By Bob Trask – Montreal general manager Kent Hughes has let it be known that he would like to add a veteran on right defense as the young prospects develop with spot duty in the NHL and lots of ice time in Laval. The challenge is finding a player who can fill that role. Hughes has three options: trading for an established defenseman, signing a UFA or picking up a player on the waiver wire. There are two other options that seem to be long shots: converting a LD to the right side or promoting a RD from Laval. We can look at all of them.
The UFA market is a good place to begin because there are only two legitimate prospects in the persons of PK Subban and Anton Stralman. Subban seems to be a non-starter for the Habs and Stralman may prefer to join a contender at this stage of his career.
Odds of adding a RD through the UFA market: slim
This option is hard to count on in advance of roster cut-downs. A player the Canadiens might be eyeing could be traded rather than put on waivers so there is a lot of risk that the Habs could come away empty handed. One name that might be of interest is former Habs prospect Cale Fleury. While not exactly a veteran he has NHL experience, he had a solid year in the AHL and he is familiar with Montreal. It is hard to believe, however, that Seattle would risk losing him to waivers and would probably trade him before that happens. There are others who could also become available via waivers but until the pre-season unfolds it is hard to predict whether anyone one of interest would appear on those lists.
Odds of adding a RD through waivers: slim
Most of the prime candidates for conversion from left defense are young and include players like Mattias Norlinder, Jordan Harris, Arber Xhekaj and Gianni Fairbrother. Among this group only Fairbrother has significant pro experience in North America and expecting the others to convert and play effectively is a big ask. Perhaps the most likely candidate here is Corey Schueneman who not only has pro experience, he has experience in playing on the right side. Otto Leskinen falls into the same category and has significant pro experience. Neither Schueneman or Leskinen bring a lot in the way of physical play but both have good puck moving skills. Whether or not one of these two make the team could depend a lot on what kind of defense that general manager Kent Hughes and head coach Martin St-Louis envision.
Odds of converting a LD to RD: moderate to high
If we assume that Justin Barron makes the Canadiens in some kind of role – full time right defense or on the Laval/Montreal shuttle – the only remaining RD in Laval and on an NHL contract is Madison Bowey. Bowey had a successful junior career in Kelowna but his pro career has been erratic with lots of ups and downs on the four teams he played for prior to signing with Montreal. In the 5 years since he first laced on his skates for an NHL game Bowey has played the equivalent of less than full two seasons – averaging about 20 points per 82 games played. At 27 years of age he should be entering the prime of his career.
Odds of Madison Bowey making the Canadiens as a RD: slim
The last and most complicated option is the potential to add a right defenseman through a trade. There are two categories of potential targets.
- Teams that are looking to acquire a player at a specific position and who are willing to give up a RD to consummate that trade
- Teams that are looking for salary cap relief and who have a RD whose contract they would like to move.
In both cases, the teams involved would likely be playoff candidates who hope to make a long playoff run and legitimately contend for the Stanley Cup. That whittles down the list of trading partners significantly.
The type of return that Montreal would want could range from a veteran with only one year left on his contract to a high performing prospect who played in the AHL or Europe last year. We can look at three hypothetical situations
- Justin Holl is a 30 year old, big-bodied RD who has played the past three seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs. While Holl’s contract is only $2 million for one more year, the Leafs need to free up space and every little bit helps. The expiring contract could make him a good trade chip at the deadline or, depending on his effectiveness, he could warrant a contract extension.
- Sean Walker of the LA Kings has played the equivalent of two full NHL seasons in the past 5 years. A shoulder injury last year limited him to 6 games but the 5’11 195 lb defenseman has average about 20 points per 82 games played in his career. Walker has 2 years left on a contract with a cap hit of $2.65 million per year and the Kings may prefer to use that cap space to beef up the team in other areas in order to make a playoff run.
- At 21 years old Kaeden Korczak of the Vegas Golden Knights is still a prospect but he is a big body who has international experience with Canada’s U17, U18 and U20 teams. Like Madison Bowey, he played his junior hockey in Kelowna and the 2021-22 season was his first full pro season with the Henderson Silver Knights of the AHL. The Golden Knights are all in and some recent misfortune may have the team looking to fill some holes before the window closes on them.
There is a potential trade with every existing team in the league and these three hypotheticals are a small sample of the kinds of options that Kent Hughes may be pursuing.
Odds of the Canadiens trading for a RD: moderate to high
The Canadiens almost certainly have to choose one of these options to round out the roster on right defense. Which one(s) they choose and which player(s) are involved remains to be seen. Keep your eyes open for more roster moves as training camps open and the season start draws closer.