By JD Lagrange – We can try to predict how a hockey season will play itself out all we want, no one knows how things can and will develop over a long, 82-games NHL schedule. Sure, a lot of our predictions are based on educated guesses, but they still remain… guesses. And that’s why we get our feet wet by adding conditions. “If they stay healthy”… “If he continues with his development”… If, if, if…
When you look at the Montreal Canadiens, there have been several factors that played into the season that we’ve seen. For the most part, there were things, positive and negative, that we didn’t really see coming. Yet, they’ve played a big role into this season. Some were pleasant surprises, others were disappointments. Allow me to share some of mine and perhaps, they are also some of yours.
It’s been another tough season for the Habs, leading the NHL in man-games lost to injuries for a second straight year. By the time the season ends in a few days, they will have reached around 600 man-games lost to injuries, leading the league for a second season in a row. Last season, they shattered the NHL record with well over 700 man-games lost. So who would have thought that this would happen? Not me. Not after Shea Weber’s contract was traded. I thought Carey Price could come back. Same for Paul Byron after his surgery.
Like with anything though, there was a silver lining coming with the amount of injuries to key players in the organization. With so many players missing in important positions, it has allowed the team to fast-forward a few players’ development with ice time and experience that those young players wouldn’t have received had it not been for those injuries.
For one thing, after the departure of Jeff Petry for Pittsburgh, Canadiens’ GM Kent Hughes told reporters that his goal was to acquire another veteran right-handed defenseman as he didn’t want to start the season with three or four rookies at the blue line. He was obviously unable to do so and Martin St-Louis started with four rookie defensemen in the line-up: Kaiden Guhle, Jordan Harris, Arber Xhekaj and Johnathan Kovacevic, who was picked off waivers from the Winnipeg Jets.
Kaiden Guhle: We knew that he was good. But few – in anyone – had predicted that he would play well enough to not only earn a spot on the top pairing, but look good playing against the opponents’ top lines. He had immediate chemistry with veteran David Savard, who played a big role in helping the youngster adjust to the NHL. Guhle averages over 20 minutes of ice time per game.
Arber Xhekaj: No one in their right mind expected Xhekaj to start the season in Montreal but Joel Edmundson aggravated his back injury while colliding with captain Nick Suzuki in a practice and was forced out of the line-up. Not only has he done well, he was leading all Canadiens’ defensemen in goals (5) at the time he went on the LTIR due to a shoulder injury.
Jordan Harris: It’s easy to forget Harris, or the fact that he’s a rookie because he’s not flashy in what he does. Good skater, he also has a good stick and likes to join the rush from time to time. He averages 18:39 minutes of ice time per game for a rookie.
Johnathan Kovacevic: He looks awkward at times, but he gets the job done. In fact, he’s been improving all season long and has rendered some very good services for the Canadiens. There’s a trivia question for you in the future: who leads all Canadiens’ defensemen in games played this season? That’s right. Kovacevic will be the team leader in that category.
Mike Matheson: One cannot talk about the Canadiens’ defense without bringing up Matheson’s name. He struggled with injuries this season but it hasn’t kept him from showing some amazing things. Since January 31st, the Montrealer has managed 23 points in 27 games, seventh best in the NHL for defenseman since then, while averaging over 25 minutes of ice time per game. He has also been sound defensively.
David Savard: At first, I wasn’t going to bring him up in this article but I’ve changed my mind. In fact, if I had a vote for the Jacques Beauchamp Trophy, given to the Canadiens’ unsung hero of the team, he would have my vote in a heartbeat. Placed in a position that isn’t his as the team’s top pairing right-handed defenseman, he has done surprisingly well. As mentioned above, he was also a great mentor to young Guhle. He is also amongst the league leaders in blocked shots.
As you can see, the defense is where most of the surprises have been coming from but that doesn’t mean that there were others.
Kirby Dach: He was having a breakthrough season prior to injuries hitting not only himself, but the rest of the team. He developed immediate chemistry playing on the right side of Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield. Then, when moved back to center, his confidence was so high that he was driving that second line. Defensively responsible, physical, we sometimes forget that he’s only 22 years old.
Josh Anderson: I’m putting Anderson’s name here not because of his goals’ production as he once again scored 21, a pace of 25 goals this season. But rather because of how consistent he was on being a threat game in and game out. Also, he was killing penalties this season and was more reliable defensively. Known as a one-dimensional, North-South type of player, he has added an East-West aspect to his game, making him a more complete player.
Rafaël Harvey-Pinard: What can we say about this guy that hasn’t been said before? He claims that Brendan Gallagher is his favourite players and models his game after him. Watching him play, we can totally see that from the youngster amicably nicknamed “Lavallagher”. RHP now has 14 goals in only 32 games this season and he is a serious candidate to stay in Montreal at the start of next season.
There have been others who have done quite well, although not necessarily all season. Three guys who started the season in Laval and have done well since being called up are Justin Barron, Jesse Ylönen and Alex Belzile. The 31 year-old Belzile is a feel good story. Not only did he score his first NHL goal, but he now has six goals in the 31 games that he’s played in Montreal this season. Another honourable mention goes to Samuel Montembeault, who seems to be establishing himself as a NHL goaltender this season.