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Young Defense On The Rise

By JD Lagrange – The Canadiens’ lack of scoring has been a focus in Montreal for a long time and rightfully so. The team has been bringing slingshots to the war for way too many years. Although the Canadiens have suffered a record of over 700 man-games lost to injuries last season, the top-end offensive talent was lacking. But as a strong believer that offense starts by a good defense, that’s where I want to focus today.

You see, you can have the best forwards but if you cannot retrieve the puck in your own end, if you are circling around chasing your opponent in the defensive zone, and if you can’t make a good first pass out of your own zone, those offensive players won’t be effective. Then if you are not a good faceoffs’ team, you are once again wasting energy on puck retrieval instead of puck possession and generating offense.

Change of guard

Don’t get me wrong, I love the physical aspect of the game and aside from timely goals and outstanding goaltending, the reason why the Canadiens went so far in the playoffs last summer was because of their four Clydesdales, as Dominique Ducharme called them. Shea Weber, Ben Chiarot, Jeff Petry and Joel Edmundson were heavily leaned upon and they outmuscled the opposition to submission in the first three rounds of the playoffs.

Weber is out, likely won’t play another game in the NHL. Edmundson missed over half the season and Chiarot is now trying to help the Florida Panthers in their playoffs’ run. And it seems like Petry’s days in Montreal are counted. It’s now time for Alexander Romanov and company to take the bull by the horn and lead a new kind of defense and it’s exciting to see what they will look like starting next season.

Young core

Alexander Romanov is only 22 years old and has progressed all season long. The Jacques Beauchamps Trophy winner as the unsung hero on the Canadiens seems ready for a regular top-4 position on the team.

Jordan Harris

Jordan Harris played 10 games for the Habs at the end of the season, recording his first NHL goal and with a plus -3 rating. The 21 year-old Haverhill, Massachusetts native showed great calm and composure and fits the mold as a smooth skating, puck moving defenseman. Whether he manages to stick around all season next year remains to be seen, but he will be a solid NHL player soon enough.

Justin Barron was acquired in the trade that saw Artturi Lehkonen head to Colorado at trade deadline. In five games before getting injured, he had shown some very good potential both offensively (1G-1A) but defensively as well. He is still rough around the edges and needs developing, but the talent is there. Being right-handed is a huge plus for him, a position of weakness on the Canadiens. He too could see some time with Laval next year. At only 20 years old, he has a bright future.

Kale Clague was picked off waivers from the Los Angeles Kings and he played 25 games with the Canadiens last season. The 23 year-old has show some offensive flair, as shown by his five points, but he was a giveaway machine. His ceiling is not has high as others in the organization but who knows when he’ll stop developing?

Kaiden Guhle needs no introduction as since being drafted, he has been one of the steadiest and most solid prospects in the organization. He left a very good impression at camp last year but the Canadiens did the right thing by giving him one more season in junior. Known more for his defensive play and physicality, the 20 year-old averaged about a point per game this season. He will certainly battle for a spot next season but has Kent Hughes hinted, there could be a lot of back and forth player movement between the Rocket and the Canadiens next season.

Mattias Norlinder

It’s been an up and down season for 22 year-old Swedish defenseman Mattias Norlinder. He played six games in Montreal, a few in Laval, then went back to play for Frölunda HC in the SHL. He had some good playoffs with them with six points in nine playoffs games, before returning to North America to help the Rocket in their own playoffs’ push. One of the most promising offensive defensemen in the Canadiens’ prospect pool, he could be part of the rotation between the AHL and NHL next season.

We often forget that Josh Brook is only 22 years old. The right-handed defenseman had a great camp a couple of years ago but he has since suffered from a rash of injuries, slowing down his development. He will absolutely need to stay healthy and take a major step forward next season to return to where he belongs, as one of the team’s best defense prospects.

21 year-old Gianni Fairbrother is the type of player that flies under the radar. He’s not flashy but does everything well on the ice. The Vancouver native will be entering his second season with the Rocket next year and should start in the AHL. But depending on his summer development and how well he does at training camp, he could see a few games in Montreal too.

Arber Xhekaj is a name that’s hard to pronounce and not any easier to spell, but Habs’ fans should start learning it. He is another one of those defensemen who doesn’t draw a lot of attention but he is the type of player to come out of nowhere to earn a spot. He’s a little bit in the mold of Guhle although his ceiling is not as high. The 21 year-old should start in Laval next season but he had a good camp in Montreal last season, so keep an eye on him.

Not under contract:

As you see, there will be a healthy competition at training camp in the Fall. The Canadiens are very deep on the left side of their defense and while some can play on the right side, it is less than ideal at the NHL level, particularly at a young age against the top talent in the world. More trades will happen, and then who knows what this year’s Draft will bring? Hughes is also on record saying that if he trades Petry, he wants to bring in a veteran right-handed defenseman of equal caliber to replace him. Stay tuned…

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