Only Fools Never Change Their Mind

By JD Lagrange – American actor, playwright and screenwriter, Harvey Fierstein once said: “Change your mind as often as possible. Just because you thought something yesterday doesn’t mean you have to think it today. Don’t ever become a prisoner of your own opinion.”

In April 2022, I wrote about Nick Suzuki forcing me to change my mind about his readiness to become the Montreal Canadiens’ next captain. Prior to that, I felt like a veteran like Brendan Gallagher or Joel Edmundson would be better suited to be captain for a couple of years, allowing Suzuki to mature into the role as an assistant-captain first. We can see now that he was fully ready and all the credit goes to the organization for seeing it, and to the player for showing the maturity and leadership to succeed.

Like most people, I was extremely concerned when it was announced that neither Joel Edmundson or Mike Matheson would be able to start the season. It got even more worrisome when the team announced that both veterans would be out for an extended period of time. Playing four rookie defenseman on any given night goes against any NHL logic. To play the first 10 games of the season that way is unthinkable.

Mike Matheson

Yet, even after the return of Edmundson to the line-up, the quartet of Kaiden Guhle, Jordan Harris, Arber Xhekaj and Johnathan Kovacevic have missed a combined total of… one single game amongst them since the start of the season! The Canadiens’ coaching staff has preferred to make veteran Chris Wideman a healthy scratch three times instead of sitting the young guys.

Seeing how all defensemen are playing, and with the imminent return of Mike Matheson, who is skating with the team in a non-contact jersey, there is an overload of left-handed defensemen on the team. In spite of my respect and admiration for Joel Edmundson, he and Wideman are arguably the two least effective defensemen on the Canadiens.

Wideman wasn’t doing much prior to being a healthy scratch, particularly with his lack of offensive output in spite of playing key minutes on the power play. With an average of 2:21 minutes per game, he has been by far the most utilized defenseman with the man advantage. Next are Guhle (0:38) and more recently, Xhekaj (0:34).

In Edmundson’s case, we must give the guy the benefit of the doubt. He reaggravated a back injury after colliding with Nick Suzuki during training camp and he has only been back for five games.

Trade market opening up

A few NHL teams had question marks on defense even prior to starting the season but they chose to give their own players a chance. For some, they have succeeded but for others, they fell flat on their faces and are realizing that they need help at the blue line. And with most teams about 15 games into the season, injuries are already starting to creep in on other teams. Of course, we all know about the Canadiens’ rivals down the 401 in Toronto…

The Ottawa Senators are desperately searching for answers at their own blue line as well. With the team under-performing, Thomas Chabot is playing just under 30 minutes a night. This is insane and unsustainable in the long run as at that pace, they will burn him out in no time.

Other teams around the league are dealing with injuries and/or players having a disappointing start to the season, which opens up the market for defensemen. And we know how deep the Canadiens are, particularly on the left side of the defense.

But who?

Looking at the composition of the team, the Canadiens will have to clear room for Matheson when he comes back, possibly as early as on the weekend. So who do you cut? Kaiden Guhle? No. Jordan Harris? Highly unlikely. Arber Xhekaj? Possible, but he has proven being a NHL player. It leaves Joel Edmundson on the left…

Onto the right side… David Savard? Very doubtful. Johnathan Kovacevic? The Habs got him off waivers from the Winnipeg Jets and if they try sending him down, they will lose him. Chris Wideman? At minimum wage, he’s a good veteran who is already sitting from time to time, but it’s possible.

That leaves Edmundson… I love the guy, I truly do. But when I look at the situation objectively, when I look at the organizational depth chart, when I look at age, injuries, it brings me to a place I never thought I’d be. Would the team miss his experience, leadership and qualities if they traded him? Perhaps. But it appears like the Canadiens have young players ready to step into a bigger role right now.

