Canadiens training camp reset: What have we learned and what do we believe we know?

The Canadiens have reached a different stage of training camp, with most of the players who will be playing in Laval now at Rocket training camp and the NHL club entering its final phase of preparation for the start of the regular season on Oct. 11.

With the demotion of Logan Mailloux to Laval on Tuesday, the Canadiens have nine defencemen, 15 forwards and three goaltenders remaining in training camp as they prepare to head to Mont-Tremblant for three days Wednesday, not counting the injured Christian Dvorak and Chris Wideman. That leaves four cuts remaining, and if we take for granted that goaltender Cayden Primeau will wind up on waivers at some point, it is actually three cuts that need to be made to get down to the 23-man roster limit.

Ignoring for now the salary-cap gymnastics the Canadiens will need to do when submitting their season-opening roster, with Dvorak likely headed for offseason long-term injured reserve and Carey Price being shifted to LTIR after the season begins when the Canadiens need the cap space, there are several candidates for those three cuts. And if the Canadiens decide they don’t want to risk losing Primeau on waivers and choose to go with three goalies for the time being, the final decisions become that much more interesting.

Let’s take a look at where things stand right now as the Canadiens embark on this final stage of training camp.

The battle on defence

The most commonly used French expression in training camp is mêlér les cartes — shuffling the cards — and it is used to describe a player whose performance forces management and the coaching staff to re-think what they expected.

The Canadiens didn’t appear to be entering training camp with a whole bunch of spots up for grabs, but the state of their defence appears very uncertain. And uncertainty creates opportunity, something Mattias Norlinder is most definitely seizing.

The opportunity for Norlinder is that there is a massive hole on the Canadiens’ power play. After Mike Matheson, there is no obvious candidate on defence to serve as the quarterback of the second power-play unit for the Canadiens. Chris Wideman is injured, and even if he weren’t, chances are pretty good he would have struggled to earn a regular spot in the lineup despite his ability to run a power play. Arber Xhekaj occasionally got some looks on the second unit last season, but that’s hardly ideal. Justin Barron could have solidified his spot in the lineup by claiming this role, but he has not had a great camp.

So here’s Norlinder, still with the team and coming off what was probably his best game in a Canadiens uniform Monday night in Toronto. That was Norlinder on the ice in the final stages of the game with goaltender Jake Allen pulled for an extra attacker as the Canadiens looked to tie the game. That was Norlinder making a couple of plays at the offensive blue line to keep the puck in the offensive zone, leading to Josh Anderson’s tying goal in the dying seconds. And that was Norlinder playing a sound game while getting a steady dose of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and Tyler Bertuzzi at five-on-five as David Savard’s defence partner.

After the game, Martin St. Louis admitted Norlinder is forcing his way into the Canadiens’ internal conversations, but really, it is something St. Louis said earlier in camp that resonates here.

“For me, at this point, I’m not in the business of motivating players,” St. Louis said after the game against Toronto on Saturday night. “I’m evaluating and seeing who’s grabbing stuff.”

The reality on defence is there aren’t a whole lot of guys grabbing stuff. Barron has been ordinary, and Gustav Lindström has been roughly the same. With a job available on the right side of the Canadiens defence after Savard and Johnathan Kovacevic, it would be hard to say either Barron or Lindström have really grabbed a whole lot. Even earlier in training camp, St. Louis was asked how ardently he would stick to a perfect lefty-righty split on defence, and while he admitted that would ideally be the case, he also said performance would dictate how that decision is made.

St. Louis has the option of moving any one of Kaiden Guhle or Jordan Harris or perhaps even Norlinder to the right side, and even on the left side, Xhekaj could probably stand to show a bit more to secure a spot in the lineup. He is, after all, still waiver exempt, and if Norlinder pushes his way onto the opening roster, anyone with that exemption aside from Guhle could be considered a potential target to lose their spot to him.

One thing to keep in mind is that the flexibility on defence makes it so the opening roster will not be set in stone. Xhekaj, Harris, Barron and Norlinder are all waiver exempt, so there is no hard deadline on a decision here. But of those four, Norlinder is the one who could best fill that hole on the second power play.

