November 30, 2023

The Montreal Canadiens came into their final match of a three-game road trip trying for a winning record.

And in the end, the Canadiens put in a terrible effort, falling 6-3 to the St. Louis Blues.

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It was an exciting night, at least before the game began. Christian Dvorak returned from injury, meaning that Alex Newhook could move back to the wing. At the same time, Rafael Harvey-Pinard was announced as day-to-day with injury.

The lines would be new. Repeat: The lines would be new.

Someone needed to take the spot beside Cole Caufield and Nick Suzuki on the number one line. Head coach Martin St. Louis seemed to have tried everyone in that spot, but he had not tried the first choice overall in the 2022 NHL draft.

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Finally, he did, and lo and behold, Juraj Slafkovsky scored his first goal of the season. Ironically, it was a give-and-go that worked with Newhook who he had struggled with Slafkovsky mightily in the last half dozen games.

Slafkovsky won the puck along the half-wall. He fed Newhook. Newhook quickly fed Slafkovsky who went to the net. The shot from Slafkovsky from three feet was flipped upstairs. It was beautiful hockey.

The smile was wide. The relief was obvious. There was probably more relief in the front offices though than from Slafkovsky who seems to take it all in stride.

Late in the first period, there were more positives as the Suzuki line spent the entire 50 seconds of a shift in the St. Louis zone. They didn’t generate a high-danger scoring chance, but they weren’t pinned in their own zone.

In the third period, the line had another excellent shift. Slafkovsky was particularly effective, but did not get a point when ultimately it was Suzuki deflecting a Caufield shot from the point. If this line can be effective 5-on-5, with Slafkovsky, this changes everything for the Canadiens overall.

The reason is it improves the number one line, of course, but it also improves the number two line, having Dvorak at centre allowing Newhook and Anderson to play in more traditional roles with a natural centre. That line’s Corsi will, no doubt, be higher than the embarrassing 30 when Newhook was centring it.

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The third line stayed together. They are the best line on the club with Sean Monahan playing his best hockey since his hips worked properly. Monahan, with Brendan Gallagher and Tanner Pearson, has been the most positive surprise of the season.

If a team has three lines playing with about a 50 or slightly better Corsi, add some good goaltending, and that’s an effective winning hockey team. It’s early, but this has promise.

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This was the Canadiens’ worst game of the season. It was an entirely sloppy effort from Montreal. They allowed space all over the ice for St. Louis. The Blues aren’t exactly a high-scoring team with only 21 goals in nine games, but against Montreal, they enjoyed an easy night.

Montreal allowed odd-man rushes at an alarming rate. They missed assignments. They left Samuel Montembeault hanging. They simply didn’t compete very well. Not every game can be a good one, and this one wasn’t. This was the first game this season that the Canadiens looked like last season’s version.

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They can’t all be gems. Throw it out, and get back at it Tuesday night at the Bell Centre against Tampa.

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The goal in hockey is for a prospect to find the spot where he can cook best, where he can improve his game best. That spot isn’t always in the highest league. A prospect needs to go where he finds time and space to develop his skills.

The Canadiens were trying to find the level for Filip Mesar last month. They were hoping that it was Laval, but he had a difficult time looking comfortable enough there.

This doesn’t mean that Mesar will never be NHL-ready. It only means that he is not ready now and must keep developing where he has a lot of touches. Touches translate to passes and shots leading to the ambition of hockey — goals.

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Mesar needed to drop back to the OHL again. It’s OK. Owen Beck is also in the OHL scoring a lot, and it’s OK for him too. It’s not a race.

In university, a student gets a mark for the exam. No one says the student got an 85 per cent and left the exam room 20 minutes early as well. The grade is 85 per cent. There are no bonus points for speed.

Arriving in the NHL is the destination. Arriving there with the best preparation possible is the journey.

There are no bonus points for speed in getting to the NHL. The actual goal is to arrive with the highest possible skill set. Beck and Mesar are both on course learning their craft and improving their overall skills.

Mesar has only four contests under his belt in Kitchener and has already gotten seven points on two goals and five helpers. This is an outstanding pace. Beck, after a slow start, in 11 games has seven goals and nine points.

Development takes time. Each individual grabs concepts and comfort at their own pace. No single prospect is even close to an expiry date in this round of player development. Not a single player in the Canadiens system is too old, nor too late. In fact, for most, we are in the early innings.

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Brian Wilde, a Montreal-based sports writer, brings you Call of the Wilde on after each Canadiens game.

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