Hey kids, who’s up for a little deductive reasoning?
There are really only two unanswered questions at the Montreal Canadiens’ training camp: the identities of the seventh defenceman and 13th forward.
The defence question is pretty straightforward assuming Andrei Markov starts the year on the shelf (he was skating again on his own today). That means a slot for Yannick Weber, presumably with veteran Jeff Woywitka as this year’s Alex Picard.
Raphael Diaz is better offensively than both those guys, but is a little undersized and would benefit from a month or two in Hamilton getting used to the smaller ice. When Markov comes back, it seems likely Weber and Jaroslav Spacek will split press-box duty, depending on form.
Now, the extra forward.
The Habs’ top nine is pretty well set, and Travis Moen, Mathieu Darche and Ryan White will vie with an as-yet unnamed player for fourth-line duty.
Given Lars Eller, penciled in as the third-line centre, is still a few days away of being cleared for contact (he had off-season shoulder surgery) and David Desharnais picked up an injury in Wednesday’s exhibition game, there is a chance for someone to at least start the season in Montreal’s lineup.
Players like Andreas Enqvist, Aaron Palushaj, Mike Blunden, Brock Trotter and Brian Willlsie are in the mix.
It’s not an accident that all five guys are right-handed shots (as is 19-year-old Brendan Gallagher, who is better than all of them, but will be going back to junior).
Throughout the Bob Gainey and Pierre Gauthier eras, the Habs have generally employed at least one right-handed guy to play the middle on the bottom two lines (Bryan Smolinski, Robert Lang, Glen Metropolit, Max Lapierre, Jeff Halpern).
Since Jacques Martin took over, he’s had a right-handed guy who is better than average on faceoffs – which were a problem area for the Habs last year.
By that metric, Enqvist and Willsie have the edge (Palushaj and Blunden are primarily wingers, and Trotter is, um, somewhat less than effective in the faceoff circle).
But Willsie, who is now 33, looked off the pace in the first exhibition game, and Enqvist had an o-fer in the faceoff circle on Tuesday before coming back to win 60 per cent on Wednesday against Buffalo – he and Palushaj are the only players to appear in both preseason games.
So Enqvist must be the guy, right?
He ticks a couple of other boxes as well: at six-four he’s got size, he’s a good defensive zone player, can kill penalties and skates well. He’s also an entry-level player, so relatively cheap.
Hey, doesn’t that sound like a bigger, right-handed Tom Pyatt?
It’s a bit early to tell, but Martin bestowed what amounts to high praise in his books: “he’s very effective without the puck.”
Enqvist will be given a long look in at least a couple more exhibition games - Martin said he’s going to play him with actual NHLers against actual NHLers this weekend to “see how he responds to the increased competition”.
Conventional wisdom in Habs-land is that should the braintrust have any lingering doubts they’ll go waiver-wire fishing, swing a minor trade or dip into the (admittedly thin) free agent market before the season starts.