By JD Lagrange – The young Montreal Canadiens took everyone by surprise in the first 10-12 games of the season. It is particularly true for the young defensive core of the team. The Canadiens did the unthinkable by starting four rookie defensemen for all but one of the first 16 games of this season and in general, they have done amazingly well.
While some young players continue to produce and progress, others are starting to show signs that it is a huge step from the CHL or the NCAA. The offense is driven by 23 year-old Nick Suzuki and his two 21 year-old linemates Cole Caufield and Kirby Dach. Those three guys all have at least one season under their belt in the NHL and know what to expect. Their progression, while beyond the expectation of many, is understandable as all three were top-15 NHL draft picks.
On defense, Kaiden Guhle is showing poise beyond his age. Second in ice time on the entire team, he has been on the Canadiens’ top defense pairing since the start of the season and stayed there even after the return of veteran Joel Edmundson. With the quality of his play, there is no reason for him to move down the line-up, even with the imminent return of another veteran defenseman, Mike Matheson.
The other three rookie defensemen have been showing signs of inexperience and the NHL pace is slowly starting to catch up to them. Last night against the Columbus Blue Jackets, in a rare game that the Canadiens should have won considering their opponents’ record and the fact that they were missing eight regulars including some key players, the defense (and goaltending) let the team down. It was, without a doubt, Xhekaj and Harris’ worst game of the season and that, even if Harris scored his first goal of the season.
Matheson is practicing with a regular jersey now, so he is cleared for contact. At the time of writing this, he hasn’t been cleared to play but it’s just a matter of days, if not hours. The likeliness of seeing the Canadiens keep eight defensemen is slim to none and while some fans would like to see Chris Wideman placed on waivers, I personally don’t see that happening. In spite of having been a healthy scratch in six of the team’s last seven games, Wideman is a low maintenance veteran at minimum wage, who has taken a leadership role on the team.
I am a strong believer that in order to develop, a young player must play. Kent Hughes and Jeff Gorton are both on record saying that to better develop, players must play at a level where they will have success and improve on other aspects of their games.
Further, if you are going to sit someone most times, it is better to sit a veteran with little to no future with the team, than a young player and risk slowing down or stop his development. The Canadiens have been guilty of doing that over the years, and Jarred Tinordi and Nikita Scherbak come to mind. Both were kept in Montreal as they wouldn’t have cleared waivers and sat eating hot dogs game in, game out.
We know that sending Guhle down is a non-starter. The kid has started his NHL career and he is unlikely to ever play in the AHL again. David Savard, Edmundson and Matheson will also stay, unless the Canadiens surprise and trade one of them. This leaves one of Kovacevic, Harris or Xhekaj. Kovacevic was reportedly told to find an apartment in Montreal this week (he was in a hotel).
Between Harris and Xhekaj, I keep Harris. This means that I would send Arber Xhekaj to Laval for the time being.
So when Matheson comes back, I would like the defense pairings to look like this:
Guhle – Savard
Edmundson – Matheson
Harris – Kovacevic
This brings me to another young player. Juraj Slafkovsky is showing good things… when he’s on the ice. The issue is that even with the injuries to Paul Byron and now Jonathan Drouin, there is a surplus of forwards on the Canadiens and only so much ice time for them.
Prior to his suspension, St-Louis started using him more and while we could see that he is a raw talent with things to work on, the young man responded well. On the season, he is averaging 11 minutes of ice time per game and last night against Columbus, in spite of driving the play on his line (fourth line), the coach trusted him for only 10:33.
Ideally, and I’ve said that in multiple occasions, I would like for St-Louis to try Slafkovsky on the left of Sean Monahan and Josh Anderson, who both seems to have developed some chemistry together. You would have two good veterans who could support and teach the young man the ropes. Looking at his utilization however, it doesn’t seem to be in the cards.
Much like the defensemen, the same principle applies here. Slafkovsky is a first overall pick. While he must acclimatize to the North American style and smaller ice surface, he must also play often to develop and learn faster. As the style and rink size is the same in Laval as it is in Montreal, I would send the young Slovak to Laval for a bit, where he could log major ice time in key situations while continuing his acclimatization.
With that said, there is no doubt that both Xhekaj and Slafkovsky can play in the NHL. I’m simply looking at ice time, opportunity and who is currently ahead of them to take away their ice time. For players with skills and talent, never has playing a while in the AHL ruined careers. But playing them too soon or too little at the NHL level has in many occasions.
I do trust this new management and coaching staff to do what’s right for the players’ development and make the right decisions. But the trend that I’m starting to see, particularly with Slafkovsky, is starting to raise some red flags in my mind. Of course, I am not privileged to inside information so I’m far from being on an all-out war here. But it is a bit concerning.