Call of the Wilde: Opening night

The Montreal Canadiens couldn’t have wanted a test this tough to start the season.

The Toronto Maple Leafs are the pick of many hockey experts to go far in the playoffs. They got stronger in the off season with the addition of one of the premier players in the game, John Tavares. Even before the season began, the word was stay out of the penalty box because the Leafs power play will kill you.

Here’s Call Of The Wilde on opening night of the 2018-2019 season.

Wilde Horses

Jesperi Kotkaniemi reads the play as well as any 18-year-old that I have seen since my days in Edmonton. Kotkaniemi is two years ahead of schedule in his development.

He would have to regress for two years to not be ready to play in the NHL — he looks ready right now. It’s only one game and you cannot speak to whether he can find offensive chances, goals and points as he pushes forward here, but I can tell you that he will read the play extremely well and be around the puck a lot. He is one step ahead of the play to get into the heart of the play every single time he is on the ice. It is hard to believe how smart he is at this tender age.

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So many seasons there were so many Habs fans who thought that Alex Galchenyuk was a centre, but the Habs organization kept saying that he didn’t have the goods. For fans, it was a hard argument to win as no one looked all that good at the position for years. Well, this is what it looks like when someone knows how to play the centre position. We will see if he can handle the physical toll of the NHL. That is the only question mark at this point. If he tires, and gets pushed around as he does tire, then that will be the reason to send him back to Finland. Remember though that at the draft combine, Kotkaniemi had one of the best VO2 levels of all players there. This means that he has lung and heart capacity of a world-class level, so this won’t be a cardiac issue at the 50-second mark in a shift for him.

It will be a muscle and strength issue, and that is not going to be an issue as the years pass and he puts on some bulk. Bulk is important when you play with men who have already developed their physical frames. The point is and I think we can say it now: the Habs drafted one hell of a player at three overall. For all the consternation that this pick wouldn’t be ready until 2022, it’s 2018 and he is already close. The management has to be absolutely thrilled with what looks like could be the end of a 20-year search for a number-one centre.

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The best forward on the night was Artturi Lehkonen. He scored the first goal, but his night was much more than that. He was on the forecheck relentlessly. He fought for every inch. He angles off defenders prohibiting their passes better than anyone you will see in the game today. He plays intelligently defensively as well. He had an off season in his sophomore year, but don’t expect that to continue. He looks ready for big things in season number three.

READ MORE: Hockey commentator Brian Wilde returns to Global News for second season

What a steal it looks like Marc Bergevin made in obtaining Mike Reilly from the Minnesota Wild. Bergevin gave up only a fifth-round draft pick for the 25-year-old defenceman. It’s always a danger giving up on defenceman early. They can take a while to get comfortable and maybe Reilly is about to get comfortable. He is a strong skater and has excellent vision.

The knock on him has always been his physical commitment to the game. If it gets rough, it can mean the end of the commitment for Reilly. Not in this one. He was stellar. Coach Claude Julien said that Reilly was his best defenceman in camp and so far he is the best defenceman in the season. If he continues what a bonus it would be for the Habs blue line that is the weakest link.

Andrew Shaw didn’t play a single minute of camp, so it was a big surprise when the club announced he was ready for night one and that they would use him already. It was easy to guess that he would be behind the play, but instead he was strong diving for pucks to relieve the zone, and strong on the forecheck. The goal late in the second period on the power play was real bonus on the first point of Kotkaniemi’s career.

WATCH: Call of the Wilde: Who’s in and who’s out on this year’s Habs
Call of the Wilde: Who’s in and who’s out on this year’s Habs
Call of the Wilde: Who’s in and who’s out on this year’s Habs

Victor Mete in his second season in the new NHL, which is made for his game. Even just three years ago, you might not see Mete even make a physical NHL, but speed is king and Mete has it. He moves the puck quickly and uses his head smartly. Quite a steal for the 100th player taken in the draft to be just out of his teens and looking like a bonafide second-pair defender in the league.

