MONTREAL — After a 3-0 pre-season loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Sept. 28, Montreal Canadiens head coach Martin St. Louis summed up what may be the team’s mantra going forward.
“If you expect immediate understanding and execution, you don’t understand what teaching is,” he said.
The Canadiens, which will count on several young players in their first full season under St. Louis, will be a work in progress as the team builds toward the future.
After finishing with the worst record in the NHL last season, the Habs selected Juraj Slafkovsky with the first overall pick in this summer's draft. Near the end of the pre-season, Slafkovsky finally had the chance to play on the top line alongside Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield.
“He’s probably gained some confidence and he’s responsible for that confidence,” St. Louis said of Slafkovsky. “He’s been put in a situation to build his confidence but it’s gotta come from within. That’s his responsibility and I think he did that."
Consistent advice from veterans on the team have aided the Slovakian's progress.
“Older guys, for example (Josh Anderson), are always telling me to use more body and he’s telling me every time that the game will get slower and slower for me,” Slafkovsky said. "After three games, I feel it getting a little slower and slower but I still feel that I need to work a lot.”
Doubt still looms as to whether Slafkovsky will begin the season with the Canadiens. The 2022 Olympic bronze medallist could become the first forward chosen with the top pick to not start the following season with the NHL club that drafted him since Mats Sundin.
“I remember when I was young and I was playing my first NHL camp, I found that it was going so fast in my head that it took a bit of time for the game to slow down for me to really show my attributes,” St. Louis said.
Although the front office and coaching staff understand that the team is far from Stanley Cup contention, the influx of youth offers a glimmer of hope in the distance. A glimmer that may get a chance to shine with AHL affiliate Laval Rocket in the near future.
“I’m looking for guys to show us that they’re most ready right now and we gotta be careful to make sure we really focus on what’s best for the player as well,” St. Louis said of the battles for roster spots. “We want to make sure that in two to three years, they are where we expect them to be. So, there are a lot of decisions that come into play. What I want from them is to understand that they’re in a battle and (to) act like it.”
A large part of Montreal’s youth movement comes at the blue line. Justin Barron and Jordan Harris arrived in Montreal late last season while Kaiden Guhle and Arber Xhekaj joined the team this pre-season.
Guhle, a 2020 first-round pick, won the WHL championship along with finals MVP honours playing for the Edmonton Oil Kings last season. The 20-year-old has been paired with David Savard for most of the pre-season and has received praise from the veteran.
“We’ll see what the final decision will be at the end of training camp but like I’ve been saying from the start, I really like playing with him,” Savard said. “He’s a young player that’s extremely mature, that’s very talented. It’s very easy to play with him.
“He’s coming in with an excellent background, he’s a young guy that wants to learn and we’ve been seeing since the start of camp how he’s performing.”
Xhekaj has imposed himself on the blue line thanks to his six-foot-four, 238-pound frame. The 21-year-old undrafted rookie also scored at the Bell Centre in a 5-4 loss to the Ottawa Senators on Oct. 4.
“They're obviously going to do what's best for me and if they think I need time to develop and put me down, I'm just gonna keep working until I make it here,” he said. “Definitely proud of what I did. Obviously, I'd like to show a little more and I think I got in my own head a little bit during this camp with the way things were working, but I think overall, I did pretty solid.”
Teams will have until 5 p.m. on Monday to submit their opening day 23-player rosters. The Canadiens host the Leafs for their regular-season opener on Wednesday.
The Canadiens will once again begin the season without franchise goaltender Carey Price who is on long-term injured reserve. Jake Allen has been tabbed as the starter and penned a two-year extension on Oct. 1 that will keep him with the team through the 2024-2025 season. Samuel Montembeault is expected to be his backup with 23-year-old Cayden Primeau not far behind.
The Habs have a new captain in Nick Suzuki. After trading former captain Shea Weber to the Vegas Golden Knights, St. Louis and general manager Kent Hughes made Suzuki the youngest captain in franchise history at the age of 23.
Acquired from the Pittsburgh Penguins in exchange for Jeff Petry this off-season, Mike Matheson will be suiting up for his hometown Canadiens. Defenceman Joel Edmundson didn’t play a single minute of pre-season hockey and is out indefinitely with a lower-body injury which could open the door for Matheson to play top pairing minutes for Montreal.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 10, 2022.
Tristan D'Amours, The Canadian Press