot and it’s up to him to prove that he belongs, while we know what Pezzetta brings to the table.
* 28 Christian Dvorak (injured) is skating with his teammates in a non-contact jersey
8 Matheson – 58 Savard
Mike Matheson is proving his worth not only to the Canadiens, but to the NHL in general. Since coming to Montreal, he has become a different player, taking his game to the next level. We all know that Savard is not a top-pairing defenseman but like last season, he’s playing in a chair that’s not his while the team’s young right-handed defensemen with a higher ceiling are developing. They should do okay.
21 Guhle – 26 Kovacevic
In spite of his young age, Kaiden Guhle is a stud and has proven to be able to take on big minutes against the opposition’s best. While Kovacevic was a surprise – he also had a great camp – he is not a top-4 defenseman and at times, the team will suffer from having Savard on the top pair, and Kovy on the second pairing. I was hoping that Barron would be ready to step into that role but he hasn’t seized that opportunity… yet.
72 Xhekaj – 54 Harris/52 Barron
Xhekaj is continuing to defy all logic by being a very capable defender while bringing this heavyweight presence in case it’s needed. Both Harris and Barron are young players who will continue to develop as the season progresses.
34 Allen / 35 Montembeault / 30 Primeau
Once again, goaltending will be the team’s Achilles. Their performances at camp did nothing to reassure anyone both within, and outside the organization. While the Canadiens have drafted a few goalies at this past NHL Draft, they will need time to develop and I’m convinced that Kent Hughes must make it a priority to improve the goaltending position as soon as possible. Concerned about losing Cayden Primeau if they tried sending him through waivers, the Canadiens have decided to start the season with three goaltenders.
I will not go into details about who’s playing on special teams but I do want to share something that coach St-Louis has told Eric Engels of Sportsnet in a recent interview. This clearly shows the organization’s mentality about winning, in spite of what some fans claim.
If this team stays relatively healthy, and if Hughes addresses the immediate glaring need in net, I think that this team will surprise most people in hockey. The Boston Bruins are weaker, and so are the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Florida Panthers have remained at a similar level, losing toughness. The Leafs might have improved a bit, but… they’re the Leafs. Detroit, Buffalo and Montreal have all improved, in my opinion. This will make for a tighter division where any team can beat their opponent on any given night. As Claude “Piton” Ruel once said: “Y’en n’aura pas d’faciles…”