Breaking down the Canadiens’ final decisions in setting their season-opening lineup

BROSSARD, Quebec — As the Canadiens opened training camp, coach Martin St. Louis was presented with a philosophical question, one based on the acquisition of veteran winger Tanner Pearson a day earlier and the re-signing on a bargain contract of Sean Monahan after his redemption story a season ago was cut short by injury.

When a rebuilding team is trying to develop its young players, how do you measure their need for ice time at the NHL level versus what veterans like Pearson and Monahan can offer?

“I think the biggest thing is their body of work, and if they’ve had that big of a body of work, it’s because they’ve had consistency,” St. Louis said that day. “It’s a fine line. You know what you have with this player, and you know what you’re going to get from this player day in, day out. And you have a potential player that probably has a higher ceiling, but we’re not sure about the consistency of that player right now. So, it’s a fine line. Like, how high is the ceiling? It’s a juggling act a little bit, there’s no doubt about it, and I know we’re going to have some hard decisions to make. And at the end of the day, I think it’s a good problem to have hard decisions to make.”

The Canadiens made their final cuts Monday ahead of the NHL’s roster deadline, and when you look at everything St. Louis said at the beginning of camp about a veteran’s body of work, that is ultimately what doomed Joel Armia, who cleared waivers Monday at 2 p.m. ET and can now be sent down to the Laval Rocket of the AHL.

Armia’s four-year, $3.4 million a year contract that has one year left on it after this one was earned through a body of work that came under a different administration. Under the current administration of Jeff Gorton and Kent Hughes, Armia’s body of work has not shown much consistency. And when St. Louis was asked about the conversation he had with Armia after he was placed on waivers Sunday afternoon, there was a pretty clear message to be found there.

“It’s hard. Especially the way the game is now, there’s a lot of calculated decisions, probably more these days than they were when I was put on waivers,” St. Louis said. “But it’s still not a great feeling. You have to understand that your window to be a professional athlete is so small and that your life after hockey is going to be much longer, and you don’t get do-overs.

“So you’ve got to stay in the moment and get after it.”

It’s not clear if there was anything Armia could have really done in this camp to make this end result any different, because it certainly looks now as though Pearson’s acquisition had this end result in mind. But if there was anything Armia could have done to change some minds in the Canadiens’ front office, he clearly didn’t do it in training camp. He played more like a veteran hoping not to get hurt and simply get his timing and conditioning down to prepare for the regular season — someone, in other words, banking on a flawed body of work — more so than someone whose job was at risk.

That’s on him.

St. Louis said this isn’t necessarily the end of Armia’s story in Montreal — there is a lot of runway left on that contract — but Armia will now need to “get after it” in Laval.

Joel Armia skates against the Boston Bruins in April 2023. (Minas Panagiotakis / Getty Images)

Josh Anderson gets the penthouse suite

Another question that has been top of mind since the beginning of training camp is who would play with Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield. Many players got a chance to audition there, but ultimately it will be the same player who played with them on opening night a season ago.

Except, is Josh Anderson this year the same player he was last year?

St. Louis doesn’t think so.

Last season, about once a week, St. Louis would grab Anderson and bring him into the video room to show him a little detail, a little wrinkle he could add to his game to align it more with the way St. Louis wants the Canadiens to play. All the buzzwords St. Louis uses — controlling speed, balance on the ice, players being connected on the ice — were the concepts at the heart of those personalized video sessions with Anderson. He wanted to turn a strict north-south player into a more cerebral one.

This decision to run it back with Anderson playing with Suzuki and Caufield, something that objectively did not work last season, is doubling down on that work. Last season, the Caufield-Suzuki-Anderson combination only lasted for a little over 65 minutes of ice time at five-on-five, according to Natural Stat Trick. Suzuki and Caufield were better off without Anderson in basically every metric imaginable.

Suzuki and Caufield at 5v5 last season

Minutes CF% SF% xGF% GF%

With Anderson






Without Anderson






But again, to St. Louis, Anderson is a different player now thanks to the work they have done together, and in training camp at least, he has shown signs of that evolution.

“I think his work off the puck and understanding the balance we need on the ice, that he can’t just skate where he wants to skate, he needs to go where the game needs him to go,” St. Louis said of the difference. “I think I’ve seen that progression last year and then this year. I know he’s got a lot of speed, but it’s how to use that speed and it seems like Andy gets a lot of breakaways. The second half of last year he was getting tons of breakaways, this year again. For a big guy, he’s got a lot of speed, but he’s finally realized when to use it, how to use it and understands the balance on the ice with his other two teammates better than he has in the past. He’s a big-time player for us.”

A question of future roles

Emil Heineman did not survive cut down day Monday, being re-assigned to Laval with the expectation he will be one of the first callups when the need arises. Jesse Ylönen, who would have needed to get through waivers to go to Laval, is still in Montreal. St. Louis did not dispute the notion that the decision came down to these two players, and the way the decision went — while obviously influenced by the waiver status of each of them — provided a hint as to what the organization hopes each player will become.

Though Ylönen has been an offensive player forever, he began seeing reps on the penalty kill for essentially the first time in his life in training camp. When he was asked about killing penalties last season and whether he would like a chance to prove he could do it, Ylönen laughed it off a bit because he had never done that before. It would be quite a leap to ask him to start trying in the middle of a season.