Noah Juulsen is another young Habs defenceman to look stellar. Juulsen seemed to have the toughest assignments the entire game. It felt like the entire night it was John Tavares and Auston Matthews challenging him one-on-one and Juulsen looked outstanding. He is still a rookie and another sign that the young guns are going to carry the veterans on the blue line. The new style of D that they have shone, and the old style of D that they have struggled.

Tomas Tatar for Max Pacioretty is going to be a good hockey trade. Tatar for Pacioretty, Nick Suzuki, and a second rounder is going to be an amazing hockey trade. Suzuki got a hat trick in the first period last weekend. Trevor Timmins will likely do something with that second rounder. With Tatar looking as strong as he did, that is a big win for the Habs. But that isn’t to say it is also not a big win for Vegas who have cup aspirations. They got the man they wanted. Rare to say both sides like a trade, but this one we can say it.

READ MORE: Call of the Wilde: the Habs glass

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Jonathan Drouin looks more comfortable to carry the puck as a winger than he does as a centre. This is weird. Perhaps he just feels free that if he loses the puck on a rush, then he doesn’t have to worry about being behind the play. Whatever is going on in his head no one can know, but he looks freer out there than he did last year. It didn’t come together in terms of too many chances, but you have to like what you see in terms of puck handling and being involved in the game. Unusual to say that Drouin would be in the guts of the game more as a winger than as a centre, but here we are.

Paul Byron broke up plays, created chances, rang one off the post, drew a penalty, used his speed. Just another Paul Byron night doing more than anyone ever thought he could. Byron just earned a big contract, and it appears that resting on it has not entered his mind. He competed hard and caused grief.

READ MORE: ‘Expectations are a wonderful thing’: Maple Leafs kick off NHL season against Montreal Canadiens

Max Domi came for Alex Galchenyuk. So far, Galchenyuk has a long-term injury and is listed as week to week. Domi has two assists after one game for the Canadiens. The sample size is obviously ridiculously small, but Galchenyuk has a history of injuries and here is another one, while Domi is good at getting assists and he already has two. This is particularly impressive considering he barely saw any pre-season hockey serving a five-game suspension for an unwitting punch on Aaron Ekblad. He shouldn’t have had great legs without any pre-season action, but he did. A good first game in the CH. In fact, he might have been the best forward for the Habs on the night. Perhaps he is one of those players who likes the spotlight of a big city to play in unlike Phoenix where it is easy to lose your concentration that anyone cares.

Carey Price was not as busy as his opposite and there are few who saw the possibility of that against the high-flying Leafs. The shots through three periods were 36-24 in the favour of the Habs and 15-6 in the third period. Still, Price was outstanding facing the talented shooters of Toronto. Price certainly not at fault on the overtime winner as it was roofed beautifully by Matthews on a cross crease pass. Price takes the loss, but he is another in a long line of strong Habs players on a night that there is reason to believe that the Habs rebuild might be slightly ahead of schedule already.

Wilde Goats

The third partnership on the blue line was the one that struggled. Jordie Benn and Xavier Ouellet had some good moments, but they also had some tough moments. Carey Price particularly bailed Benn and Ouellet out late in the second period and the high five that Benn gave Price was well deserved. The third partnership until Shea Weber returns could be an undoing for the club, but if the first two pairings do well, then this is better than previewed.

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Matthew Peca was having a fairly strong game using his wheels well on the forecheck, but he was soft on the second goal of the Leafs. Admittedly, John Tavares is one heck of a hockey player, but if you are Peca — who has almost no offensive skills — you have to be bringing it tight on defence. You can’t do a flyby so Tavares gets a free pass to the goal.

Call of the Wilde: How are the new Habs prospects doing?
Call of the Wilde: How are the new Habs prospects doing?
Call of the Wilde: How are the new Habs prospects doing?

The Habs had one of the worst penalty killing units in the league last year and it seems they have not improved on that front. It’s hard to know truly because the Maple Leafs will probably have the best power play in the league this season, so the test was obviously difficult. With that said, the space that the Leafs had was scary. On their first power play, they had five top flight chances before finally scoring. The Habs are not aggressive enough — not sure if it is a manpower issue or a teaching issue, but it’s not a good kill.

