Claude Julien has to play the kids.
And you know who I’m talking about. I’m talking about Ryan Poehling and Nick Suzuki. They have to be in the starting lineup Oct. 3 when the Canadiens face off against the Carolina Hurricanes in Raleigh, N.C., in the Habs’ first game of the regular season.
However, all bets are off with regards to Poehling given the disturbing news late Friday morning that the Canadiens’ first-round pick from the 2017 entry draft is out indefinitely with a concussion. It appears the concussion came about when he was hammered headfirst into the boards Wednesday night by Florida Panthers left-winger Dryden Hunt in a pre-season game in Bathurst, N.B. It is far too early to tell what impact this will have on Poehling’s season, so there’s no point speculating.
Injury aside, if both are healthy, they simply must start the season with the big team. You know I hate to agree with Habs management — it kind of makes me feel a little ill — but the Canadiens’ brass has been saying for months that it is all about the new generation and general manager Marc Bergevin said he isn’t going to be making trades that involve giving up what he believes are first-class prospects.
So if it’s all about the youth movement, then Bergevin and head coach Julien have to play the prospects who are ready. And if we’ve learned one thing this week it’s that Poehling and Suzuki look ready. I understand that these are only exhibition games and you can only read so much into them, especially during the first week of pre-season action.
The teams’ lineups are full of American Hockey League and college players, and many of the veterans look like they’re sleepwalking through these games. If you doubt that last statement, you apparently didn’t see Thursday’s Habs-Panthers game at the Bell Centre. Florida didn’t dress many of their best players and only got a measly 17 shots on Carey Price. Yet Price let in four goals and he looked middling to weak on most of them.
“I’m not worried,” he said, echoing his infamous comments from years earlier when he told the media to chill out after another poor pre-season performance.
And he’s right. We all know the real vets, with the exception of workhorse Brendan Gallagher, aren’t trying very hard this week.
The players sweating in the exhibition games are the ones who are fighting for a job and that very much fits the bill for Poehling and Suzuki. Both have impressed.
Poehling played an excellent game Wednesday, looking strong in the faceoff circle and solid defensively. Then came the magic, when the Lakeville, Minn.-born centre raced down the left wing and toe-dragged seasoned Panthers defenceman Aaron Ekblad in spectacular fashion and then fed the puck to Alex Belzile for the winning goal. If you thought Poehling’s headline-grabbing performance in his debut with the Habs in the team’s final game last season was a fluke, think again.
I’m not suggesting he’ll score 50 goals in the NHL any time soon, but he’s ready to play. So is Suzuki, as we all noticed Thursday when Florida and Montreal met for a second consecutive night.
The 20-year-old centre from London, Ont., ended the soirée with two assists and a highlight-reel goal in the shootout, and he really changed the conversation with that performance. Prior to that, there was some grumbling about his skating. On Thursday, he rocked the house. Did you see his perfect pass to Brett Kulak for the defenceman’s goal in the second? And his shootout goal? Wow!
So let them start with the Habs and then see what happens. One of the Canadiens’ biggest problems during the past 20 years is properly developing players. There’s been a lot of bad drafting but even when they had decent talent, they didn’t know what to do with these players.
Let the young guys play. They’ll make mistakes, but that’s how you learn to be an NHL player. Former Canadiens head coach Michel Therrien was never good with developing players. He always punished the kids for even the slightest error and that’s not the way to go. Julien showed some positive signs last season when he let Jesperi Kotkaniemi play until he simply hit a wall late in the season.
But my fear is that Julien, at heart a very conservative coach, will go with the veterans as the season progresses because he wants to make the playoffs. For the medium-term future of the team, that would be a huge mistake.
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