Depth on Defense And Trade Option

By Bob Trask – It’s very early in the NHL season but the Montreal Canadiens currently sit 12th in the league in goals against average. What makes it remarkable is that the feat has been accomplished with four rookies and two veterans in the lineup on defense. Two defensemen that the team was counting heavily on this season, Joel Edmundson and Mike Matheson, have yet to play a game. Both are left-handed defensemen.

That begs the question of what to do when one or both return. Among the players on the all-rookie left side, who hasn’t earned their spot. Certainly Kaiden Guhle, who has drawn the toughest assignments and handled them well, has earned his spot. Jordan Harris already looks like the player everyone hoped Victor Mete would become, but didn’t. His quick feet and quicker mind have resulted in very good performances and he leads all d-men on the team in plus/minus. And then there is Arber Xhekaj who oozes confidence and charisma while bringing a physical element to the team that we haven’t seen in a long time.

Yes, they are all still a work in progress but each has taken their turn at contributing to any success the team has had. It would be a difficult choice to demote one of them, never mind two when the veterans return. And with that in mind, perhaps Kent Hughes is already exploring trade options for one of the veterans.

Trade Options

Joel Edmundson

Despite the leadership that he brings to the team, Joel Edmundson has to be the leading candidate among veteran defensemen to be traded. His leadership abilities are precisely one of the assets that interested teams would value. His size (6’5 and 225 lbs) and his play in the defensive zone add to that value. Edmundson seems to have a high panic threshold and often waits calmly to make the right play coming out of his own end. Creating offense has never been one of his hallmarks but he does chip in once in a while – averaging about five goals and 13 assists per 82 games played.

Mike Matheson is a home-town boy whose skating ability fits in well with how Kent Hughes is trying to build his team. He doesn’t have Edmundson’s size or physical presence, but he provides more offense. In the big scheme of things, Hughes would likely count on Xhekaj, Guhle and Savard to contribute the more physical elements of the game with Matheson patrolling the left side of the blueline.

When it comes to contracts, Edmundson is on a very affordable $3.5 million contract with two years remaining while Matheson is on a more expensive $4.875 million contract with four years remaining. All of this points to Edmundson as being the more sought after veteran defenseman of the two.

Trade Candidates

The Toronto Maple Leafs always come to mind as a team in need of reliable defenseman. As much as their fan base and the media would like to tell you otherwise, the Leafs’ blueline corps is full of holes and potential problems. But would the Canadiens trade an asset like Edmundson to their division rivals? It is highly unlikely!

The team that could really benefit from Edmundson’s presence, however, is the Edmonton Oilers. The are definitely in a win-now mode but have at least one glaring hole to fill. The success of the Calgary Flames also puts additional pressure on the Oilers to keep pace.

Tyson Barrie and Evan Bouchard are both offense-only defensemen who play the right side. At the same time, Ryan Murray has so far proven that he is a less than ideal defensive complement on the left side. Joel Edmundson could step in and provide that combination of maturity and physical size that the Oilers need to round out their team. Those are prized attributes, particularly when it comes to the playoffs.

The Fantasy Trade

The prime candidate for the Oilers to trade in this situation is Jesse Puljujarvi simply because his contract is within $500k of Edmundson’s. With teams tight to the cap, salary offsets become an important factor – and Edmonton would have shed even more salary to make this work. At the same time, defenseman are worth more than wingers and accomplished defensemen are worth far more than wingers trying to find their spot in the league. That means more players need to be added to the mix but Montreal can’t take on an infinite number of contracts because of the 50 contract limit.

Jesse Puljujarvi

Montreal could offer to also take the disappointing Warren Foegele and his $2.75M salary back in return, thus creating an opportunity for Dylan Holloway while trading Puljujarvi could create an opportunity in Edmonton for recently acquired Klim Kostin. But the Oilers would need to pay a price to entice the Canadiens to take on two less than attractive contracts. A mid-round pick could be one of those assets and high-scoring junior draftee, Matvei Petrov could be another. Of course Habs fans would probably be clamouring for Quebec native Xavier Bourgault but it is hard to see Edmonton giving up a former 1st round pick who is just getting his feet wet in the pro ranks.

From Edmonton’s point of view, the trade is unbalance from the point of view of sheer numbers going in each direction. I couldn’t see Hughes giving up any prime prospects but depth prospects like Gianni Fairbrother (currently injured) or Otto Leskinen. If Montreal were to take Foegele off Edmonton’s hands it would create a shortage of wingers for the Oilers. The addition speedy Rem Pitlick to the deal could help offset that loss and with a less costly contract. In fact, Pitlick might fit into the Oilers’ system better than Foegele.

In the end a lot of salary cap gymnastics would have to be undertaken by both teams in order to make any deal work but some components could be:

  • From Edmonton: Jesse Puljujarvi, Warren Foegele, Matvei Petrov, 2nd round pick in 2023 that upgrades to a first if the Oilers reach the conference finals
  • From Montreal: Joel Edmundson, Gianni Fairbrother (or Otto Leskinen), Rem Pitlick

From Montreal’s point of view they have a glut of defenseman and eventually that will have to be pared down. On left wing, moving Rem Pitlick is either opens up a spot for Emil Heineman or Rafael Harvey-Pinard…. or he is replaced by Foegele in the short term.

The Crunch is Coming

Whether or not Hughes decides to trade one of his veteran LD, the fact is that a crunch is coming when the veterans return to health. Eight healthy, NHL calibre defensemen is at least one too many for the team to carry. As Edmundson prepares to come off the injury list, the first move may be sending Schueneman back to Laval but if 6-8 weeks Mike Matheson could be ready to play. That provides Kent Hughes with a lengthy opportunity to evaluate his young defenseman, monitor Edmundson’s health and explore the trade market.

When the time comes he will be ready to make his decision and something like a trade involving the Edmonton Oilers could be in the cards.

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