Canadiens rookie camp takeaways: David Reinbacher’s mindset, speed vs. strength and more

BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Ottawa Senators must have misread the invitation, or something.

The event held in Buffalo over the weekend was called the 2023 Prospects Challenge. Instead, on Monday, the Senators dressed a lineup that included one drafted player at forward (2020 sixth-round pick Philippe Daoust), three drafted players on defence (a third-round pick and two fifth-rounders) and in goal, 2020 third-round pick Leevi Merilainen, who was the best player on the ice.

The other 14 players in the game were all undrafted.

The Canadiens prospects basically had the puck for the entirety of the final game, even though the 2-1 score doesn’t indicate that because of how brilliant Merilainen was. The Canadiens had 11 players taken in the first four rounds of the draft in uniform. The Senators had two.

This is the reality of an event like this. The Canadiens had one challenging game against the host Buffalo Sabres on Friday evening and they played nervous, somewhat justifiably because it was the first time many of them were wearing a Canadiens uniform and the LECOM Harborcenter was packed. The Boston Bruins prospects on Saturday were a much weaker group simply because they haven’t drafted very high or very often for a long time — their only two first-round picks since 2018, John Beecher and Fabian Lysell, were playing in the tournament.

And then, the Senators took the cake on Monday.

“It’s a little tougher to evaluate, but you’ve got to look at the details, the turnovers,” said Jean-François Houle, coach of the Laval Rocket who was also running the Canadiens prospects team. “And you want to see if the players keep playing the right way, because what happens when you have the puck a lot is you try to cheat or try to be a little more fancy than you should be.

“So the little details are the things to look for in a game like this.”

Here’s one detail that jumped out before the game was three minutes old. Riley Kidney was in the offensive zone and fully engaged in a battle for the puck along the boards. He didn’t necessarily win it, but he was able to keep the battle going long enough that his teammate Isaac Dufort was able to come in and collect the puck and maintain possession for the Canadiens.

Compare that to the Kidney who, in the game against the Bruins prospects Saturday, got the puck in the neutral zone and, once he realized he was about to get hit, got rid of it as fast as he could, dumping it into the zone and basically giving it right back to the Bruins. Or the Kidney in the opening game who seemed allergic to traffic.

The version of Kidney we saw Sunday was totally different, engaged physically and going to difficult areas of the ice, areas where he might take some contact.

And it was noticed.

“Much better today,” Houle said. “First game, you know, we were all expecting more, but I’m happy he got a good game here under his belt. I thought he had the puck a little bit more, he had more poise with the puck. He’s a good player; he’s a playmaker, he’s got to make plays. He won battles tonight and that’s why he scored that goal, because he won a battle.

“There’s no secrets to hockey, it’s a series of one-on-one battles, and if you’re strong enough to win those, you’ll have the puck a little bit more.”

There’s a problem with that last statement, however, one that seemed to manifest itself for three of the more promising Canadiens prospects at this event.

For Kidney, Sean Farrell and Filip Mešár, striking a balance between getting stronger and remaining true to who they are as players will be crucial to their development. Mešár has put on 11 pounds from his listed weight of 168 pounds with the Kitchener Rangers last season, which would help in winning battles at the pro level. But over three games in Buffalo, his speed in transition did not pop nearly as much as it did a year ago. He has speed that can push defencemen off the blue line as you enter the zone, but we just didn’t see it in Buffalo, and there were whispers that the added bulk was the big reason why.

Farrell added six pounds, but still struggled in battle situations, and therefore didn’t have the puck on his stick all that often at even strength. And Kidney, as noted, did not look all that effective until the final game of the event against a largely undrafted roster of players, though it was his willingness to engage physically that stood out the most, which has nothing to do with the opponent.

It will only get more difficult in the AHL, where all three of them could be playing this season.

“(Kidney), and even Farrell and Mešár, they’re all young kids and they need to get bigger and stronger,” Houle said. “It’s a man’s league. You can’t think you’re going to go out there and dominate like you did in juniors. It just doesn’t happen like that.”

It will be important, however, that in becoming bigger and stronger, those players don’t lose what got them here to begin with.

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David Reinbacher after his second game of the Prospects Challenge in Buffalo on Monday. (Courtesy Club de hockey Canadien inc.)

Reinbacher’s mindset

David Reinbacher was in the spotlight over the weekend, and the temptation could have been there for him to try and put on a show. But he didn’t do that, for the most part. He played his game, defensively smart and aggressive, offensively picking spots with mixed results.

Reinbacher knows the offensive part of his game is where most of the questions lie. He’s acutely aware of it because he gets asked about it a lot. And he wants to prove that element of his game is not a weakness, but a strength, which is exactly what the Canadiens scouting staff feels and a big reason why they drafted him.

The defensive strengths are obvious if you watch any of his games from last season. The offensive strengths are less obvious, but they are there. An excellent decision-maker in transition, Reinbacher has the potential to be an offensive driver even if he doesn’t put up prolific numbers.

Around 14 minutes into the first period Monday, Reinbacher attempted to show that offensive potential. On the prior shift, Reinbacher was uncharacteristically indecisive carrying the puck up ice, and wound up icing it. Then on this shift, Reinbacher moved into the slot with the puck in the offensive zone, took a pass from Riley McKay in great position to shoot, let go of a shot, and flubbed it. Merilainen easily stopped the shot and eventually covered it up for a faceoff.

