Stu Cowan: Survival of the fittest as Canadiens take to the ice

Shortly after the first group finished exhausting drills, the team announced there were already injuries to report.

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Canadiens head coach Martin St. Louis wasted no time Thursday finding out what kind of shape his players are in.

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They were split into five groups of about a dozen players each as they hit the ice for the first time at the training camp in Brossard.

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The players first skated the length of the ice individually a few times with a tether attached to the back of their pants to measure the output from their strides. After that, they skated lap after lap around the full ice surface in small groups at top speed with very short breaks in between.

It looked like a Survivor test and I wondered if any of the players would throw up as they bent over with their sticks on their knees to catch their breath after finishing their laps.

Shortly after the first group finished on the ice, the Canadiens announced there were already injuries to report following Wednesday’s medical and physical testing.

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Captain Nick Suzuki will be sidelined for two weeks with a lower-body injury and assistant captain Joel Edmundson will be out for an undetermined amount of time, also with a lower-body injury. Josh Anderson and Jake Evans are listed as day-to-day with upper-body injuries. It was already known that Carey Price (knee), Paul Byron (hip) and Sean Monahan (hip) are still recovering from injuries and that Price isn’t expected to play at all this season.

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Not a great way to start camp for a team that finished last in the overall NHL standings last season and set a record with 731 man-games lost to injury.

“It’s tough,” said Brendan Gallagher, who missed 26 games last season with injuries. “But it’s kind of a nice lesson for us to learn early on. Guys are going to go down. It’s a long season, it’s a grind. You’re not going to have everyone all year. So it’s good for other people to step up.”

No player will have to step up more than Gallagher as a leader after he was named an assistant captain, along with Edmundson, while Suzuki was named captain at the team’s golf tournament on Sept. 12. Gallagher’s the only one of those three who will be on the ice for at least the first two weeks of camp, with the season opener slated for Oct. 12 when the Toronto Maple Leafs will visit the Bell Center.

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“I’ve been here long enough to understand you need multiple leaders,” Gallagher said. “I’ve played with some very good captains and they’ve had very good support leadership-wise, and it trickles down through your locker room. Those guys are still going to be around, they’re still going to be a part of what the group’s doing and be able to be leaders that way. But when you’re on the ice, especially when you’re split up into different groups, you’re going to need guys to take charge of a team and make sure — maybe Day 3 of camp, energy’s low — and you’re going to need guys to kind of get the group up and make sure that every day is a productive day.

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“You know it’s not much time until the season starts,” Gallagher added. “It feels like it’s a long way away, but it comes quickly and, before you know it, you’re dropping the puck for Game 1 and you want to make sure that we’re ready. At certain points, guys are going to have to step up, for sure, and kind of take charge of the group and make sure that every day is a productive day.”

Newcomer Mike Matheson, acquired from the Pittsburgh Penguins during the summer in exchange for Jeff Petry, noted that good teams are built through tough times — and Thursday was definitely a tough day on the ice.

“You see guys supporting each other, tapping them as they go by or as they’re doing their reps saying: ‘Let’s go! Let’s go! You’re almost there!’” Matheson said. “That just brings people together and gets them closer.

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“You’ve got to train all summer so that you’re ready for those things,” he added. “It’s a good tool for coaches to use just to gauge where everybody’s at.”

There was a team meeting Wednesday night during which St. Louis addressed the players.

“Walking out of that meeting I was kind of saying to the other guys: ‘Geez, he gets you fired up,'” Matheson said. “He just has a way of talking. He was a player himself, a very successful player. And so when you say he gets it, he obviously does and he knows what motivates people. We’re trying to build a culture here that can last and that can have a lot of success and he’s obviously the biggest driver of that.”

The Survivor test was a good start.

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