As the Montreal Canadiens open pre-season, the real competition begins

After five scrimmages over three days, the Canadiens get to hit someone else.

The ebbs and flows of every training camp are the same every year. The excitement of the first scrimmage wanes when you realize the intensity is lacking. In terms of evaluation, there isn’t much you can take away from it. Players can impress, but it’s really when you get into the pre-season that you can get a better look.

Pre-season isn’t foolproof either as some veterans just want to get to the regular season healthy, but you can make an impression. Michael Pezzetta is the best example from a year ago. He thrust himself firmly onto the NHL radar and made his debut a few months later.

The competition at Montreal Canadiens camp was expected to be for playing time rather than where players will start, at least at forward. However, when camp opened up with some injuries, it will provide players a chance to stake a claim to a few remaining spots.

Anthony Richard and Mitchell Stephens didn’t create any headlines when they signed with the Canadiens, but injuries change the picture a bit. Stephens is one of the few veteran centres on an NHL contract that the team has. While the centres are expected to be some combination of Nick Suzuki, Kirby Dach, Sean Monahan, Jake Evans, and Christian Dvorak when healthy, Suzuki and Monahan’s injuries to start camp leave a spot open for someone to take. Even if they are expected to be ready for the start of the season, someone has to take those pre-season minutes until they return.

It’s unlikely someone like Filip Mesar or Owen Beck will start in the NHL this year, so that leaves players like Stephens, Nate Schnarr, Alex Belzile, or moving over a winger like Rem Pitlick. The fifth centre spot is not necessarily the most prestigious spot in an organization, but it’s an important one through an 82 game season. Players like Cedric Paquette, Mathieu Perreault, Laurent Dauphin, Jean-Sebastien Dea, and Ryan Poehling departing opens up that spot and Stephens may just be in the driver’s seat to take it.

“Rocket” Richard?

I will openly admit that I “borrowed” that from Eyes on the Prize’s Andrew Zadarnowski, but it was too good to not use. Anthony Richard was annoying when the Syracuse Crunch played the Laval Rocket in the Calder Cup playoffs last year. He had four goals and two assists in the five-game series.

With two goals in the scrimmage on Sunday afternoon, he continued his scoring touch against the Canadiens organization. The good news is that he’s now a part of the organization as well.

Richard is a player that can play in the NHL — the Tampa Bay Lightning rewarded Richard by allowing him to skate in warmups during the Stanley Cup Final, a rare move for a member of the Black Aces — but can also be a key contributor in the AHL.

Both Stephens and Richard would have to clear waivers to be sent down, so there is a risk involved but they are two players who can be the “swing” players that every organization needs. Both being 25, they can also unlock something that allows them to become NHL regulars. Even if they get sent down and clear waivers, having them among the top players in Laval on a Rocket team that is expected to contend is an added bonus.

Not that I am wishing a trip to the AHL on anyone, but it would be pretty cool to see Rocket jerseys with ‘Rocket’ on the front and ‘Richard’ on the back, wouldn’t it? Before you get too excited and order those jerseys, the #9 is retired in Laval, too.

Having played in the scrimmage on Sunday, it’s unlikely Stephens and Richard will see action on Monday against the New Jersey Devils, but they will see time this pre-season, and they will have an opportunity to continue to make an impression.

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