Reinbacher slumped his shoulders and stared up to the sky, clearly frustrated.

This is what made his initial answer after the game so interesting. He was asked a very general question about how he felt the experience of being there in Buffalo for this event went. It was very open-ended; Reinbacher could have taken his answer in any direction. He chose this one.

“I think it was great,” he began. “It was for the experience, it was not to prove someone wrong, or to prove (to) some guys out there. I guess, I can learn a lot out here, and I think I did today. So, I’ve got to keep the things (that were) good with me, next week is the main camp, so it’s going to be a lot harder. But that’s fun. That’s part of the job.”

It was not to prove someone wrong.

No one asked Reinbacher about proving someone wrong. And who exactly is this someone? Does he mean everyone?

Reinbacher would probably be best served just worrying about playing his game, which can be understated, but is most definitely effective. It is his ability to do so many things well, along with his frame and his right shot, that attracted the Canadiens — and a good percentage of the rest of the league — to him ahead of the draft.

There’s no need for Reinbacher to prove anyone wrong. He simply needs to prove the Canadiens right. Those are two different mindsets, and Reinbacher needs to adopt the latter as opposed to the former as soon as possible.

Speaking of which …

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Logan Mailloux put his best foot forward in the final game of the Prospects Challenge. (Courtesy Club de hockey Canadien inc.)

A more confident Mailloux shows his strengths

Mailloux progressively got better over the weekend as the level of competition got progressively worse. He had an awful first game, so the Canadiens didn’t make him available to talk after the game, sheltering him. He played better in the second game, but since he was playing a third game, the Canadiens still didn’t make him available to answer questions.

He finally spoke after his third game, and Mailloux bluntly evaluated his first game, saying he didn’t have his legs, wasn’t moving well, was making bad reads. It was all very accurate. But it was his first game in a long time, his first game in a Canadiens uniform and he was nervous. It was understandable.

But he seemed comfortable talking after his third game, one where he rang his heavy shot off the post and got more offensive opportunities in general. He seemed to be a closer version of himself than in any other game he played.

Before leaving for Buffalo, Mailloux said his intention was to make the Canadiens out of camp. This time, when he was asked about playing preseason games with the Canadiens, Mailloux said he had to make it to the preseason first.

The offensive skills are there. The physical gifts are there. But Mailloux has a lot to learn about becoming an NHL player, most notably in his own end. And the weekend in Buffalo might have served to reinforce that.

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Joshua Roy was all smiles after Monday’s win against the Senators prospects. (Courtesy Club de hockey Canadien inc.)

Joshua Roy has a foot in the door

All weekend, letters were given to players who had experience at the AHL level. William Trudeau, who was again the Canadiens’ best player Monday, was captain in the two games he played. Xavier Simoneau was captain in the game Trudeau sat out. Jan Mysak and Emil Heineman served as alternate captains.

But with Simoneau and Heineman out Monday, it was Roy who got the “A” on his chest with his one playoff game of AHL experience.

On top of that experience, however, it seemed like a nod to the progression Roy has made to becoming a more complete player. It showed over the weekend.

The winning goal scored by Mysak in the third period came as a result of Roy battling in front of the net to keep a rebound alive and slide the puck behind Merilainen for Mysak to bury home in the crease. Roy also demonstrated his recent focus on improving his game without the puck. And based on how Houle was talking about him, Roy has seemingly already earned a decent amount of leash from his soon-to-be coach.

“I like his compete,” Houle said. “He wins battles in the corner, finds a way to come out of there with the puck, which was not necessarily the case one or two years ago. And he can play both ways, even defensively. He tracks back well, has a good stick in the defensive zone. He’s improved a lot.”

A relevant conversation with a couple of scouts

I was having a chat with two pro scouts after the game Monday, talking about the Sabres’ pipeline and how they seem loaded to the gills.

Neither of them disagreed.

But one of them made a point that was interesting.

“Now they need to identify which ones of their prospects will be part of the core, and then trade the other ones to fill holes on the NHL roster,” he said. “That’s the hard part.”

That is true of the Sabres — they might need to acquire a goalie at some point if Devon Levi doesn’t work out — but it applies to the Canadiens as well, just in a different way. The Sabres have more high-end prospects than the Canadiens, but the volume for both clubs is similar, and it will be more or less impossible to have all these prospects reach the NHL and contribute in an impactful way.

The trick is to find out as soon as possible which ones will be contributors, and to trade the others before the rest of the league finds out they won’t be contributors. There is an argument to be made for patience with these prospects, to allow the appropriate amount of time to make sure you don’t jettison a star player who simply needed more marinating, and that is the argument I would personally make for a team like the Canadiens.

Their volume of prospects should allow them the luxury of letting things play out in the hopes that a group with very few clear-cut stars produces one or two of them unexpectedly. But the other side of that coin is the potential of prospects only resonates for so long, and their trade value is intimately tied to that perception of potential.

So, the quicker the Canadiens can identify which ones have real potential and which ones have perceived potential, the greater chance they will have to turn that perceived potential into real NHL assets.

They just need to get it right.

(Top photo of Filip Mešár courtesy Club de hockey Canadien inc.)

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