Anticipating training camp battles as the pre-season looms for the Montreal Canadiens is itself an annual tradition. In the recent past it was fairly easy to view the pieces former head coach Michel Therrien’s had to work with and estimate the early lines and pairings.
The players subject to the most debate last year are once again in the spotlight, with fans wondering which position Alex Galchenyuk wil play, and who will partner up with Shea Weber on the blue line.
But besides those questions, there are perhaps some underrated battles this season that will be just as interesting to watch this September.
Brendan Gallagher vs. Artturi Lehkonen
Gallagher is the natural righty of the two and has been a proven goal-scorer. He was the de-facto number-one right winger on the team until Alexander Radulov arrived on the scene last year.
However, limited by hand injuries the past two seasons, Gallagher is coming off perhaps his toughest year in the NHL to date with just 29 points in 64 games. For context, in his rookie season he had 28 points in just 41 games.
He improved his level of play in the playoffs with three points in six games as he went back to playing his usual game, taking up space in his office in front of the opposing goaltender’s crease with a smile on his face.
Challenging Gallagher for the top spot could be Lehkonen, who got more confident as the season went along and was one of the Canadiens’ best forwards in the post-season with four points in six games.
While he only had 28 points in his first NHL season, Lehkonen came on strong to end the year with 11 points in his last 12 regular-season contests and showed that he has the offensive talents to challenge for a top-six role. While he could endure a sophomore slump, it would be hard to imagine Lehkonen not being able to have a similar impact with his solid overall game, and building from his strong finish to take his game to the next level.
In order to play on the top line opposite Max Pacioretty, he will need to switch to his off-side, but that will just allow him to use his accurate release from closer to the target.
While I believe Lehkonen is the more talented player of the two, I would not be surprised to see Gallagher getting the first crack on the top line. His crease presence gives him the edge to start the year in that slot and helps to balance the top six.
On a second line, Lehkonen’s strong two-way play could either help offset the defensive deficiencies of either Galchenyuk or Jonathan Drouin (should one or both of them end up on that line) or complement Phillip Danault’s possession game by giving him a quality shooting option.
Paul Byron vs. Ales Hemsky vs. Andrew Shaw
In a rare moment of depth at forward, it is somewhat surprising that one of these three players will not be in the Canadiens’ top nine to start the season.
Last year, Byron surprised everyone by scoring 22 goals. While it will be difficult to repeat his shooting percentage of 22.9%, it should be noted that in 2015-16 he converted 22% of his shots, and his career mark is a well-above-average 18.3%. It’s a testament to the abundance of skill that the Canadiens’ second-best goal-scorer from last year could be starting the year on the bottom trio.
Shaw’s ability to play any forward position works in his favour as he can move up into any role short term no matter where he initially starts.
He was arguably the forward that benefitted the most from February’s coaching change. With Michel Therrien behind the bench, Shaw was unhinged and sometimes a danger on the ice. The line of communication was clearly broken between the two. Once Claude Julien arrived, Shaw seemingly became a new player overnight under the new coach’s tutelage.
After the bye week, he became the player that Marc Bergevin had traded for: tough, physical, and displaying the ability to contribute offensively. He was no longer crossing the line, and his more disciplined physicality alone would likely be a welcome addition on the third line.
In a somewhat surprising move, Bergevin signed Hemsky to a low-risk, one-year, $1-million contract. At 34 years of age and coming off a sports hernia surgery, it is debatable how much Hemsky has left in the tank.
However, his skill level has rarely been questioned as he continued to show flashes of his abilities throughout his patchy tenure with the Dallas Stars. Having had the summer to rehabilitate, a fresh start playing with fellow countryman Tomas Plekanec could rejuvenate both players.
Odd man out
Shaw and Byron should start the season with Plekanec on the third line, placing Hemsky on the fourth. However, should one of those wingers begin to struggle, Hemsky will get his shot in the top nine.
No matter where he starts, Hemsky may see some time on the power play, especially if the Canadiens go with a four-forward formation with Drouin on the point. Even then, it will be tough to get special teams minutes with the number of quality forwards the Canadiens currently possess.