The biggest news out of the Montreal Canadiens camp the morning of their season opener was that Tomas Plekanec and Karl Alzner are healthy scratches. It’s not an insignificant move, considering that Plekanec is two games away from the 1,000 mark and going into tonight’s game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Alzner had the league’s fourth-longest ironman streak intact at 622 games.
Even more so, it signifies a major changing of the guard with the Canadiens. This is a young team, one that looks like it’s going to take its lumps this season. Aside from Phillip Danault, the Canadiens basically have three neophyte NHL pivots in rookie Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Max Domi and Matthew Peca. Peca has 20 games of NHL experience and Domi played center the second half of last season in Arizona. For the Canadiens to sit out a steady veteran such as Plekanec is a clear indication the organization is prepared to go all-in with its youth movement and see what it has.
“These are never easy decisions,” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien. “It’s pretty obvious there are things happening with these players (in terms of milestones), but at the end of the day I think we’re all mandated to do what’s best for the team first. We can sympathize with them, but at the end of the day, that’s what we’re all here for.”
The team that starts the season for the Canadiens will have 11 players who are 25 or under, led by the 18-year-old Kotkaniemi, who is poised to become the first player in the Big Four professional sports leagues in North America to be born in the 2000s. The notion of an 18-year-old starting the season in Montreal would have been unthinkable a couple of months ago. He will get his reps, along with Domi, who was moved to the wing when he played for the London Knights and stayed there until moving back to the middle last season. Nobody is sure what to expect, since Domi was suspended for all but one of the Canadiens’ pre-season games.
“I’m pumped for sure,” said the 23-year-old Domi. “To finally get to play some real games is going to be awesome. We know what we’re capable of and we’re going to keep that in our room. We’re going to try to win every hockey game and that’s not going to change. We know that we have a lot of skill, a lot of speed and a lot of heart, too. We’re going to be a team that works hard every single shift of every single game and when you do that, you have a chance to win every game.”
Yes, but it helps when you have depth of talent, something the Canadiens are sorely lacking, at least on paper, this season. Almost all of what the Canadiens do or do not accomplish this season will come down to the play of veteran goalie Carey Price. Even if he plays 50 percent better than he did in the disaster that was 2017-18, he’ll give the Canadiens the opportunity to stay in games and be competitive. If not, the Canadiens have a very real chance of being a significant player in the Jack Hughes Sweepstakes. (Interestingly enough, the second pick might be a kid by the name of Kaapo Kakko, a high-scoring left winger who has been Kotkaniemi’s linemate in international competition.)
To be sure, the bar of expectation has been set pretty low for this team this season. If Price can keep them as a peripheral playoff contender for most of the season, that’s probably about as much as Canadiens fans can expect. This team is all about the future and how this group of young players responds to NHL pressure and adversity will be more of a measuring stick of progress than wins and losses.
Even if Domi begs to differ on that. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s about winning games and whatever role I’m asked to play, I’ll play that role and everything else is a sideshow. We don’t really think about that stuff. If you win hockey games, nothing else matters.”
The Canadiens were led in the morning stretch by Kotkaniemi, who showed enough in the pre-season to make the team and center a line with Joel Armia and Jonathan Drouin. It’s believed he has an agreement to play in Finland, and not with the Canadiens American League affiliate in Laval, if he can’t stick with the big team, but he’s a player who has the smarts and skill to stick in the world’s best league. He didn’t look great in the rookie tournament prior to training camp, but he continues to get stronger.
“He’s adapted well, but not only that he’s adapted quickly,” Julien said of Kotkaniemi. “I think that what has impressed me most.”