Canadiens 2008 training camp preview

By Jason Menard

The Montreal Canadiens open their 100th campaign with high hopes of parading the Stanley Cup down Ste-Catherine’s Street for the 25th time. And if that’s to happen, a number of younger players will have to be key contributors.

The Canadiens open rookie camp begins Sept. 15, 2008 at the Bell Centre, which runs until the 18th. Then the big boys invade the Bell Centre on Sept. 19 for physicals and medicals, before camp starts in full on the 20th. As usual, the club will be alternating between the Bell Centre and the Verdun Auditorium for the majority of training camp, but they will also spend a couple of days in St-Jovite at the beginning of October.

The Habs begin their exhibition season with a "road trip" to Roberval to play the Buffalo Sabres, then they continue on to Detroit to take on the defending champs on the 24th. The remainder of the games are as follows:
* Sept. 26, 2008 — Ottawa Senators at the Bell Centre
* Sept. 27, 2008 — at the Ottawa Senators, ScotiaBank Place
* Sept. 28, 2008 — Florida Panthers at the Bell Centre
* Sept. 30, 2008 — Detroit Red Wings at the Bell Centre
* Oct. 1, 20008 — Boston Bruins at the Bell Centre
* Oct. 4, 2008 — Minnesota Wild at the Bell Centre

Beyond lining George Gillette’s coffers with a whole lot of exhibition dollars, these games will allow the Habs to refine a line-up that’s pretty much set from last year. While there will be little chance for a deluge of new players to join the ranks like last season. That said, the Canadiens’ youth movement in is full force and looking to build upon its regular-season Eastern Conference crown. This camp is about working in the new faces, seeing who’s ready for a mid-season injury call-up, and kicking off the Habs’ next century.

Goaltenders

The die is cast for the Habs between the pipes. The club is firmly committed to Carey Price as its No. 1 netminder, with the more-than-capable Jaroslav Halak as his backup.

The club did obtain veteran netminder Marc Denis as insurance and inked up-and-coming netminder Cedrick Desjardins to a deal. The only questions that remain are pecking order. If Desjardins proves his mettle, he could be the No. 1 goalie in Hamilton this season after an extremely promising campaign (which resulted in a ECHL title) last season split between the E and the AHL. However, the Canadiens did sign veteran Denis to a contract to shore up the club’s goaltending depth following the mid-season trade of Cristobal Huet and the free agent departure of Yann Danis. Loic Lacasse should find himself in Cincinnati.

Defensemen

The Habs have six defensemen penciled into the lineup at the NHL level, with a seventh available depending on whether Matthieu Dandenault is used as a forward or a blueliner. The departure of Mark Streit of free agency should be minimized by the regular addition of Ryan O’Byrne to the lineup, as well as the pleasant surprise that is Josh Georges. Add a top three of Andrei Markov, Roman Hamrlik, and Mike Komisarek, joined by a veteran solid presence in Francis Bouillon, and the club appears to be set at the NHL level. A seventh spot is available, but the club may prefer to use Dandenault in that role as opposed to seeing a young prospect languishing on the bench.

The blueline is starting to round into form in Hamilton. Players such as Pavel Valentenko and Matthieu Carle will look to build on strong rookie debuts at the AHL level, new addition Shawn Belle will be around to provide depth — and could be considered as an injury call-up to the big club, depending on his performance. Yannick Weber also impressed many watchers last season with his composure and prowess on the blue line, both in Kitchener at the OHL level and with Switzerland at the World Junior Championships. The club also signed Chad Andersen as a free agent to shore up blueline depth in the minor leagues. 

And the next wave of blueliners are coming: first rounders Ryan McDonagh and David Fischer are still in the NCAA, but their development will be closely monitored this season, starting with how they handle the better-quality competition they’ll face in training camp. And P.K. Subban, although firmly entrenched in the OHL this season, will look to build on a strong camp and an expected key role with Team Canada.

The greatest turnover certainly appears to be with the Bulldogs — blueliners Andrew Archer and J.P. Cote are no longer with the organization, so this season’s training camp is certainly an opportunity for players to make an impression and nail down a roster spot in the AHL.

Forwards

Again, the roster looks set, especially when it comes to the top two lines, regardless of how the Mats Sundin soap opera plays out. That said, there is a chance for a young player to crack the lineup and it would seem that Matt D’Agostini or Greg Stewart have the inside track. Kyle Chipchura, who spent the first half of last year with the big club, also should get a long look for a regular roster spot on the third or fourth lines, especially in light of the club’s decision to let Bryan Smolinski go.

Youth will be served, though, when it comes to Canadiens playing key forward roles. Sergei Kostitsyn has solidified his place on the club’s roster — the only question that remains is where will he play. Brought up as a winger, Kostitsyn has the tools to be a solid center, and the club may look to move the young Belarusian into that role, if they are unable — as it now looks — to add Sundin to the lineup. 

Sergei’s older brother Andrei is a top-two fixture, and the draft-day addition of Alex Tanguay (obtained for the club’s first-round selection this season) means that there’s no need to rush anyone into that role. 

This training camp will give the chance for the Canadiens to evaluate a lot of their youth in terms of how well they’re going to make the jump to the pro ranks. J.T. Wyman has exhausted his collegiate eligibility and impressed the club with his marked jump in play last season. Max Pacioretty so impressed the club that he was given a pro contract after just one season in the NCAA. He will be given a long look in terms of playing a key role in Hamilton, especially in light of the recent trade of last year’s Hamilton scoring ace Corey Locke (for the aforementioned Belle).

Overall

While opportunities at the NHL level may be few and far between, that doesn’t mean there isn’t opportunity a-plenty at this training camp. Montreal, over the past few years, has been determined at instilling "the Canadiens’ Way" in their prospects. It’s a general concept that comprises the club’s philosophies on training, on-ice play, and off-ice comportment. From the implementation of a rookie camp shortly after the draft, to the club’s decision to bring young players with promise along with the big club during the later stages of the season to soak up the atmosphere, everything the Habs do now is to prepare their players for what they can expect playing in the hockey hotbed that is Montreal.