Had you asked me about the possibility of trading Joel Edmundson this off-season, I would have laughed and moved on. But the young Canadiens’ defense is slowly but surely convincing me that perhaps, he would be the best candidate for a trade…

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The Waiting Game

By Bob Trask – Before training camp even started many Canadiens’s fans were clamouring for a trade. Almost every holdover with the exception of Caufield and Suzuki has been suggested as possible candidates. The desired return for trading any of these veterans ranged from absurdly low to ridiculously high. Many suggested sweeteners to the pot, others thought salary retention was the way to go and almost none of these trade advocates had any faith in the overall roster.

Through all of this Kent Hughes has been playing the waiting game. He has been waiting (though not passively) for the right offer to appear and he has shown patience with veterans like Mike Hoffman and Jonathan Drouin in the hopes that they would break out.

The wildcard in the situation is the fact that the Canadiens remain in the playoff hunt. If that continues, the strategy moving assets for futures may change.

Injuries and Slumps

While Hughes has been waiting, a lot has been happening around the NHL. The St. Louis Blues have been abysmal and the Calgary Flames have struggled. Ottawa’s defense is a mess and the situation in Edmonton isn’t much better. Injuries to key players have also cropped up. The Oilers, for example, have lost Evander Kane and there are others.

All of this creates a better position from which Kent Hughes can negotiate with potential trade partners.

Trade Candidates

Joel Edmundson

With the return of Joel Edmundson and the imminent return of Mike Matheson, the Canadiens suddenly have an excess of bodies on the blueline. The first reaction might be to send one of the four rookies to Laval but none of them deserves that fate at this moment. Nor do they deserves to be regularly sitting in the press box. Maybe Chris Wideman should be the odd man out but with his contract and his willingness to serve as a #7 defenseman, it seems more likely to keep him around. On the other hand, Edmundson could be in high demand with his physical style of play, his leadership qualities and his Stanley Cup experience. Hughes has to at least listen to offers – and there should be a lot.

At forward, Mike Hoffman has caught on fire just as a few teams have developed a need for some scoring punch. To his credit, Hoffman has worked harder at his two way game than I’ve seen from him in the past and his five goals so far this year would look good on almost any roster. Interest should be heating up in Hoffman and with Slafkovsky coming back from suspension the picture at forward is getting crowded.

Jonathan Drouin and Evgenii Dadonov probably hold little or no value right now. Hughes can afford to play the waiting game with them. At the moment both seem to offer little value to another team or to the Canadiens but there is a long shot possibility than one or both could come to life. With both contracts expiring at year end, Montreal could retain salary in a deadline deal if there was any interest in them.

Joel Armia is the perennial trade candidate who teases with talent and disappoints with results. As with Drouin and Dadonov, Hughes can continue to evaluate Armia as coach Martin St-Louis tries to coax more out of the big winger. Because of his contract he could be harder to move and it more likely to be a deadline deal or a post season deal if indeed Armia is traded.

Sean Monahan is probably the cream of the crop when it comes to potential trade candidates. But he has fit in very well with the Canadiens and provide the team with depth down the center ice position that they haven’t seen in years. His big contract is a deterrent to any contender picking him up in the near future, but at the trade deadline the Habs would demand a boatload in return for Monahan and some salary retention. I am not an advocate of trading Monahan unless the return is staggering and the longer the Canadiens stay in the playoff race, the less likely he will be traded and more likely that he will be offered contract extension. Again, Hughes will be playing game to see how both Monahan and the Canadiens perform.

Outlook

The Canadiens could consummate a trade with another team of one of these veterans before Christmas. The prime candidates for me are Edmundson and Hoffman but they may not be the prime candidates for Hughes. For the others, I expect the Hughes will watch and wait while he monitors their performance and opportunities that may arise. There are other trade candidates including Josh Anderson and Christian Dvorak but for now, I believe they are farther down the list of potential moves.

If no opportunities arise, waivers may be an option that Hughes resorts to again. As mentioned, if a playoff berth is deemed to be withing reach does the strategy change. Yes, non-contributors could be moved through trade or waivers but if Hoffman and Edmundson, for example, prove to be valuable pieces will Hughes be more inclined to keep them around?

For now we play the waiting game.

More reading…