The last two seasons have basically been a write-off for Noah Juulsen with recurring vision and headache issues. Despite that, he remains an intriguing X-factor for Montreal’s defence.
It wasn’t that long ago that he was viewed as a key part of the back for the Habs for the foreseeable future. He had effectively locked down a roster spot to start 2018-19 before taking two pucks to the face on the same shift that has set him back for the last year and a half.
Juulsen was limited to just 13 games this season as a result, all of which were with Laval. The most important of those may have been his last one as he got into the final Rocket game of the season before the shutdown and eventual cancellation ended that schedule prematurely. He has since mentioned that he felt ‘right’ following that game for the first time in a long time. I don’t want to read too much into one game, but that was encouraging.
Now he’s had the better part of three months off like everyone else. When games resume at the end of July or early August, he could plausibly play since there will be basically a full training camp beforehand. The rust factor will be there for all players, not just him and with Montreal’s shaky right defence situation behind Shea Weber and Jeff Petry this season, there’s a possible postseason spot for him. If he’s healthy, he’s arguably a better option than playing one of Victor Mete, Brett Kulak, or Xavier Ouellet on their off-side or Cale Fleury.
With him now being healthy, the Habs shouldn’t have much in the way of hesitation about giving him a qualifying offer this offseason as a restricted free agent. But it’s worth noting that he’ll be waiver-eligible in 2020-21 and even though he has missed as much time as he has over the last two seasons, I have a hard time thinking he’d sneak through unclaimed.
In a perfect world, Juulsen lands the third RD spot next season which pushes Fleury (and Josh Brook) back to Laval where they could benefit from more development assuming the AHL season eventually gets underway. He isn’t going to be a flashy defender in the NHL but if he can even provide 16-18 reliable minutes a night (which he was doing in 2018-19 before the incident), that would represent an upgrade compared to how they’ve tried to patch that spot together since then. If they don’t land an impact blueliner in free agency or via trade, an incremental upgrade or two would certainly help and Juulsen is the one righty in the system that’s capable of doing that for next season.
Let’s look at that system for a moment. Juulsen joins Fleury and Brook at the top right-shot prospects that the Habs have. They’re also the only right-shot defensive prospects they have. Yes, they’ve drafted seven blueliners in the last two years but every one of them is a lefty. If the Canadiens have faith in his ability to bounce back, they won’t necessarily need to prioritize RD as they’re shaping their draft board. (And the last two years have demonstrated that team needs have at least some sort of effect on where they rank the prospects.) But if they have questions or concerns about him getting back and reaching his potential, that spot becomes a bigger priority on their board.
So Juulsen is an x-factor when it comes to Montreal’s possible playoff participation, their ability to improve from within next season, and even will play a role in how they shape their draft board. But that’s not all.
Let’s look at the situation a year from now. If Juulsen can rebound, it creates a scenario where they could potentially move on from Jeff Petry (with Fleury or Brook filling the other RD spot behind Weber). Fleury’s ceiling is basically limited to the third pairing and while Brook’s upside is higher, he’ll need more than next season to get there. Improvement from Juulsen is basically the only thing that could push Petry out if they want to allocate more of their spending up front to bolster their attack.
And, of course, next offseason will bring Seattle’s expansion draft. Juulsen will require protection and while it’s still too early to realistically be pondering protection lists, it looks as if he’ll be one of the more intriguing calls to make and a lot will depend on how he plays a year from now. If Petry sticks around, he and Weber will be two of the guaranteed protectees. Can they justify protecting three righties and no lefties? Would he force them into going the eight-skater route to keep more of their back end intact?
Is Juulsen going to factor into every single one of these situations that have been presented? Although it’s possible, the more likely answer is that he won’t do enough (or not enough) to hit all of these. But it’s safe to say that he will factor into a few of them. That’s a fair bit riding on a player who hasn’t seen much in the way of meaningful action over the past year and a half. Accordingly, despite the limited development time, there is going to be a fair bit of pressure on Juulsen over the next year or so and it will be very interesting to see how he fares.