The Montreal Canadiens have played four preseason games, and some fans are already disappointed.
Fair enough. They haven’t won a game, and although they have provided some offence in the last two games, there are legitimate reasons to be disappointed in terms of entertainment value.
But anyone who looks at this year’s preseason as a barometer of this team’s capabilities are missing the forest for the trees. It’s understandable. Canadiens fans, and dare I say, fans around the NHL in general, tend to treat the preseason as a tryout. The element of competition adds excitement to the proceedings, and everyone wants to be the first to see the next breakout star.
The 2022-23 Montreal Canadiens, however, are by-and-large not using the preseason as a tryout (at least for the forwards). After all, the team has 12 certified NHL forwards: Nick Suzuki, Cole Caufield, Kirby Dach, Christian Dvorak, Brendan Gallagher, Josh Anderson, Joel Armia, Jake Evans, Rem Pitlick, Evgenii Dadonov, Jonathan Drouin and Mike Hoffman. This doesn’t include current injured players Paul Byron, and Sean Monahan. There is simply no roster flexibility for someone unexpected to make the roster, and because of that, the debate surrounding the prospects is, for the most part, “CHL or AHL” instead of “NHL or not”.
Facing this very static roster situation, head coach Martin St-Louis’s deployments have focused on testing players by putting them in uncomfortable situations, rather than identifying how to coax the most out of them.
The best example of this is Juraj Slafkovský.
Through two games, Slafkovský has been steady, but definitely not spectacular, and this has raised some consternation among those who were hoping for a preseason Poehling-esque debut. But St-Louis has not coddled Slafkovský. His linemates in game one were Kirby Dach and Rem Pitlick. In game two, Pitlick and Joel Armia. So far in preseason, St-Louis has actively avoided placing the first overall selection with either established NHL weapons such as Cole Caufield (or even Mike Hoffman). The bench boss has also refrained from creating a kid line where Slafkovský skates alongside fellow promising prospects like Filip Mešar and Owen Beck.
Why? Because the current objective is not to see Slafkovský’s ceiling, but rather to establish his short-term floor. If Slafkovský is to play in the NHL this season, he’s likely not going to be able to spend the entirety of that time in the top six, especially given Montreal’s glut of forwards. The Canadiens need to determine whether the big Slovak can hold his own on checking lines, and whether he can contribute in ways that don’t show up on the scoresheet. If the answer is “no”, then Montreal’s NHL roster is likely not the best place for Slafkovský this season.
This approach doesn’t only apply to the kids. St-Louis is also testing his established NHL players, many of whom will be called upon to play unfamiliar roles. We’ve seen this when Mike Matheson logged 25 minutes during the first preseason game — something that he didn’t have to do in Pittsburgh but will more than likely have to do more than once given the youth and inexperience of Montreal’s blueline corps. We see this too when the likes of Dach and Pitlick are tasked with playing with Slafkovský. Can they — as players with their own weaknesses — accommodate or even carry the rookie as he grows into the league?
There is one notable exception to this: Emil Heineman. As a second-round selection under contract with a European club, Heineman is not eligible for the AHL, and so the Habs are not interested in how well he plays with the prospects. Instead, St-Louis is giving him every chance to make the NHL. Whereas Slafkovský skated with two players who didn’t match his skillset, Heineman lined up next to the much more complementary Jake Evans and Jesse Ylönen. To further drive home this point, the Swedish forward skated next to Caufield and Dach against the Winnipeg Jets on Thursday night, a game where the Habs came in with a clear “NHL” top six and “AHL” bottom six deployment.
Heineman is very much the exception to the rule. The vast majority of players on the Canadiens roster already have their courses set for them, whether NHL, AHL, or juniors. It makes sense for the coaching staff to take this opportunity to expose their weaknesses — thus determining which level best suits their development — rather than pushing them to rack up numbers to compete for openings that don’t currently exist.
The real tryout — for everyone, NHLers included — starts in October, and it will span the entire 2022-23 season.