There are parts of Montreal’s defence corps that are in good shape and others that need considerable improvement. That makes the back end quite the position of intrigue this offseason.
Signed: Christian Folin, Brett Kulak, Victor Mete, Jeff Petry, Shea Weber
RFA’s: Mike Reilly
UFA’s: Jordie Benn
Let’s start with the good, the right side. Though Weber slowed down a bit as the season went on, he made quite the impact when he came back from knee surgery. While he is getting older, a full offseason to prepare for next year should certainly help when it comes to his overall conditioning. Petry was fantastic at times and more than held his own most nights on the top pairing in Weber’s absence but, as usual, was prone to some untimely mistakes. Even with that, he’s a more than capable second pairing player with the Habs. It took Folin a bit of time to get into the lineup after being acquired but when he went in, he didn’t come out and earned the confidence of Claude Julien. He could be back on the third pairing next season or be in the number seven role.
Then there’s the left side where things aren’t so good. Mete needed some time in the minors after a quiet start to his season and to his credit, he played better upon being recalled. He’s a piece of the puzzle moving forward but is more of a depth player than an impact one. The same can be said for Kulak. He played well after being recalled and saw time on the second pairing but would be better served as a third pairing option.
Among the free agents, Benn did well on the third pairing (where he played both sides) but struggled when he was moved up in the lineup. Considering that he’ll likely get a nice raise on the $1.1 million he made last season and the fact that the Habs are pretty well set in depth defencemen, he’ll likely move on. Reilly was a regular for most of the season but was sat down after the trade deadline. He may be worth keeping around for one more season but it’d have to be on a cheap contract and he’s likely looking for a chance for more playing time elsewhere.
Needs Assessment: High – There aren’t a lot of spots to fill but landing a top-four left-shot defender is of paramount importance for GM Marc Bergevin this offseason. They can’t ask one of Mete or Kulak to play on the top pairing every night if they have intentions of making it back into the postseason.
Signed: Karl Alzner, Josh Brook, Cale Fleury, Maxim Lamarche (AHL deal), Otto Leskinen, Noah Juulsen, Xavier Ouellet, David Sklenicka
RFA’s: Brett Lernout, Gustav Olofsson
AHL Free Agents: Ryan Culkin
Unlike the case with the big club, the depth actually resides on the left side of the back end. Alzner still has three years left on his contract which makes a buyout unlikely. (At this point, they’re hoping for the next CBA to have a cap-free buyout.) He’ll be back as a capable stay-at-home option. Ouellet recently re-signed and should be a fixture on the top pairing once again. Leskinen is an intriguing rookie who has some offensive upside and will likely be a regular with the Rocket. Meanwhile, Sklenicka wound up spending some time on the right side and could very well have to do so again in order to get playing time.
On the other side, Juulsen missed the second half of the season after being shut down shortly after the Habs sent him down. If he’s indeed fully healthy for training camp, it’s likely he’ll contend for a spot with Montreal on the third pairing. Fleury had a really nice rookie pro campaign and worked his way up the lineup rather quickly. He still has a long way to go to contend for an NHL spot but he’ll see plenty of ice time once again next season. Brook had a fantastic season in junior and didn’t look too out of place in a late-season stint with Laval. He won’t play on the top pairing right away (in a perfect world) but he could certainly get there by the end of the season. Lamarche played an important role with the Rocket earlier on in the year but started to fade as it progressed. Nonetheless, he’s a valuable depth piece to have around.
In terms of their free agents, both RFAs are intriguing. Lernout doesn’t have much NHL upside left at this point but he’s a capable AHL defender and brings an element of grit that Laval doesn’t have a lot of. Olofsson couldn’t even make it through two games before suffering another shoulder injury. He has had a lot of difficulties staying healthy but he also has more of a chance of making an NHL impact at some point. With the depth ahead of him on the left side though, is there room for him? Culkin spent most of the season in the ECHL and they could certainly bring him back to play in that role again but they could also bring someone else in that’s a bit more of a prospect.
Needs Assessment: Low – Assuming that one of Lernout or Olofsson get re-signed, there aren’t really going to be any more spots to fill. This isn’t a bad group of players for a minor league back end.
The Habs have put a lot of emphasis on drafting defencemen the last couple of years but their depth at that spot isn’t as strong as it might appear. 2017 draft picks Scott Walford and Jarret Tyszka are expected to be let go on Saturday while Nikolas Koberstein (2014) won’t be signed by mid-August.
That means there are only three other unsigned blueliners in the organization. One of those is Arvid Henrikson who in his third season after being drafted couldn’t lock down a regular role in the USHL and had to drop down another league. He’s a non-prospect.
Alexander Romanov was a controversial pick last June but he has rewarded Montreal’s scouts for their faith in him. He didn’t see a ton of ice time in the KHL but he played quite well at the World Juniors and looks like he can be part of the future back end for the Habs. He has another year on his KHL contract so he won’t be in the mix for a roster spot next season.
Jordan Harris won’t be in the mix for a roster spot in 2019-20 either and likely won’t be for a few years after that. He had a really nice rookie season at Northeastern and spent a lot of time on the top pairing. However, most college players are long-term projects and he’s still probably three years away from pushing for an NHL spot at the very least (assuming everything goes well with his development).
Needs Assessment: Medium – Considering the effort they’ve put into drafting defenders the last couple of seasons, this prospect pool isn’t as deep as it seems (though they have added Brook, Fleury, and Mete over the last three years which isn’t bad). Expect to see at least two defencemen picked next month and another one or two after that wouldn’t be all that surprising.
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