The Habs have invested a lot of time into revamping their back end in recent years. However, in spite of all of the signings and draft picks used, there are still some holes in the system to address.
Signed: Ben Chiarot, Joel Edmundson, Brett Kulak, Jeff Petry, Alexander Romanov, Shea Weber
UFA’s: Erik Gustafsson, Jon Merrill
Barring the acquisition of a puck-moving blueliner or losing someone in expansion, the core that was in place for the majority of the year should all be back next season. That type of continuity and familiarity should help to overcome a short summer as well.
Let’s look at the right side first. Weber and Petry are in the downside of their respective careers (Petry much earlier in the process than Weber) but for now, they’re both still capable of logging top four minutes. In an ideal world, Petry anchors the top pairing with Weber taking a bit of a lighter workload; there are still five years left on his contract to manage, after all. However, the issue that has been there all season still exists in that there is no third right-shot player behind them on the depth chart. They’ve tried a few lefties with varying degrees of success but none that did well enough to land that spot on a full-time basis.
On the left side, one of Chiarot or Edmundson could be exposed in expansion. (No, I don’t think they’ll leave Weber unprotected even with the contract.) If they stick around, however, they figure to occupy the top two spots on the left once again. Romanov should be the early contender for a spot on the third pairing with the hopes that he can develop enough over the course of the year to push for a bigger role. That leaves Kulak as the odd man out unless they try him on his off-side again. At this point, I don’t believe that will be their preference.
I wouldn’t be surprised if one of Merrill or Gustafsson were brought back on a cheap one-year contract in a 6/7 role. Merrill was acquired to fill the third RD spot and with a full training camp under his belt, I think he’d be a better fit in the system than he was down the stretch and in the playoffs. We know the Habs wanted Gustafsson years ago as a free agent when he first came to the league and clearly, he did enough to earn the trust of the coaching staff in limited minutes. Again, with more time in the system after a full training camp, could they use him a bit more? If he’s willing to sign for closer to $1 million, I wouldn’t be shocked if they tried to keep him even though he doesn’t fill the RD hole either. And we know that GM Marc Bergevin values extra depth on the back end.
Needs Assessment: Medium – Like many, I’d like to see a mobile puck-mover brought in. Not one that can only do that (like Victor Mete was) but one that is a threat offensively that could take some pressure off Weber and Petry. I’d also like to see a veteran right defender added as there really isn’t much in the system at that spot as you’ll see soon enough.
Signed: Josh Brook, Gianni Fairbrother, Xavier Ouellet, Corey Schueneman
RFA’s: Cale Fleury, Otto Leskinen
UFA’s: Gustav Olofsson
AHL Contracts: Terrance Amorosa, Charles-David Beaudoin, Tobie Paquette-Bisson, Carl Neill
AHL Free Agents: Nathaniel Halbert, Tristan Pomerleau
There’s a pretty good mix in the four players that are under contract. Ouellet is the grizzled veteran who plays in every situation in Laval and spent some time on his off-side this season which is something I expect will continue a year from now. Brook had a nice bounce-back season although he will be expected to take another big step forward to secure his spot on the depth chart. Those two should be the top two defenders on the right. Schueneman was able to quickly turn his AHL deal into an NHL contract and while his play started to slide after that, he was still an important piece. He’s a bit old for a prospect (he turns 26 before training camp) but at the very least, he should play a top four role. Fairbrother had a nice final junior season and didn’t look out of place in an early stint with Laval. He should be ticketed for the third pairing.
Fleury is now waiver-eligible and it will be interesting to see what the Habs do with him. I have a feeling he could be the next Jarred Tinordi or Greg Pateryn, physical blueliners that they don’t want to waive and lose for nothing but aren’t comfortable giving him regular playing time either. Unless he really struggles in training camp though, it’s hard to envision him starting with the Rocket next season. We know Leskinen won’t be in Laval as he has a two-year KHL deal under his belt. The only reason he’s even listed here is that he could be tendered a qualifying offer to keep his rights.
Olofsson has been a capable player for Laval the last couple of years but it feels like his time is up. He took an extended leave to be with his family for the birth of his child and it’s pretty clear his time as even a fringe NHL piece are numbered. Heading back to play closer to home makes a lot of sense and it was telling that it was a mutual decision for him not to be among the playoff recalls. That seems like a strong sign that he won’t be back.
Of the AHL contracts, Paquette-Bisson is the most notable. He started as a frequent scratch but once he grabbed a hold of a lineup spot, he didn’t let go and was a pretty steady defensive presence along the way. He basically played exclusively on the left side though and I’m not sure Schueneman-Paquette-Bisson-Fairbrother is an ideal top three on the left. If prospect development takes precedence, Paquette-Bisson may have to bide his time again. Beaudoin, Amorosa, and Neill may be ticketed for Trois-Rivieres and will serve as injury depth. Halbert and Pomerleau hardly played and while they could join the others ticketed for the Lions, their losses wouldn’t affect much.
Needs Assessment: Medium – There are a couple of holes here as well. The first is a veteran to replace Olofsson that serves as another viable recall option. That player preferably plays on the right side as well to help cover Fleury’s expected departure. Beyond that, more right-side depth is needed – Neill and Beaudoin are but someone with a bit more AHL experience and general upside would be nice.
With all of the draft picks they’ve used on defenders, there are plenty of players to get to so let’s not waste any time.
Kaiden Guhle performed well at the World Juniors and in Laval in limited action. He looks like he’ll be part of the long-term plans on the back end but he will be limited to Montreal or the WHL next season. It’ll be the latter. Mattias Norlinder is on an NHL contract now but he’s facing a similar situation – Montreal or Sweden. I can’t see him cracking the Canadiens out of training camp. The offensive skills are there while the defensive ones improved in the SHL this year. If he goes back to Frolunda as expected, I expect big things from him in 2021-22 which could accelerate his NHL timeline accordingly.
Jordan Harris raised some eyebrows in deciding to go back for his senior year which also makes him eligible for free agency next August. He’s a strong puck-mover with some offensive upside and a better than advertised defensive game. His ceiling isn’t as high as some others in the prospect pool but it sure feels like he has a good chance of making it. Jayden Struble, Harris’ teammate at Northeastern, might have the most raw upside of any blueliner in Montreal’s prospect pool but also has the biggest risk in terms of not making it. If he pans out, however, he should be an impact NHL player.
These four are all left-shot defenders so the Habs are more than well-stocked on that side of the cupboard. They won’t all pan out but even if two of them do, they’ll be in good shape.
Now let’s look at the right-shot side of the cupboard. There’s Arvid Henrikson and, well, that’s the end of the list. He was a seventh-round pick six years ago and the Habs still have his rights for two more. Unfortunately, he can barely crack the lineup at Lake Superior State, a school not known for high-level hockey. He’s not really a viable prospect.
Needs Assessment: Low – With the four lefties they have, the Habs have a pretty strong prospect core on the back end. There’s a definite need to try to bring some eventual support behind Weber and Petry, however; players drafted this month should be close to NHL-ready by the time the contracts for their two top veterans end. Clearly, handedness hasn’t been a concern for the scouts as they put together their draft board but it’d be nice to see a couple of righties also be the BPA when Montreal is making a pick.