The Habs deserve credit for beginning training camp with the unproven Charles Hudon on a scoring line instead of the previous methodology of starting rookies on the fourth line or lower.
What makes the shift in thinking even more surprising is that it has come at the expense of an-all around forward in Paul Byron, who scored 22 goals last year.
It certainly appears that Hudon has won a top nine spot in the Habs’ forward group though, as he has quite simply been the team’s best forward to date in the preseason.
Hudon followed up a three-assist performance in the Red and White Scrimmage with a goal and tons of creative plays in a 4-2 loss to the Bruins in Montreal Wednesday night.
Hudon created offence on most of his shifts last night. He’s a crafty winger with above-average vision and puck skills. More often than not he makes the right play, and on a line with two other smart players in Tomas Plekanec and Artturi Lehkonen he has been able to take advantage of those smarts on a consistent basis as he is well insulated defensively
Hudon may not be the fastest player for his size, but he is quick enough, especially on a line with two such defensive-oriented players. In short, the trio is clicking better than any other line on the Habs to date, and it would be surprising to see the unit broken up.
Another good sign from last night was a much stronger effort from Jonathan Drouin after his lackluster performance in the scrimmage; especially on the power play, where fans got a taste of some of the puck control and vision he will bring to the unit as the team’s quarterback.
Linemate Ales Hemsky was arguably the best player on the top line last night, and went a long way towards justifying Julien’s decision to give him a first-line audition despite mediocre point totals in the past few seasons due in large part to injury woes.
Hemsky still has plenty of speed and skill, and the smarts are also quite prevalent on a trio with diverse linemates. If he can earn that spot it only makes the second and third lines that much stronger as the likes of Galchenyuk and Lehkonen can be matched up against other team’s lesser lines,
There were also positive signs from Nikita Scherbak in the final two periods. He was working hard on the forecheck and busting his ass getting back, and had a couple of decent chances because of it. He looks like he may have some chemistry with Byron Froese, and will hopefully discover this season in Laval that hard work pays off
If Hudon has been the forward revelation thus far, Victor Mete is the talk of the back end. Mete’s speed is clearly evident on a blueline corps that lacks a bonafide puck carrier. Much like in London the past three seasons, Mete uses his elite mobility to get his team out of trouble on a regular basis, and despite his lack of height, he is sound in his own end thanks to that mobility, getting to loose pucks and open opponents that teammates aren’t quick enough to do.
Mete has excellent gap control and is able to handle bigger opposition because he is so mobile and competitive. Mete battles down low by using his lower body strength to gain leverage and break up plays.
He’s also improved his passing skills over the past three years, as he now uses his great agility and patience to keep the puck from opponents until he can find an open man. Mete’s pass to Hudon for his one-timer was one of the nicest passes of the night, threading the needle through several Washington defenders.
Jakub Jerabek looked more comfortable in his North American debut than he did in the Red and White Scrimmage, keeping it simpler with his outlet passes and showing off his lateral mobility in getting out of trouble in a few instances. The skilled Czech had plenty of power-play time in a game when the Habs seemingly had the man advantage every third shift, and formed an effective second unit paired with Mete.
The problem for Jerabek is that several defencemen are ahead of him in the battle for a top-eight spot until further notice, with the 19-year-old Mete being one of them. Joe Morrow and Eric Gelinas have looked decent so far, and Mark Streit, despite some struggles with speed, is going to be given ample opportunity to win a spot as he was trotted out on the first-power-play unit religiously last night with Weber.
Right now all signs point towards the Habs favouring Streit as the sixth defenceman to start the season as he was paired with Jordie Benn and on the first power-play.
Streit was fine with the man advantage, moving the puck smartly as the primary passer on the back end with Weber being the triggerman. Where the concerns come in is with his play 5-on-5, as Streit quite simply has lost a step at the age of 39.
Streit was thrown out on the first penalty kill early in the game, and the coaching staff got a quick glimpse of how risky that would be: within 20 seconds he had been beaten by speed for a goal against. Streit was not seen on the penalty kill for the rest of the game, and hopefully, that experiment was a short one, and he won’t be on the ice when the club is a man short again.
Normally a player battling for the sixth spot on a blueline would be well served by not being noticed much, as it is an indication that he is not making many mistakes. In Brandon Davidson’s case, however, he would be best served to make an impact in this training camp as the club is looking to replace some of the offence lost by the departures of Nathan Beaulieu and Andrei Markov.
The odds look to be stacked against him, as during a multitude of power plays and several penalty kills, Davidson remained firmly planted on the bench. He is looking more and more like a good bet to be kept on as an extra defenceman who can fill in because of injury on occasion even though he has done nothing substantially wrong to this point.
The next six exhibition games will be pivotal for the five or six defenders who are battling for the final three spots, and they may well all still be with the big team until the final cuts.