But now, Ylönen sees that as a path to the NHL.

“I think I have decent tools offensively, so that’s something I want to bring to this team,” he said Monday. “But also being a reliable player defensively and doing all the other stuff as well as I can.”

Ylönen would hardly be the first player who has to adapt his mindset to become more of a two-way player in the NHL. Basically everyone who makes the NHL was once an offensive force on his team or in his league. Some players continue on that path, but most have to adapt.

Except the Canadiens also wanted to ensure Heineman would not be playing a role like that in Montreal. They preferred having him in an offensive role in Laval, and with his size, shot, and ability to play a physical, forechecking style, perhaps that can be interpreted as seeing Heineman playing further up the lineup when he does finally make the NHL for good.

“I think it’s (Ylönen’s) experience from last year. He came back heavier, I think he’s ready for the next level,” St. Louis said. “That’s not to say Heineman isn’t ready, but it’s a bit of what he has in front of him right now and what we need from him to keep improving. I think he’ll play in a better chair in Laval, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him here this year.”

It’s a bit of what he has in front him is the telling line there.

St. Louis didn’t hide the fact the decision was similar when it came to keeping Justin Barron and sending Mattias Norlinder down to Laval. Normally, you would think that’s better news for Barron than it is for Norlinder, but the fact they would rather have Norlinder playing in a “better chair” in Laval and are willing to let Barron exist on the fringes of the NHL lineup could probably be seen as better news for Norlinder than it would be for Barron.

“Norlinder is still getting adjusted to the smaller ice, but he had a hell of a camp,” St. Louis said. “I’m very impressed by him.”

Arber Xhekaj, power play man

Cutting Norlinder also left the door open for Arber Xhekaj to grab the job of quarterbacking the second power-play unit, something he did on occasion last season, but also something Norlinder’s skill set seems better suited for.

Prior to practice Monday, St. Louis and assistant coach Alexandre Burrows took the second power-play unit to the second ice sheet in Brossard: Xhekaj, Anderson, Alex Newhook, Juraj Slafkovský and Brendan Gallagher. Almost the entire time was spent working on breakouts and entries, and all the different options Xhekaj had available to him carrying the puck up the ice.

St. Louis was very hands-on, explaining routes and passing lines and angles of attack. The Canadiens had placed three nets on the opposing blue line to make it clear which areas of the ice they should avoid on entries.

This is an apprenticeship for Xhekaj, but one St. Louis believes he is ready for, or at least more ready than Norlinder was for regular five-on-five work at the NHL level.

“I think it’s his shot,” St. Louis said. “It’s heavy, and it’s not just his slap shot. He’s got a heavy wrister and it’s quick off his stick and he’s able to get it through. Anticipating (Xhekaj) to be in the lineup, we want to make sure he gets some reps to be that guy.”

It’s a great opportunity for Xhekaj, but Barron and even Norlinder should stay ready in case it doesn’t work.

The goalie ménage à trois

The Canadiens appear convinced Cayden Primeau would not make it through waivers, and Monday’s waiver activity might mean they are right. While the Colorado Avalanche grabbed goalie Ivan Prosvetov from the Arizona Coyotes, the Tampa Bay Lightning, most notably, did not claim a goaltender.

The Lightning had their own salary cap gymnastics to perform Monday ahead of the roster deadline, which, as usual, they did masterfully.

The Canadiens are hoping to keep Primeau until the league-wide goalie situation calms down, because there is an internal sense he would not make it through right now. They would likely prefer either waiting for that right moment to get him through waivers or trading him, and their reality means they have that luxury to wait.

In the meantime, however, Primeau has a potential opportunity in front of him. It’s not as though Jake Allen and Sam Montembeault had great training camps. In fact, they were both quite mediocre, to be generous. If the game of chicken with Primeau extends far enough into the season, maybe he can even earn himself a more permanent job here as opposed to being stuck in waiver prison.

The lineup will be fluid

St. Louis mentioned the way he forms his lines for any given game might be predicated on the Canadiens’ opponent. Earlier in camp, he mentioned there are several ways to make up a lineup, you can load it up at the top, you can balance it out, and he predicted we’ll probably see a good mix of both extremes and everything in between over the course of the season.

So the lines we saw at practice Monday appear to be more of a lineup that is catered to face the Toronto Maple Leafs on the road Wednesday as opposed to something with some degree of permanence to it.

Cole Caufield

Nick Suzuki

Josh Anderson

Alex Newhook

Kirby Dach

Juraj Slafkovský

Tanner Pearson

Sean Monahan

Brendan Gallagher

Rafaël Harvey-Pinard

Jake Evans

Jesse Ylönen

Mike Matheson

David Savard

Kaiden Guhle

Johnathan Kovacevic

Arber Xhekaj

Jordan Harris/Justin Barron

I’d be pretty surprised to see the exact same lineup configuration against a much weaker Chicago Blackhawks team in the home opener on Saturday.

“Our game plan will always be focused on us and how we play, but while knowing where the holes are on the other team depending on what kind of system they play,” St. Louis said Monday. “The angles of attack are not always the same depending on different kinds of systems. For sure, we know about that, but we won’t change our style of play based on how our lines are made up. Sometimes it’s just about how the other team is balanced and you don’t have last change. But we’re going to play our game.”

(Top photo of Nick Suzuki, Josh Anderson and Cole Caufield: Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

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