Going into Les Canadiennes de Montreal's three pre-season games (plus a scrimmage against Concordia University), I knew a few things. I knew that Marie-Philip Poulin was good. I knew that a lot of returning players and a great draft class would create some depth at forward. And I knew that the defence would be under the microscope.
As it turns out, Poulin isn't just good, or even just great. She's unbelievable.
You've probably seen her in Olympic tournaments versus the cream of the international crop and know she's one of the best players in the world, but you can't really understand what that means until you see her play live. In the three games I saw her in, she often ended up creating scoring chances, and she always had one or more moments that made your jaw drop. If you want to see a women's hockey player at the top of her game, get out to a Canadiennes game this season.
Montreal's forward depth is pretty insane. The line of Ann-Sophie Bettez, Caroline Ouellette and Poulin will be really good. Bettez finished the pre-season with back-to-back three point games. The second line of Emmanuelle Blais, Noémie Marin and Kim Deschenes will be good as well.
In pre-season action the next two lines did switch around a bit but whether it was Katia Clement-Heydra or Leslie Oles playing with Emilie Bocchia and Jordanna Peroff. That line impressed me quite a bit showing the offensive flashes that last year's third-liners did not have.
That then leaves one of Oles and Clement-Heydra to play on the fourth line with a combination of Alyssa Sherrard, Sara Lachance, Audrey Morand, or Melinda Prévost. Sherrard impressed me from the first time I saw her on a line with Oles and Bettez in the team's first pre-season game when the Canadian National Team members were missing. She may not have the skill of her top-six teammates, but on a fourth line, she's definitely an asset.
The defence is more difficult to judge. Lauriane Rougeau, Cathy Chartrand and Julie Chu are the top three, and then it's going to be a mix of Chelsey Saunders, Karell Emard, Sophie Brault and Carly Hill.
Saunders, Emard, and Hill are all converted forwards from their university days, so once they have control, they all display quality puck-distributing skills. Saunders played both positions last year in the CWHL, and she impressed me the most of this group.
Having Brault come back after missing the first part of training camp is huge. The team was going to enter the season with only six players listed on defence, but Brault's return gives them more depth if anything happens and gives them the flexibility should a forward be needed.
The 12th forward role is one of the few up in the air right now. The battle for the backup goaltender position is the other, with both Sydney Aveson and Jessica Anderson playing well when given the chance, and neither one looking out of her depth. With Charline Labonté being the undisputed number-one, the backup won't see the ice too often, especially with the schedule limited to two-game sets on weekends (Calgary was required to play three games in three days several times last year, including both times they faced Montreal).
Having said all this, very often the way a team is made up to start the season is not way they will finish it off. Lines will change and players' roles will evolve. It's also tough to judge the team's competitiveness from exhibition games against university opponents.
Les Canadiennes opened the pre-season with a 2-1 overtime loss to the Lac St Louis Midget Espoir Arsenal, followed up with a 3-3 tie in an unofficial scrimmage against Concordia University. Montreal beat McGill University 7-0, and the Université de Montréal 3-0 in their final tune-up contest. The season-opening series is at home, the Étienne Desmarteau Arena in Rosemont, on October 17 and 18 against the Brampton Thunder. Tickets are available here. Season ticket packages can be bought here.