After being comfortable with only four defencemen in the playoffs, the Habs struck a move already this offseason to add to their back end. However, improvements are still needed in other areas of the organization.
Signed: Ben Chiarot, Joel Edmundson, Brett Kulak, Jeff Petry, Alexander Romanov, Shea Weber
RFA’s: Victor Mete, Xavier Ouellet
UFA’s: Christian Folin
For Montreal’s signed players, let’s start with the easier of the two sides. Shea Weber and Jeff Petry give the Habs a strong one-two punch as right-shot defenders. Both are capable of logging big minutes and making an impact in all areas. While they’re the only two righties currently under contract (among those likely to be in the NHL), having them takes some pressure off trying to add someone that can log close to 18 minutes a game.
A lot of work has gone on in completely overhauling the left side of the end. Of the four that are signed, none have been in the organization for more than two years. Chiarot was a pleasant surprise as he proved to be capable of being more than a depth defender like it looked like he was when he signed with them and wound up on the top pairing for a big chunk of the year. The recent acquisition of Edmundson suggests they’re going to a similar well for the second straight year and he’ll likely be in the fourth or fifth slot. Kulak had an up and down regular season but played well with Petry and while it was a small sample size, he certainly helped his cause to be a regular next year. Romanov burned the first year of his contract to simply get some practice time with the team and work with the coaches in the bubble and GM Marc Bergevin has already said he thinks that the youngster is ready for an NHL spot which should have him in the mix as well. His European Assignment Clause could also play a factor.
Mete’s stock tumbled this season. After seeing time with Weber at the beginning of the year, he was dropped back to the third pairing before too long and when it mattered most in the playoffs, he hardly played. The good news is that this will keep his contract demands low but the bad news is that his trade value has taken a hit as well. Ouellet was a fixture on the top pairing in Laval for most of the year before being called up to play out the stretch before the pandemic hit. To his credit, he worked his way into the fifth spot on the depth chart for the playoffs but given Edmundson’s addition and Romanov now being eligible, he’s probably on the outside looking in. He could be back in Laval next season if he’s tendered a qualifying offer.
While Folin was exclusively in the NHL in 2018-19, that wasn’t the case this season as he quickly cleared waivers. He split time between Montreal and Laval and was on the roster for the playoffs but at this point, moving on would probably be best for both sides.
Needs Assessment – Medium: It certainly seems like the Habs are basically done here aside from maybe moving Mete or Kulak. They seem to be shifting to a by-committee approach on the left side and while there is some value in that, not having the proper partner for Weber isn’t ideal either. They’d certainly benefit from that which is why I won’t give this the low designation but it feels like Chiarot is the placeholder there while they hope that Romanov can live up to the lofty expectations. There’s a long game at play here.
Signed: Karl Alzner, Josh Brook, Cale Fleury, Otto Leskinen, Gustav Olofsson
RFA’s: Noah Juulsen
AHL Contracts: Tobie Bisson, Nathanael Halbert, Corey Schueneman
AHL Free Agents: Ryan Culkin, Evan McEneny
Let’s look at the right side again, also known as the one that has some upside. Fleury wasn’t overly strong in his partial season with the Habs but he held his own. He was quiet for a bit after being sent down but was starting to find his stride when the pandemic hit. His upside is still probably limited to a third pairing but he has a decent shot at making it in that role. Brook has more upside but his rookie AHL season was a bit of a rocky one, especially at the start although he also was playing better when the season came to an end. He’s not realistically in the recall picture for next season but he’s someone they’ll be counting on down the road.
As for the lefties, the upside is much more limited. Alzner is what he is at this point, an overpaid seventh or eighth NHL defenceman who is decent in the minors in a shutdown role. A buyout actually adds to the cap for next season so it may not be considered even though both sides would like to be able to move on. Olofsson is a good veteran to have for Laval but the thoughts of him being a serviceable third pairing player in the NHL have probably passed. Leskinen had a solid rookie year but was overmatched in his brief Montreal stint. He at least still has some upside but he will have to leapfrog a few players to get back to NHL consideration.
