Habs Camp: No Brainers, Subplots and Distractions

Segue Issue 21-02

October 5, 2021

For this issue of Segue I’m riffing off an October 4th article by Arpon Basu of The Athletic which featured this headline: Some roster spots remain available at Canadiens training camp, but some candidates have yet to take hold of them.           

You can read the original article here if you have a paid subscription to The Athletic.

https://theathletic.com/2866342/2021/10/04/how-the-key-questions-for-the-canadiens-are-shaping-up-as-they-enter-the-final-week-of-training-camp/

Basu’s article outlines the two core questions facing the Canadiens as they entered training camp – who would claim the final spot on defence, and whether Ryan Poehling could win a centre position in Montreal.

Arpon provides an excellent breakdown of the Habs needs for each position, some insights into how Coach Dominique Ducharme might be thinking about filling the holes, and the candidates heading into camp. He also provides detailed information about how camp has unfolded – how injuries and individual performances are factoring into the decisions. It’s an excellent read that brings us up to date on where the Habs are heading into the final two preseason games.

Arpon refers to a murkiness around the two vacant positions that exists because “the prime candidates for those positions have not necessarily lit up training camp.”

So… let me segue into my position. The story of this Habs training camp is the non-story… and perhaps a sub-plot or two. The Habs may have entered camp with two decisions but they have become, or perhaps always were, no brainers. Decisions are being prolonged for reasons that are not obvious. The more interesting stories are probably those we weren’t expecting.

The only way we can accept there is a legitimate decision to be made for the final defence position is if we choose to believe Habs management have learned nothing from the past three years.

Heading into camp, one of the core questions surrounded the defence group. Five players were certain – Jeff Petry, Joel Edmundson, Alexander Romanov, Ben Chiarot and newly acquired David Savard were locks for the top five positions on defence. Brett “Eternally Proving Myself” Kulak is also likely to make the top seven. As much as he can’t get any security in Montreal, he’s proven useful and, in the absence of a trade, will make the team.

The competition is for a bottom-pair spot for someone who can prove more useful than Kulak. We know Ducharme wants to form a reliable bottom pair. We also know the Habs are finally prepared to acknowledge a giant gap in the D group that needs to be filled by a puck mover who can play the second wave of the power play. This hole has been present for years, of course, but they are magically able to identify it with Shea Weber on LTIR.

Enter Chris Wideman. Added on the cheap via free agency, and coming with a point to prove, Wideman is a puck mover who may be able to help the power play. It remains to be seen whether he can be a consistent third pair option at five-on-five.

Those could be the seven guys. Training camp may well be rendered moot from an actual roster perspective.

Fans and pundits wondered if there was an opportunity for a young player to make the team. To be more precise, we wondered if Mattias Norlinder could make the team. His offensive prowess is well-known, as are his defensive limitations. He can play right side, even if Ducharme preferred to play him on the left. There is no middle ground warm up in Laval option – he plays in Montreal, or he plays in Sweden.

Norlinder’s injury may have kicked the knees out from under his preseason, but from the first day of camp, there were too many grey bits for me. I wrote about it here:

https://wordpress.com/post/habather.wordpress.com/80

Then everyone started drooling over Kaiden Guhle. Yes, he’s a first round pick from two drafts ago. Yes, he has all the tools to be a great addition to the Habs blue line one day. Yes, he may call to mind another defenceman who is the subject of the GM’s man-crush. Yes, he has been one of the few bright lights of a training camp that featured a fair number of broken bulbs. But he’s 19. He’s not ready.

I don’t really care if Guhle looks better than some veterans at camp. Do you know why? Because that’s not the proper comparison group. No player should advance to the NHL until they can compete against the best in the league. The competition is not the guys on his own team, whether good, bad or gaggle of middling defenders the general manager assembles from year to year. The competition wears a jersey of another colour.

Neither of the kids should stick around because the group is flawed. They should make the team when they are fully developed, and that’s not now.

The training camp story got a little more interesting with the insertion of a few subplots. The Habs signed Sami Niku, but then Josh Norris decided to run him from behind and ix-nay his fresh start. Arber Xhekaj was a delightful sub-plot, but he’s also a prospect who will continue his development in the OHL. We’re seeing the potential of Gianni Fairbrother if the Habs are desperate for a Laval call up later in the year. But none of these really answers the question of the 6D.

If we’re realistic, the defence story ends with Kulak and Wideman in the 6 and 7 slots, splitting starts throughout the year. Only an injury or the addition of a new asset should change that story at this point.

