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First Impressions from Habs Preseason

The first preseason game is in the books for the 2021-22 version of the Montreal Canadiens. On Saturday night at the Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, the Habs iced a line-up composed of guarantees, hopefuls and fillers.

There are a few things we can ascertain from the group the Habs sent to Toronto… but only a few.

The forward group looks like this:

Toffoli – Suzuki – Caufield

Lehkonen – Poehling – Dauphin

Perreault – Paquette – Belzile

Baddock – Beaudin – Vejdemo

The first thing that is obvious is that the top line that worked so well in last year’s playoffs will get a chance to demonstrate they were more than a flash in the pan. Nick Suzuki will almost certainly be flanked by Tyler Toffoli and Cole Caufield to start the season.

The second thing that should catch your eye is that there is an inordinate amount of AHLers in this group. That’s typical for the first preseason game, especially when it’s on the road. Dauphin, Belzile, Baddock, and Beaudin are heading to the Laval Rocket, and that is their ceiling unless the team hits a hard injury patch. Vejdemo still has a few things to prove, but he’s also likely AHL bound.

Beyond that there is a fair amount of guesswork. But I think Poehling lining up with Lehkonen is one look the coach wants to see. Is there chemistry? How strong is Poehling’s 200-foot game? Can he centre a fourth line between Lehkonen and Armia?

I was also interested to see Perreault and Paquette play together. These are guys who are likely to be the 13th and 14th forwards if other guys make a case to stay in Montreal. Of course, Mike Hoffman’s injury throws a wrench into how the coach saw the lines forming.

The defence group was also thin on Hall of Famers.

The Habs iced the following:

Romanov – Petry

Kulak – Fairbrother

Ouellet – Xhekaj

Three of these guys are shoe-ins and three are AHLers. But it’s interesting that Romanov is getting a look with Petry, perhaps to see if he can take it up a notch this year. Then there is Kulak, who is eternally fighting for a roster spot. He needs a good camp and preseason.

Cayden Primeau and Michael McNiven were the goalies.

There are limitations with any first impressions, but I did leave the Scotibank Arena with a few of them.

For guys who know they’re making the team, preseason games are about regaining timing and finding chemistry with line-mates. The line of Toffoli-Suzuki-Caufield wasn’t much to look at early in the game, but by the end of regulation had enough dangerous chances to have won the game on their own if they had finished. I expect to see a lot of this trio.

Perreault and Paquette are making no assumptions about their place on this team. Both guys worked hard and made plays all night. If they eventually become the 13th and 14th forwards for the Habs, that will be some special depth. When they have to step into the line-up, no one will mind.

Ryan Poehling – playing between an NHLer and an AHLer – is trying to make a case for which of these he is. I confess that in the first I saw a guy who looked as overwhelmed as the last time I saw him in an NHL game. But as the game continued, he started to look more comfortable and by the end of regulation had made a few nice plays.

If there was a presumed AHLer who looked good last night, it was Lukas Vejdemo. Several times over the night I found myself asking who was number 42. I’d check my notes and find it was him again who was working hard in a corner, retrieving pucks, making plays. If there is a competition for 4C, Vejdemo wants to be in it.

The defence group wasn’t very inspiring, and I really hope we’re not saying that all season.

Petry looked like a veteran who is only concerned about getting his game legs back. Romanov playing beside him was okay. It was his outbreak to Suzuki that led to the Toffoli goal. At times he had that “too busy” feel that we saw from him a little too often last season, but there was little to dwell on here. I felt bad for him trying to start a power play with an iffy crew.

I suspect Kulak would have liked to impress more than he did, but he was playing with Fairbrother, who I thought struggled. This is to be expected from a young D heading to his first full season in Laval.

Ouellet is still an AHLer and had a night to forget. Xhekaj was… interesting. Pronounced JACK-eye, Xhekaj is a late bloomer, somewhat of a giant, and has played three years with the Kitchener Rangers. Last night he took advantage of his invitation to camp, and I thought he was significantly better than his partner. Someone to keep an eye on if the Habs are looking for defencemen in Laval.

In net, both Primeau and McNiven faced a fair number of high-quality chances and made some key stops. There was the gaffe from McNiven to cough up the puck for a goal, but he was otherwise solid. I thought he was better than Primeau in this one.

Hockey is back and it’s a lot of fun.

The fans in Toronto gave a warm welcome to John Tavares, seeing him in a game for the first time since he left the ice on a stretcher in the playoffs. He looked well. Yes, they attempted the wave in a preseason game. The guy sitting beside me wore a Lupul jersey and his buddy asked why the Leafs couldn’t do that in the playoffs. But it was fun to be in an arena with fans watching a pro sports event.

On another note, I took the Toronto subway for the first time since March 12, 2020. I was more aware of my surroundings than ever, masked of course, and dipped into the hand sanitizer like it was my job. But it felt good to be doing something normal.

It may be just the preseason, but hockey is back!

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