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:

  • William Trudeau (QMJHL)
  • Daniil Sobolev (OHL)
  • Jayden Struble (NCAA)
  • Logan Mailloux (OHL)

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…

More reading…

More Questions Than Answers Entering Off-Season

By JD Lagrange – The Montreal Canadiens have officially entered the off-season back on April 30th. In years past, the team had a solid core and fans were wondering what would be added to it in order to move forward. There were more answers than there were questions. It’s not so much the case entering this off-season, the first under new management, as there are just a few certainties and a whole lot of moving parts.

If Kent Hughes found trade deadline challenging, he’s up to a very tough and busy summer. Here are 10 questions he is faced with, or that fans are left wondering about:

1- What about Carey Price?

Carey Price has reportedly received a second opinion about his knee and the news isn’t good. It was apparently suggested to get another surgery. So we’re back at square one: no value in a trade due to the uncertainly of his health and future, and no further ahead when it comes to the goaltending situation in goal for the Canadiens. Will the Canadiens go with Jake Allen and Samuel Montembeault after the disastrous season they’ve just been through? It’s doubtful. Expect Hughes to get an insurance policy help Allen if Price can’t go.

2- Will Jeff Petry be traded?

Petry averaged 0.16 points per game under Dominique Ducharme and after Cole Caufield, he had the biggest improvement stats-wise, producing 0.70 points per games under Martin St-Louis. Hughes has met with his defenseman after the season ended and it doesn’t seem like Petry had a change of heart. He’ll likely be traded and with his improved play, it should be not only easier to complete a trade, but to get some value for him. It would also shed some key salary off the team’s cap.

3- Do they really want to go with a young defense?

Jordan Harris did quite well, as did Justin Barron before getting hurt. Kayden Guhle faired well at camp last season. But will the Canadiens dare go with such a young defense, considering that Alexander Romanov is only 22? It is doubtful, particularly if they decide to trade Petry. Expect either a UFA signing – I’m a big John Klingberg fan but Kris Letang is also rumoured – or a veteran defenseman coming through trade. The younger ones will be going back and forth between Montreal and Laval.

4- How will they be shedding salary cap?

My colleague Bob Trask looked at the possibilities offered to Hughes when it comes to unloading some much needed salary cap space. Here is a list of the Canadiens’ top paid players, which includes Nick Suzuki’s new contract kicking in next season.

5- What about the future of Jonathan Drouin?

Here’s another guy who hasn’t been able to stay healthy since being acquired by the Canadiens, and it’s been worse the past two seasons. Mental health, physical health which included a wrist surgery on both wrists. Drouin has one year left to his contract. My personal feeling is that the guy could benefit from a fresh start elsewhere, particularly that the Canadiens wouldn’t mind unloading his $5.5 million cap hit. But I could see them hanging onto him to see what he can do under Martin St-Louis. Worse case scenario, they could trade him as a trade deadline rental.

6- The status of the current assistant-coaches?

The coach said being satisfied with his coaching staff. But considering the way special teams have been going, the way the defensive coverage was lacking, it is my opinion that St-Louis needs a more veteran assistant-coach with head coaching experience to help him out with defensive coverage system in their zone and neutral zone.

7- Who will be wearing the captain “C”?

In spite of what some people (from the outside) want you to believe, this dressing room is not lacking in quality leadership. There are a few very good candidates to receive a letter on their jersey next season. At the end of the season, St-Louis had high praise for Brendan Gallagher. Joel Edmundson is a quality veteran with tons of good leadership qualities. Josh Anderson sports the “A” for Team Canada at the World Championships and has shown leadership qualities since with the Habs. Up until recently, I was thinking that Nick Suzuki needed some maturing but I have since changed my mind. He could very well be given the “C”.

8- Who will they target on the UFA market?

Kent Hughes said wanting to be a player on the UFA market. Just recently though, he tempered his comments saying that he would be unlikely to pursue any of the top UFAs. Strategy? Realism? Time will tell. If traded, he did say wanting to replace Jeff Petry for an equivalent veteran defenseman and those don’t come cheap. What about his former clients Patrice Bergeron and Kris Letang?

9- Who could be potential trade targets?

A while ago, we touched on the possibility of adding a few younger NHL established players who are rumoured to be available around the NHL. As the Winnipeg Jets are at a crossroad, I would add the name of Pierre-Luc Dubois to a relatively extensive list which includes players like Vitali Kravtsov, Filip Zadina, Travis Koneckny, Maxime Comtois and Ilya Samsonov, amongst others. My new colleague JAG goes further by suggesting a homerun like Leon Draisaitl. The Canadiens have the assets to do something substantial by acquiring someone NHL ready but still young enough to help for years to come.

10- Could they pull a stunt at the Draft?

The NHL Draft will be held in Montreal and the Canadiens hold the number one pick. The scenario is Cinderella-like, where the script seems to be pre-written. The vanilla version being that Kent Hughes would announce the selection of Shane Wright. But the gap between the top-5 players isn’t as big as it’s been in recent years and while Wright is first on most lists, it’s not by a wide margin. This creates some controversy amongst some media and the fan base. Would the Canadiens dare making a splash at the Draft in Montreal? It would take a lot of guts!

Conclusion

As you can see, this off-season won’t be like the ones we’ve seen in the past 10 years or so. Even when Marc Bergevin made some substantial changes, he was trading away a Subban, or a Pacioretty. But never were there that many question marks. If the combo of Jeff Gorton and Kent Hughes know where they’re going, the same cannot be said about the fans. Even with more promised transparency, there are too many questions, too many moving parts, for us to try to determine what will happen this off-season. We can, however, expect a busy summer and with the season we’ve all been through, the summer moves should be more exciting than watching them play has been.

More reading…