BUFFALO, N.Y. — It’s not wise to make too much out of the first game of a prospect tournament in mid-September, but there was a bit of symbolism on display on the ice Friday night at LECOM Harborcenter.
In some ways, it was a demonstration of the obstacle-ridden road the Montreal Canadiens will have to travel in the Atlantic Division as they go through their rebuild and try to leapfrog teams that are either already contenders or far more advanced in their rebuilds.
Watching the Buffalo Sabres rookies take it to the Canadiens rookies — creating turnovers, creating odd-man rushes, displaying superior skill, speed and, frankly, NHL readiness — is a reflection of where the Sabres are in their process. There was more professional experience, more draft pedigree, just more of everything.
The Canadiens will get there because the team they have here is filled with players with a lot of promise. But they are not alone in their division, and the other teams with stacked pipelines are further ahead in the process, as the Sabres showed in winning the game 6-3.
“It’s OK, it’s part of the learning curve,” Canadiens rookie team coach Jean-François Houle said. “It’s a huge learning curve to come from juniors and the NCAA to the pros for anybody. I don’t care how many points you got in juniors, it’s a men’s game, and there’s other good players.
“Look at that team over there tonight, they had some speed that had some skill as well, they had some high draft picks, they had four first-rounders. So, there’s good teams in this league.”
The Sabres actually had five first-round picks in their lineup Friday. Houle likely forgot defenceman Ryan Johnson, taken with the No. 31 pick in 2019, but he can be forgiven because the four players he was referring to were very noticeable, starting with Matt Savoie, the No. 9 pick in 2022.
MATT SAVOIE 🤯#LetsGoBuffalo
— Buffalo Sabres (@BuffaloSabres) September 16, 2023
Many people wondered why the Canadiens traded the Nos. 31 and 37 picks in the 2023 draft for Alex Newhook. This game was a subtle demonstration of why. The Canadiens have some catching up to do in the division, most notably with the Sabres and Ottawa Senators when it comes to NHL-ready impact prospects. Acquiring a Newhook, a Kirby Dach, allows the Canadiens to start to bridge that gap, even if there is some risk involved.
The Sabres and Senators have gone through the rebuilding process properly. The Detroit Red Wings have done the same. The Canadiens might not have that luxury if they want to compete in the division in the next two or three years.
David Reinbacher made a good, not great, first impression
Early in the third period, the Sabres were heading towards the Canadiens zone on the rush, again. While many in the Canadiens’ fan base were clamouring for them to take Matvei Michkov in the draft, there was another undersized forward who, based purely on skill and upside, would have been just as appropriate to take with the No. 5. Instead, it was the Sabres who took Zach Benson all the way down at No. 13.
So it was appropriate that it was Benson carrying the puck across the blue line, with Reinbacher facing him. There were things going on behind him that Reinbacher needed to survey, and he did that as he carefully approached Benson as he entered the zone (as an aside, Reinbacher has to be the king of the shoulder check. He is constantly looking behind him to survey what else is happening on the ice).
Once Reinbacher determined that it was a good moment to focus on Benson, he reached his stick out to pressure the puck, then he moved his body in aggressively to direct Benson towards the boards, then he separated Benson from the puck with his body, and then the Canadiens had possession of the puck.
This play was Reinbacher in a nutshell. Nothing splashy, just a denial of a zone entry.
It’s not something that winds up on highlight reels, but doing that consistently helps a team win games.
“It was hard, for sure,” Reinbacher said. “It’s smaller here, it’s more skilled here, the guys wanted to show that they’re the right kids out there. I just tried to act normal and do my stuff as always. It was my first game, I liked the experience out there and I’m looking forward to the next games that are coming. I don’t put much pressure on me, just have fun and enjoy it right now.”
Reinbacher showed flashes of his mobility, jumping up in the rush on numerous occasions, but he didn’t really make a whole lot happen offensively. Which is fine. He has the skill set and the brain to do it, and that will eventually come with time.
But as a first impression, Reinbacher delivered by demonstrating his strengths and doing them naturally, despite the nerves he was feeling.
“It’s a huge honour for me to put on the Habs jersey, it’s not a normal day to put on such a great jersey with huge history,” he said. “So, for sure you’re a little bit nervous, but it goes away pretty quick.”
A moment of potential for Logan Mailloux
Mailloux did not create a great first impression. He was having trouble in the defensive zone and in transition, basically showing the parts of his game that needed some work right away.
I don’t think it’s fair to break down just how difficult this game was for him, but those difficulties created a context for one play Mailloux made that was quite impressive.
And it was made more impressive by all the mistakes he had made before it.
With a bit less than four minutes left in the game and the Canadiens down 5-3, Mailloux gathered the puck deep in his own zone. He already cost his team at least two goals in this game based directly on his actions but he saw a need to create offence and managed to leave all of what happened before behind him.
Mailloux went back for a puck in his own end, made a nifty little shoulder fake to shed the first forechecker, skated as though he would take the puck behind his own net and then, suddenly, with another forechecker bearing down on him as he was also being pursued from behind, bravely cut in front of his own net, took a few strong strides with the puck and was quickly in the offensive zone.
His puck-carrying and his shot are known strengths, and his defensive play is a known, glaring weakness. But under the circumstances, that was an incredible mental play, to be able to forget all the mistakes he had made and risk making another one on his own end, but understanding that risk is what the game situation called for was impressive.
Mailloux won’t be proud of this first game because it wasn’t his best, but having the mental wherewithal to make that play after all that had gone wrong for him in the game was indicative of a player with a short memory, which can be a strength in the NHL.
Except about a minute later, Mailloux let another Sabres forward get behind him for a scoring chance.
Let’s just call this a work in progress.
William Trudeau looks like a player
Defenceman Trudeau was given the captain’s “C” for this game, and he wore it well.
He was the Canadiens’ best player and made Reinbacher’s debut a little easier by talking him through it as his defence partner.
“He’s amazing. He’s the leader. He deserves to have the ‘C’ on his chest,” Reinbacher said. “He helped me a lot out there, we talked a lot.”
Trudeau asserted himself all over the ice, showing poise and good decision-making. It was a strong start to an event where last year, Trudeau was content to simply try not to make mistakes. This year, after an excellent rookie year in the AHL, Trudeau took another step and asserted himself at every opportunity with very few mistakes.
Jan Myšák looks like a player too, but in a different way
Houle kept talking about how the Sabres showed the AHL experience they had on their squad. But one player I felt showed the same was Myšák, even though his AHL experience has not gone as planned.
He was feisty in this game, both in the faceoff circle and on the forecheck. The skill game wasn’t really there, but the compete was. Myšák, the No. 48 pick in 2020, has been written off somewhat as an NHL prospect, but it’s not difficult to see a future bottom-six faceoff guy and penalty killer in the future for the Canadiens.
“He’s coming along slowly,” Houle said. “Sometimes he wants to play a little bit more, in Laval he wanted to have a little bit more ice time and stuff like that, but he’s got to find the right chair for himself. I think he can be a good grinder, I don’t see him getting a lot of points in the American Hockey League, but I think he can be a solid two-way player.”
(Photo of David Reinbacher in Buffalo: Courtesy of Club de Hockey Canadiens Inc.)