Could Mattias Norlinder push his way onto the Canadiens’ second power-play unit? (David Kirouac / USA Today)

St. Louis is already on the record saying he would be very surprised if Slafkovský started the season anywhere but Montreal. He said it at the golf tournament, before anyone had even hit the ice, so what the Canadiens are thinking here should come as no surprise.

Seeing Slafkovský play with Kirby Dach and Rafaël Harvey-Pinard three times gives an indication St. Louis sees something with Dach and Slafkovský. Providing Slafkovský with a regular centre right off the bat would be a good development strategy, because stability on a line or in a given role is something Slafkovský simply did not have last season.

The Canadiens were working their way up to something with Slafkovský last season, but in the half season he played, he got neither a stable line nor a stable role, with sporadic special teams usage. St. Louis has already acknowledged the plan is to get Slafkovský more minutes this season, but more important than the minutes would be that stability with a core linemate. And if that core linemate were to be Dach, it seems like it could be a good fit with two big bodies who can skate.

When asked last week who the ideal linemate would be for Dach, St. Louis said it would be a goal scorer, a shooter, someone who could benefit from Dach’s ability to create scoring chances. That is what the Canadiens drafted Slafkovský to do, to bury scoring chances and shoot the puck, and it is something Slafkovský himself said during camp he spends way too much time thinking about.

Slafkovský will need to make the most of it, but it looks as though the Canadiens are ready to give him every opportunity to prove he can fill that goal-scorer role, which is not something he really got as a rookie.

The big mystery no longer seems like a mystery

When St. Louis put Josh Anderson with Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield on Monday in Toronto, he was asked if he was working with a clean slate on that combination, one that simply did not work despite numerous attempts last season.

St. Louis immediately said no.

“I need Mony at centre because Newhook can’t play,” he said, “so it was a bit of juggling.”

Alex Newhook, therefore, was slated to centre the third line Monday, and Sean Monahan would have played right wing with Suzuki and Caufield had Newhook been available. The previous time St. Louis put Monahan with the two of them, a combination that did work last season before Monahan was injured and lost for the season in early December, he mentioned how he wanted his key players to feel comfortable as early as possible.

The fact St. Louis wanted them to feel comfortable again in the team’s second-to-last exhibition game is telling.

Monahan is a good fit with Suzuki and Caufield because of his ability to adapt to his linemates and, in the words of St. Louis, do “what the game needs him to do at that time.”

It is still too early to say, but it is difficult not to see St. Louis leaning toward having Monahan on the top line to start the season.

Newhook’s ultimate destination

The fact Newhook got a game with Suzuki and Caufield in the preseason was another hint as to what the Canadiens are thinking. Until Dvorak is ready to return sometime in November, it seems obvious Newhook will be centring the third line, probably with Anderson on his right wing. But when Dvorak returns, it is not difficult to see how Newhook would introduce an element of speed and defensive acumen to the Suzuki-Caufield duo, something we heard was behind the Canadiens’ decision to trade for Newhook to begin with.

There is a belief that Suzuki and Caufield would benefit from having a linemate who could get back in the defensive zone quickly and take some of the defensive responsibilities of the centre away from Suzuki. It will be a while before we see if this is ultimately the plan, but no one should be surprised if we see this for a while once Dvorak returns.

The goaltending situaton

It was mentioned above that the Canadiens might decide to go with three goalies on the roster if they fear losing Primeau on waivers. The decision to take that risk will depend on what the injury situation looks like around the league.

One thing with Primeau that is important to remember is that if he were to be claimed on waivers, the team claiming him would need to keep him on the NHL roster. So that team would need to believe Primeau is ready to fill at least the role of NHL backup. For an NHL team to believe that, they would likely need an injury to hit.

I would personally be surprised if the Canadiens kept Primeau as a third goalie, but that injury situation around the league will help determine the moment when he should go on waivers. That said, neither Allen nor Sam Montembeault have exactly lit the world on fire in training camp, so perhaps there is an opportunity for Primeau here to beat one of them out, but that would be a very surprising turn of events.

(Top photo of the Canadiens’ coaching staff: Minas Panagiotakis / Getty Images)

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