The 2023 preseason got underway on Monday with the Habs getting doubled up by New Jersey. While the team results don’t matter, there are always some storylines to keep an eye on. Our writers offer up which ones they’re most intrigued about.
Terry Costaris: There are several things that I will be watching closely during this preseason.
First, and foremost, my eyes will be locked on the performance of David Reinbacher. He was arguably the most controversial selection in this year’s draft. I need to know what Montreal’s scouts so passionately see in this very likeable kid when he’s on the ice.
Every year, there is one player who takes the bull by the horns and either makes it to the main squad or plays the nine-game maximum before being sent to the minors. Last year, we had the amazing Arber Xhekaj story. Owen Beck did a lot of impressive work as well.
Barring injury, I believe that Beck will once again challenge for a spot but unfortunately, even though he’s at least ripe for the AHL, he’ll have to overcook in the CHL under lesser competition. The NHL’s prospect agreement with the CHL really needs to be revisited. Things should be more flexible in terms of focusing on the best developmental interests of prospects.
Of all of Montreal’s recent draft picks, Beck is the one who most intrigues me. There’s a Bob Gainey-like vibe about this young man. He exudes remarkable intelligence, character, grit, and determination. Hopefully, he’ll take his likely unfair demotion in stride and lead Team Canada to gold at the World Juniors and then follow things up with a Memorial Cup championship.
My guess is that Montreal will probably send Beck down by game seven where he may get up to two games in either January, February, or March if injuries become yet another problem for the Canadiens.
Speaking of which, I’m not anticipating many injuries during the preseason. I will, however, be watching the success of the team’s new medical staff this upcoming season. Their success should be low-hanging fruit. What are the odds that lightning will strike three times in a row?
If it does, then I will be writing a piece on Montreal’s ridiculously long, fatigue-inducing road trips is the main culprit concerning this club’s injury woes. The Canadiens leave town for long stretches in order to make room for concerts and the like at the Bell Centre. The new medical staff needs to have proactive strategies to deal with this reality.
Another player that I will be keeping a close eye on is Joshua Roy. I doubt that he will ultimately make it to the big club but he should/has to impress. He may get to stay on the big team for a few games.
Juraj Slafkovsky should make the Habs roster. I’m banking on seeing improvement in his play and conditioning. I’m not expecting major improvements, just better play than last season.
Finally, I expect more trades these next few weeks. Don’t ask me who, as there are far too many moving parts here. The window to do something is quickly closing and will not significantly open up again until March.
GM Kent Hughes likes to make trades. He has a few aging, overpaid players who are not in the team’s long-term plans. Who knows, Hughes may even pull another Sean Monahan deal out of his GM hat. At the very least, we should expect another quality waiver wire pickup as the season begins.
So, keep your eyes this preseason on Beck, Roy, Slafkovsky, and some potential wheeling and dealing by Kent Hughes. My gut tells me that more Writers Weigh In pieces are coming over these next few weeks.
Allan Katz: Is Tanner Pearson the final brick in the wall for the Habs to win the Stanley Cup this year? Given the answer is “Probably not,” my second choice would be:
“How much growth will the young players show this year?” “Will the dreaded Sophomore Jinx rear its ugly head?” The team desperately needs to improve team defence, but with such an inexperienced defensive corps and the continued development of the team under Martin St. Louis (fostering of confidence by allowing for occasional mistakes), it looks like the improvement will have to come out of individual growth and development rather than a new stifling defensive system that could actually curb that growth until the team is ready to really make a move.
Mike Matheson is the only defender performing at a career peak performance. David Savard is potentially going to slide unless his minutes can be reduced to account for being on the downside of a solid career. Kaiden Guhle was a revelation, but his numbers were quite poor befitting his massive rookie use on the top two pairings. Teamed with Matheson, Guhle might be primed to really improve. Jordan Harris and Johnathan Kovacevic were also rookies last year, yet their underlying numbers were quite good and if both show improvement, they would be an awesome third pairing or a decent second pairing. Can Xhekaj improve? His pedigree is unique. He is a beloved player, but some prognosticators wonder if he might be in Laval to start the year. Justin Barron who seemed to improve greatly over the season is in a similar predicament.