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It didn’t seem a wise move to not have a talented player like Nikita Scherbak in the line-up, but to be honest, it is hard to imagine him competing enough on this night. This was a high-compete game. Anyone lackadaisical for even a second was going to be costly to the final result. The game was extremely fast, and the Habs had a line-up for the most part that kept up. It was odd because it actually felt like a playoff game in that any mistake was magnified or any lack of effort was obvious, so the head coach had 20 working; not always 20 succeeding, but definitely all 20 working.

Wilde Cards 

The opening-night roster certainly had a couple of surprises in it. Karl Alzner‘s ironman streak ended at 623 not with an injury, but with a choice by the coach to go with a better player. Alzner had a terrible first season with the Habs, but he actually had a fairly strong camp this September. His camp was better than Jordie Benn’s, but it was Benn who drew into the line-up. What the organization sees in Benn is a mystery to me as he moves the puck up so slowly and gets beaten one-on-one often but on a weak blue line, Benn is still good enough. The Habs have to get stronger on the blue line quickly. It can’t happen this year as the roster is set, but next season they need to add a Josh Brook on the right side, and also a first pairing D-man on the left side.

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For this year though, it is going to be an Alzer-Benn-Ouellet-Schlemko revolving door depending on the night and their energy and health. That is a revolving door that is going to get stuck. Alzner has four years left in his contract, so an opening night scratch just shows how much of an albatross this contract is to the Habs’ future. It has to be in the cards that they buy out his contract at some point. It is very hard to imagine that four seasons from now he will still be playing effective hockey.

READ MORE: Call of the Wilde: The Max Pacioretty era in Montreal is over

The other opening night surprise is Tomas Plekanec who remains stalled at 998 games in his career. It looks as if he will play his 1000th game at the Bell Centre. Plekanec did not have a bad camp, but the head coach seems to be deciding things on merit and not history this start of the season. Plekanec loses his job in the middle to a couple of players who aren’t exactly world beaters at the position. Max Domi got a start at centre and he’s a winger to be honest, so the wrong player in the wrong spot continues just like last year with Jonathan Drouin. Matthew Peca got a start at centre as well and he is 25 years of age with only three NHL goals. In both instances, we get the obvious view that the club has to improve down the middle. That better future started in Toronto with Jesperi Kotkaniemi playing his first NHL game at the age of 18.

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WATCH: Call of the Wilde: Max Pacioretty traded to Las Vegas

Call of the Wilde: Max Pacioretty traded to Las Vegas
Call of the Wilde: Max Pacioretty traded to Las Vegas

Jesperi Kotkaniemi became the first athlete in the major four sports in North American to play to be born in the 21st Century. Rasmus Dahlin of the Buffalo Sabres is also born in the year 2000, but he makes his debut on Thursday. Kotkaniemi is also the youngest player in the NHL. Even if Kotkaniemi goes back to either Finland or Laval, his progression is already well ahead of schedule, and the draft pick is looking like a good one from Trevor Timmins who took a chance on a player who was not on the radar as a lock in the three spot, but is two years ahead of target.

Active Marc Bergevin was back at it in the trade market again as the season began. The speedster Will Bitten was traded to the Minnesota Wild for Gustav Olofsson. Bitten is a tenacious forward, but looking at the depth chart over the next half decade, he was never going to make the Montreal Canadiens in a significant way. There are just too many forwards with better pedigree than he has and he never be a high-impact player. This is a depth decision because the Habs are thin on the blue line by comparison to up front. Olofsson reports directly to Laval. Olofsson is not ever going to make his mark in a big way either in the NHL. He was drafted in the second round in 2013. He has been an NHLer at least playing a half season last year in Saint Paul. It’s a good depth move by Bergevin just in case he runs into injury issues on his blue line on the left side. Olofsson is a 5-6 defenceman. Bitten is a fourth liner. What Bergevin needs is injury security on the blue line and here he gets exactly that.

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READ MORE: Toronto Maple Leafs win season home opener against Montreal Canadiens 3-2 in OT