MONTREAL — After a rocky summer, the Montreal Canadiens are brimming with unexpected positivity.
The Canadiens went 4-3-0 in exhibition play — certainly not an outstanding record. But in those seven games, coach Claude Julien’s men managed to turn skepticism into optimism.
A lot of that is due to top prospect Jesperi Kotkaniemi looking like he's ready for NHL play — at least two years earlier than anyone could have expected due to his young age and unfamiliarity with North American hockey. The 18-year-old centre has cracked the Canadiens' opening-night roster for Wednesday's game in Toronto against the Maple Leafs.
It was a much different story just three weeks ago.
Captain Max Pacioretty had just been traded to the Vegas Golden Knights for seemingly no immediate return. The talented Alex Galchenyuk, a first-round draft pick once full of promise, was no longer with the team after being sent to Arizona. And the club still didn't have a bona fide top-line centre.
The team also announced that star defenceman Shea Weber, named the new captain on Monday, would be out until at least mid-December after having arthroscopic surgery on his right knee in the off-season.
At the Canadiens' annual golf tournament three weeks ago, goalie Carey Price said the team has "an opportunity to prove a lot of people wrong.
"I feel like a lot of people have written us off already," he said. "There’s not a lot of pressure on our group."
Enter Kotkaniemi, the third overall pick at this year's entry draft. The 18-year-old from Finland disappointed in his first game of rookie camp, but his progression since then has been impressive.
Kotkaniemi, already a fan favourite in Montreal, scored in his pre-season debut. He finished with a goal and two assists in five games.
The Habs brass said he got better with every game, making it impossible for them to keep him off the roster.
"We were very impressed," said Julien. "I think he showed enough for us to feel comfortable keeping him here for the start the year.
"It's good news for him and for us, too."
Time will tell if Kotkaniemi is one of the centremen Montreal so desperately needs. The Canadiens just have to decide how many games he'll play in the NHL this year — something that will impact his entry-level contract status and free-agency eligibility.
The early sense of optimism goes beyond Kotkaniemi, though.
Jonathan Drouin was returned to the wing during exhibition action after Julien attempted to play him at centre last season. Drouin admitted he felt more comfortable as a winger, and it definitely looked that way in the pre-season.
Defencemen Mike Reilly and Noah Juulsen had very strong camps, as did forwards Joel Armia, Paul Byron and Artturi Lehkonen.
Drouin, Max Domi, Byron and Brendan Gallagher are expected to carry most of the goal-scoring load among the forwards, though Lehkonen and Charles Hudon both could step up.
What’s left to see is if Montreal has enough depth — both on offence and defence — if the team gets into any sort of injury trouble throughout the year.
Claude Julien, second full season. Re-joined the Canadiens late in the 2016-17 season after coaching Montreal from 2002 to 2006.
29-40-13 record, missed playoffs
Carey Price: The Canadiens have a much better chance of making the playoffs if Price has a bounce-back season. Last year he had a career-worst 3.11 goals-against-average and a .900 save percentage.
Max Domi: Can the newly acquired Domi play at centre, or is he a natural winger? Domi's pre-season play didn't provide any answers because he was suspended five matches for sucker-punching Florida's Aaron Ekblad two periods into his first exhibition game.
Tomas Tatar: Which Tatar did the Canadiens acquire in the off-season? The one who scored 29 goals for 56 points with the Detroit Red Wings in 2014-15? Or the one who scored 20 goals and 34 points with the Red Wings and Golden Knights last season? The answer could be the difference between making the playoffs or not.
THE BIG QUESTION
Is this a rebuild? Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin has refused to say his team is currently rebuilding with an eye to the future. The team has gotten younger, most notably with the acquisition of junior centre Nick Suzuki, who Bergevin said was the "key piece" in the Pacioretty trade. But Montreal also has two high-priced veterans signed to long-term contracts in the 31-year-old Price and the 33-year-old Weber. That puts the Canadiens in a bit of a limbo zone heading into this season.
Kelsey Patterson, The Canadian Press