Perhaps the offer sheet was not as significant for Ryan Poehling’s future as we thought it was, and perhaps he knows it.

When Jesperi Kotkaniemi was lost to the offer sheet and the Habs added an older and more developed centre to the group in Christian Dvorak, it seemed like the door opened a little wider for Ryan Poehling to make the leap to the NHL. Paquette is there for insurance, but he’s already banged up and making a case as a perfect 13th forward. If it wasn’t clear before, as soon as Ducharme started talking about two left wingers as his depth options at centre it became obvious the door was wide open.

Poehling has been okay. But that’s all. And here is the kicker. No matter how long they prolong the crowded group at camp, and no matter how many line combos they show us, there are no other options unless Bergevin adds a new asset via trade or waiver claim. Lukas Vejdemo was the only real competitor in my view, and he’s already been cut from camp.

The Habs can either give Poehling the look, settle for whatever Paquette can bring when he’s healthy or move a left winger to the middle. The answer is a no-brainer.

Entering camp, with Paul Byron unavailable and assuming Poehling made the team the Habs were at 14 forwards. Then Mike Hoffman went down to injury. With the number at 13, there is no risk whatsoever in keeping Poehling on the roster and letting he and Paquette fight for the 4C job. Perhaps a real decision arises when Hoffman is healthy.

When the Habs added a goalie via waivers, that may have become the most interesting subplot of the entire training camp.

We all knew it was possible that Carey Price would not be ready for the early part of camp, and none of us is shocked he may not be good to go for opening night. The Habs needed a third option on the roster, but we all assumed it would be Cayden Primeau. I don’t know if any of us expected a waiver claim to fill the net.

Tonight, Samuel Montembeault gets the start for the Habs. The young waiver claim has an opportunity to win the backup spot should Price need a longer recovery time. The Habs will probably have to carry three goalies for a while, and it’s been suggested that the lingering COVID-19 environment may see teams carry three goalies all season. If Primeau is your prized prospect, you want him seeing ice. Enter Montembeault.

The natural consequence of the three-goalie scheme is that the Canadiens will only be able to carry 13 forwards and 7 defencemen. This makes the training camp debate more fictional than real. Many of the guys allegedly still competing for spots can only have a faintest prayer if there are additional injuries.

The more pressing questions at this year’s training camp involve the guys who we know are making the team, and those questions seem to be getting limited attention.

Early in camp I thought it was cute that the veterans were all paired with a kid. But here we are with two preseason games remaining and the new guy (Savard) is still paired with a junior level defenceman (Guhle). Since I have to believe the Habs have learned their lesson and will not rush Guhle, I’m left wondering why Savard is not getting even the smallest opportunity to build chemistry with a guy who may actually be his partner when the season begins.

Based on the preseason, I have no idea what their intentions are for Romanov. If the goal is for the sophomore to take a step ahead this season, it seems to me that getting him settled with his partner should happen any minute now. Are we to believe the plan is a Romanov-Petry pair? I’m doubtful.

A lot is riding on how Savard and Romanov fit in a defence group that is without Shea Weber, but nothing about camp to date is responsive to that reality. The focus appears to be on testing out kids whose near future should already be clear. I have to wonder if their presence is lurking around distraction territory at this point.

The same can be said about the middle of the ice. A centreman will not emerge from the woodwork. The question mark revolves around only two guys – Poehling and Paquette. Why is Poehling playing between AHLers at this point? Set him up between two guys that could realistically be flanking him at Halloween and let him make it or break it. Again, I wonder if the continued presence of a significant group of players who are inevitably destined for elsewhere is serving any function but distraction at this point.

After tonight’s game I imagine we will see some further cuts at camp, and it’s time. It’s past time. The Habs have questions to answer that are not about who the puzzle pieces are, but how those pieces fit together. It’s time they got to answering them.

Published by Lori Bennett

Hockey is my hobby. I love a respectful hockey chat or debate, but it stops being fun if we're jerks.

7 thoughts on “ Habs Camp: No Brainers, Subplots and Distractions

  1. Couldn’t agree more Lori. Playing Poehling with guys who won’t be there makes no sense. Same for your D pairs. Fairbrother isn’t nor is Guhle. Most teams are trying to find chemistry NOW with t eammates. Not waiting until the season starts which it appears the Habs are doing. Put your team together & start the process of building it. Forget messing around. Every single point will count for the Habs more than any other season with all the changes. They will be hard pressed to make it into the playoffs this year in the toughest division in the league. A slow start will be a death knell for a team that has gaping holes on D & lacks firepower up front.

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