The sophomore jinx is a real phenomenon among some athletes. Of course, to have a jinx/slump you have to have a good rookie year. Slafkovsky is not really a candidate even if he is sent to Laval. Harvey-Pinard is the one forward who can easily backslide. Yet he has a solid excuse in place. His shooting percentage last year was unsustainable. His work ethic means that while he might backslide a tad, his overall contribution should be solid.
It’s in playing defence where the team is ripe for one or two young men hitting a brick wall hard. Add Samuel Montembeault to the defence conundrum equation and there is quite a range of how this will all work out. In preseason the players will battle to make the team. That’s nine NHL defencemen battling for seven or eight positions. Preseason will not offer conclusive evidence about how the year is going to go, but management has some tough choices to make and chances are their choices will be challenged by results over the first half of the season. Because of the youth, because of the swarm of solid talent waiting behind these guys (Mailloux, Reinbacher, Trudeau, Struble, then Hutson and Engstrom) this is all going to make the preseason fascinating.
Brian La Rose: For me, what happens with Cayden Primeau is the storyline I’ll be keeping an eye on. With Casey DeSmith gone, things are a bit simpler in terms of the potential logjam but there’s still the matter of Primeau needing to clear waivers. Most teams don’t have a need for him but there are a couple where a claim is semi-plausible. Realistically, only one needs to be even a threat for the risk to be there.
Does Primeau make it hard on the Habs? Does he have a strong preseason that forces their hand? Or does he struggle to the point where they can take that chance and waive him? If so, when do they do it? Sometimes, it’s easier to sneak players through early before injuries arise so even the timing of a possible waiver placement is in some question. There are plenty of questions with Primeau and the answers will be coming soon enough one way or the other.
Peter Longo: As the Habs enter another season where they are expected to be bottom dwellers, the preseason games will likely be far more exciting than anything after Christmas (when they are effectively eliminated from the playoffs). Key things I’ll be moderately interested in seeing include:
1) Who will play centre? Suzuki is obviously a lock as should Sean Monahan, but otherwise Dach, Alex Newhook, Jake Evans, and Christian Dvorak (when healthy) could potentially see significant time down the middle this season. And there is reclamation project Lias Andersson and even Beck who may push for a spot. Habs management didn’t do anything to upgrade the obvious lack of quality at centre (despite opportunities with Pierre-Luc Dubois and at the draft) but they certainly have created a logjam… errr… depth for 3rd and 4th line centre spots.
2) Goalies: Even with DeSmith now gone, there is still a decision to make in goal. Do they carry three goalies if Primeau has a good preseason? Do they risk waiving him? Do they trade someone else?
3) Slafkovsky had a challenging rookie season and showed to anyone but Habs management that he needed more development time. The Habs’ management team hung him out to dry and let him struggle in the NHL before his all too predictable season-ending injury. This is despite management’s professed focus on player development. How will Juraj respond this coming season? Will he take a small step forward and be able to compete in the NHL? Will he take a big step forward and become a strong contributor? Or does he continue to struggle and force Habs management to adjust their plan and admit they blew his early career development? This is one player I sincerely hope has a solid season.
Paul MacLeod: My preseason focus is squarely on the rookies and what the Canadiens chose to do with Tanner Pearson, given recent events. I am eagerly waiting to see how the rookies do in camp and who makes the team. Does Reinbacher return to Switzerland? I hope so. Does Mailloux start the season in Laval? I hope so. Does another young forward crack the roster (Heineman? Roy?)? I hope so. Although, I’m not sure how that last one happens at this point. And so, I am starting yet another season with high hopes and low expectations.