Juulsen’s case is going to be interesting. He hardly played this season and requires waivers to get back to the minors next season. If he has even a decent training camp, he probably starts in the NHL in another Jarred Tinordi role (too good to lose him for nothing but requires multiple injuries to have a shot at playing). If he struggles though, they could try to send him through and he’d immediately become a top pairing player. In a perfect world, he does well and earns the third RD spot with the Habs but not a lot has gone right for him lately.
Of the three AHL contracts, Schueneman has a good chance of cracking Laval’s roster, if not their lineup. He spent most of last season with Stockton and put up decent offensive numbers; considering he was signed early in free agency, they see something in him. Halbert did well in a pinch late in the season when injuries arose and while he was released just before the pandemic, they brought him back quickly. However, there probably isn’t a spot for him to start the season and the ECHL, if there is a season there, might be the best place for him to start. That’s where Bisson, a recent signee, also should start.
McEneny was a disappointment. After a strong season offensively with Utica, he had to settle for a late PTO with Laval while he finished his injury rehab. He did well enough to get converted to an AHL contract but never really went past being a depth defender. Schueneman likely takes his spot on the roster. Culkin had two very underwhelming years in the system. If they opt to re-sign him (and they shouldn’t), he’d be ECHL-bound once again.
Needs Assessment: Low – If Juulsen sticks with the Habs, they’re a little thin on righties which is something another AHL contract could address. (Moving Charlie Lindgren for a veteran on a one-way deal might be another way to fill that spot.) If one of Alzner or Ouellet remains for next season, they’re in good shape on the left to start.
Montreal has spent plenty of its draft capital over the last couple of years on defencemen but they all have one thing in common – they shoot left-handed. As a result, the cupboard is well-stocked on one side and virtually bare on the other.
There are some intriguing prospects that have been added lately. Mattias Norlinder made the transition to a full-time spot in Sweden’s second pro league last season and did well, earning an SHL deal for this season in the process. He’s never going to win a Norris Trophy for his defensive play but he can move the puck and create offence and is certainly one to keep an eye on.
Jordan Harris and Jayden Struble are teammates at Northeastern and are at different stages of their development. Harris is a strong skater and can log heavy minutes already at the college level. He’s not far off from turning pro but he’s a bit of a low ceiling, high floor player although he’s very much an NHL-calibre prospect. The ceiling is higher with Struble but he’s a long way away from being ready. He’s a project but could be an option for the top four at some point with the Habs.
Gianni Fairbrother was limited to just 37 games last season but showed some good strides in that limited action. He’s someone that needs a contract by June and with the above three ahead of him on the depth chart, he’ll need to impress if he wants to be signed. I could see him being a trade candidate over the next few weeks as a prospect with some value to add an NHL player without touching their top ten. Jacob LeGuerrier is very strong in his own end but I’m not sure his offensive game will progress enough to be signed and even if he does improve this year, his overall upside is still pretty low. He also has to be signed by June. Kieran Ruscheinski was the ‘Who?’ prospect from the draft and his selection was made to honour the late Elmer Benning, a long-time scout. He’s not getting signed.
Now, let’s look at the righties. The list starts and ends with Arvid Henrikson who managed to score a goal for the first time in three years last season. It has been four years since he has been drafted and he has barely locked down a spot on the third pairing at Lake Superior State. He’s a prospect by draft status but that label hasn’t been in place for years now.
Needs Assessment – Medium: Yes, they’ve drafted seven defencemen in the past two years but the right side is an organizational weakness. Weber’s starting to get up there in age, Petry is a year away from UFA eligibility, and while Juulsen, Brook, and Fleury have some upside, I wouldn’t be comfortable slotting any of them higher than fourth on the depth chart. Spending one or two of their picks on a righty wouldn’t hurt and if the opportunity comes to add another good lefty or two, it wouldn’t hurt to keep adding there either.