In hockey – as in life – timing is everything. If this were 1937 or 1957, Mathieu Perreault might rank among the NHL’s scoring leaders and have a catchy nickname like “The Drummondville Dash.” And if this were 1997, he might be looking for another line of work. But it’s 2007, and the 19-year-old center is here in Washington trying to earn a spot in Capitals training camp, which gets underway on Friday.
Listed at 5-foot-9 and 151 pounds on Washington’s rookie camp roster, Perreault’s slight build would not have prevented him from starring in the NHL during the Original Six era. Howie (The Stratford Streak) Morenz stood 5-foot-9 and weighed 165. He also won two scoring titles, three Hart Trophies and is enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Henri “The Pocket Rocket” Richard played in 10 All-Star games and played on 11 Stanley Cup championship teams. He is also enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Richard stood 5-foot-7 and weighed 160. Perreault’s fellow Drummondville natives Yvan Cournoyer and Marcel Dionne were both smaller than the average NHLer during their playing days, but both carved out Hall of Fame careers in the league.
In the years before the lockout however, big men dominated the NHL. Smaller players were cast aside, or were not even given a chance to show what they could do. In recent seasons, the likes of Martin St. Louis and Daniel Briere have shown that smaller players can indeed excel in the NHL. And that’s all Perreault wants, just a chance.
“If it was five years ago I wouldn’t even have a chance think,” he says. “Now with the new rules, a small player can do it and I believe in that.”
He certainly has not had any trouble in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. He is coming off a stellar season in which he totaled 41 goals and 119 points in 67 games for Acadie-Bathurst, earning league MVP honors in the process.
“I didn’t expect a season as good as that,” he admits. “But I guess all the work I’ve done since I was a kid is now paying [off].”
Perreault had a very good on-ice chemistry with Thomas Beauregard, his Acadie-Bathurst teammate and linemate. Beauregard has completed his junior career and will attend training camp with the Montreal Canadiens this fall.
“He’s a sniper,” says Perreault. “He can shoot and I’m pretty much a playmaker. It was good for us. He was always in a good spot and I’d give him the puck and he’d score.”
Beauregard totaled 71 goals and 124 points to finish second in the QMJHL scoring race, one point behind Washington prospect Francois Bouchard.
Perreault is a gifted puck-handler and playmaker, and he sees the ice well. He is very nimble and moves well in tight spaces. He does not shy away from traffic, and can frequently be seen near the net. He looks a bit bigger and stronger than he did when the Caps risked a sixth-round choice (177th overall) in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft to bring him into the organization.
“I think I’m a little bit more strong physically, and quicker on the puck,” says Perreault, when asked how his game has evolved since the draft. “I move better with the puck, I think. It’s a big part of my game now.”
It’s a big part of his game because he has devoted a lot of time to it.
“I work on that all the time, the skills,” states Perreault. “You go to the gym and work to get bigger. It’s the same thing on the ice, you work on your skills. That’s what I’m doing. I try to get more speed again, and work on my legs all the time.”
Perreault is one of 27 players attending Capitals rookie camp this week. He hopes to make enough of an impression that he’ll be invited to stay beyond Friday when the Caps open up their regular training camp.
“They told us that a few guys would be invited to the big camp,” says Perreault, “and we don’t really have scrimmages, so we have to prove what we can do in practice and work really hard if we want to make a spot at the big camp.”
Perreault has been opening eyes since the Caps drafted him. He followed his 2006-07 season with a good playoff run and a strong showing at Washington’s summer development camp. He knows the odds are against him, and he’s likely to spend the 2007-08 season with Acadie-Bathurst. Perreault still has goals he’d like to achieve at that level, too.
“I want to have the same season, or even better,” he declares. “I would like this year for our team to go farther in the playoffs, like maybe win the [Memorial] Cup. That’s one of my goals.”
Perreault doesn’t hesitate when asked which NHL player he looks up to and tries to model his game after.
“Daniel Briere,” Perreault affirms. “He played junior on Drummondville. I’m from Drummondville so I watched him play junior. He is the kind of player I want to be, so I’m working to be like him.”
The list of high quality NHL players who’ve come out of Drummondville over the years is impressive. Perreault hopes to add his own name to that ledger in the not-too-distant future.
Second-year pro and Chevy Chase, Md. product Stephen Werner has been attending Capitals summer camps since his mid-teens, but this is just his second training camp with the team. Werner has been skating regularly on the Kettler surface all summer, and seems determined to raise his stock by showing some improvement to his game in 2007-08.
“That’s the biggest difference from last year to this year, is just the experience that I have under my belt and knowing what it takes and knowing what I could have done better last year, and knowing the things that I did well and putting it all together this year to have a good season.”
“I definitely think that being out there and shooting on [Brent] Johnson and Olie [Kolzig] and playing with guys like [Brian] Pothier and [Boyd] Gordon really helps me prepare for a camp like this.”