Balancing the importance of the pre-season

The games don’t matter in the end, but the process involved certainly does.

The NHL pre-season is typically for getting the experienced roster players back up to game speed, while giving prospects and fringe players a chance to show their mettle.

It’s not unheard of to see a top pick in the previous draft stand out, or carve out a spot on their team’s roster. Lineups are shuffled around, new faces take over spots while veterans rest up during certain games. However, at the end of it all, the pre-season games lose all meaning the moment the first puck drops on opening night.

The Colorado Avalanche finished their 2016 pre-season slate undefeated, and when the dust settled they were one of the worst teams in NHL history at the end of the regular season. The Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins? They had an uninspriring .500 tune-up win percentage.

As it stands right now, the Montreal Canadiens haven’t won a pre-season game this year, sitting at 0-5. However, the lineup hasn’t been opening night ready in any given game so far, with players like Jonathan Drouin playing in only one game, and the team icing a mostly AHL lineup on other nights.

The lack of wins isn’t immediate cause for concern. The Habs have a new coach and system to adjust to, in addition to an almost entirely overhauled defensive unit. There are lines clicking, and you can see exactly how the coaching staff wants this team to play going forward this year.

That said, it isn’t unreasonable to expect more from this team, especially from a forward group that is deep enough to have a pair of 20-goal-scorers on the fourth line. Seven goals through five games understandably has fans on edge, especially after their goal-scoring sputtered to a halt in their short playoff run in April.

There is however a flip side to this scenario. Even as the team has struggled to find some consistency, new players are doing everything they can to secure a spot on opening night for the Habs.

One of those players is Charles Hudon, who has done everything possible over the course of the past three years to get a legitimate NHL shot in Montreal. This pre-season he hasn’t given Claude Julien or Marc Bergevin any reason to play him anywhere besides the NHL. The young forward has been dynamic on a line with Tomas Plekanec and Artturi Lehkonen since the intra-squad game two weeks ago, and shows no signs of slowing down.

The other standout has been 2016 fourth-round pick Victor Mete, who not only has impressed in camp, but has done so while playing major minutes alongside Shea Weber on the Habs’ top pairing. With David Schlemko suffering a hand injury, Mete stepped in and is seizing his chance to earn a roster spot, beating out several far more experienced options in the process.

Therein lies the part of the pre-season that is in direct conflict with the idea that “results don’t matter.” Sure, the wins and losses mean nothing by opening night, but a player’s on-ice performance certainly does.

We’ve seen players play themselves out of NHL jobs in recent years, especially in net, where Peter Budaj, Dustin Tokarski, and Mike Condon all stumbled in the pre-season and either ended up in the AHL, traded, or claimed off waivers.

The opposite also holds true. Tomas Fleischmann went from a tryout contract to playing top-six minutes in Montreal on opening night by dominating on the ice during the tune-up games.

Both Hudon and Mete appear worthy of following in that same path based on their efforts so far.

It’s an extremely hard balance to strike between winning games and prepping the roster adequately. The Canadiens could have played their NHL roster from day one, but in terms of preparing everyone (including the AHL guys), this isn’t always the best plan. The roster is too deep in certain areas to not see what everyone can bring on a level playing field.

As Machiavelli once wrote: the ends justify the means. If the Habs were to lose every pre-season game, but came into the regular season with their ideal lineup in place, it’s probably for the best.

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