By – Bob Trask On opening night last year, the Montreal Canadiens fielded a defense corps that had a grand total of 932 regular season games under their belt. Those games were concentrated between two players – David Savard and Chris Wideman. The remaining four players had a grand total of 14 games of NHL experience.
Later in the year, Mike Matheson and Joel Edmundson would rejoin the lineup with mixed results. Matheson’s addition helped; Edmundon’s didn’t.
If we fast forward to today, the young defensemen on the squad have gained valuable experience, Matheson should start the season with the Canadiens and Jeff Petry could start the season with the team as well.
There are still a lot of if’s associated with the team. Petry could be traded, Wideman seems like a longshot to make the team and at least one of the young d-men is likely to begin the season as the 7th d-man. But for arguments sake, let’s assume Petry is still in Montreal when the puck drops for the first game.
The starting six could look like this on opening night.
Waiting in the wings would be Arber Xhekaj with 51 NHL games played and Justin Barron ready for recall from Laval with 46 NHL games played.
If you subtract Petry and add Barron, the defense still has 1442 games of NHL experience to start the season. significantly more than what the opening night roster had last year.
But simply focusing on games played overlooks the fact that the two most experienced defensemen on the team would not be considered 1st pairing players on a competitive squad. Savard is better suited to a #5 or #6 role with penalty killing responsibilities while Wideman would be a #6 or #7 role with occasional power play time. It was hardly a veteran corps around which to build a defense.
As a result, inexperienced players were heavily relied upon to shoulder much of the load. This year they will have their experience to draw on and there’s a chance that the veteran presence surrounding them is an improvement over last year.
As an interesting side note, Jeff Petry was probably the best skater among Canadiens’ defensemen when he left the team. Even if he hasn’t slowed down, there are a trio of defensemen on the team who may be even better. They are Matheson, Guhle and Harris. Digging deeper, I would argue that Xhekaj is also a better skater than Edmundson. It would all add up to very mobile defense corps with the exception of Savard who brings other attributes to the table.
The caveat is that Hughes seems likely to make a trade involving a defenseman either before the season or at that trade deadline and that defenseman seems likely to be Petry.
Regardless of what moves GM Kent Hughes might make, this year’s edition of the Canadiens promises to have a very interesting group of defensemen with the potential to excel.