With the trade deadline fast approaching and ‘For Sale’ signs being taped discreetly to backs of jerseys, it’s time to check out what the Montreal Canadiens might be looking for in return, and from which teams.
It’s no secret the new management team is signalling that a rebuild/reset has been launched that will lean on youth to remake the team into a consistent contender. And while the Habs prospect pool is widely regarded as one of the deepest in the league, it comes up short in a couple of areas, the most noticeable being right-handed defence, where only oft-injured Josh Brook, 22, is likely to ever have an NHL career of some sort among those already signed.
But it doesn’t take long to find a number of quality trade candidates. Here’s a list of good, young right-handed defencemen who might be available from teams that could all make good use of something from the Canadiens’ roster, either to help them get to the playoffs or strengthen their lineups for post-season success.
Los Angeles Kings
The most obvious team to target for right-handed defence prospects is the Kings, who find themselves in a playoff position in a relatively weak Pacific Division just past the season’s halfway mark. Like many other teams looking ahead to the playoffs, the Kings could use more scoring and some size on its blueline. The Canadiens have plenty of that to spare.
You can forget about Brandt Clarke, 19, taken eighth overall from the OHL’s Barrie Colts last summer. The Kings like him a lot and aren’t keen to part with him. But while Clarke may not be going anywhere, the same can’t be said with complete certainty for three other blue-chip defence prospects, who also happen to shoot right.
Helge Grans is the most intriguing of the three. Taken 35th overall in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft by the Kings, the 19-year-old Swede has good size at 6’3” 206-lbs. to go with a strong two-way game driven by soft hands and good skating. He could be ready for NHL as early as next season but his ceiling could be top-pairing, so another season in the AHL can only help. Grans is having a fine rookie season with the AHL’s Ontario Reign, with five goals and 11 assists in 37 games. He also managed to pick up three assists for Sweden in the two games he played in the recent World Junior Championship in Alberta before the tournament was cancelled due to Covid-19 concerns.
Brock Faber, 19, has been a regular on the blueline at the University of Minnesota for the past two seasons but the smooth-skating sophomore got an opportunity to showcase his skills on an even bigger stage when he was named to the American team for the Beijing Olympics. The 6’ 200-lbs. Maple Grove, Minnesota, native was taken 45th overall by the Kings in 2020. A former member of the USNDT who has played for the USA in the past two World Junior Championships, Faber is one of the best defencemen in college hockey right now and his confident two-way game should translate well into professional hockey.
Jordan Spence, 20, is having a pretty nice rookie season with the AHL Reign, with an impressive two goals and 32 assists in 40 games. Despite being a modest 5’10” 175-lbs., Spence is comfortable in all three zones and is a pretty good example of the modern puck-moving defender that everyone is looking for these days. Like Faber, Spence also played in the recently cancelled WJC and scored a goal in the two games he played for Canada. Taken 95th overall in 2019, Spence also has an unusual origin story — the family moved to Cornwall, P.E.I., from Osaka, Japan, when the 13-year-old with dual Canadian and Japanese citizenship couldn’t speak much English.
The Avalanche will be all-in this year, and with that star-studded lineup, why not? You can be sure GM Joe Sakic has taken a hard look at his roster and wonders if a big, burly defenceman to cross-check the opposition into submission a few months from now, or perhaps a dependable two-way forward who can kill penalties, might be nice additions at the deadline. The Avalanche has a couple of very good RHD in the pipeline that they might be persuaded to part with.
Justin Barron, 20, would be the first set of tires I’d be kicking when I’m checking out Colorado’s defence prospects. The 6’2” 195-lbs. Halifax native played four seasons in the QMJHL with his hometown Mooseheads and his game has translated seamlessly to the pros, with Barron enjoying a fine rookie season with the AHL Colorado Eagles, picking up four goals and 13 assists in 32 games. A good skater who plays a solid 200-foot game and is equally adept playing the point as a passer or a shooter, Barron teamed up with Habs prospect Kaiden Guhle to form an effective pairing on Canada’s silver medal-winning team at the 2021 World Junior Championship. A first-round pick in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft, Barron was selected 25th overall by the Avalanche.
Drew Helleson, 20, is yet another American college defender who managed to parlay a fine NCAA season into a trip to the Beijing Olympics. The 6’2” 200-lbs. Boston College standout has developed into one of the best two-way defencemen in Division 1 over the past three seasons. Taken 47th overall in 2019, Helleson is expected to turn pro at the end of this season and will likely require some AHL seasoning before becoming a serious candidate for an NHL role. The Farmington, Minnesota, native is a product of the USNDT program and his strong play in his own zone could make him a good complementary player for Colorado’s more offensively minded blueliners if he isn’t traded first.
New York Rangers
New York’s rebuild has run its course and, with the playoffs in sight, their management team might finally be ready to buy at the deadline this season. There have already been rumours floating around that Artturi Lehkonen might be on their radar. The cost of doing that bit of business might have to come from the Rangers’ prospects pool. Right now, they have two very good young RHD who have been up-and-down between the AHL and NHL this season. Wave the right player(s) in front of their noses and the Rangers might be persuaded to part with one of them
Braden Schneider, 20, was settling in nicely with the AHL’s Hartford Wolf Pack in his first season of pro hockey, but was recently called up the Rangers, where he has now played 13 games. The 19th pick in the first round in 2020, the Prince Albert, Sask., native played his junior hockey for the Brandon Wheat Kings in the WHL and was on Canada’s silver-medal team at the 2021 WJC, picking up a goal and three assists in six games. Schneider, 6’2” 210-lb. plays a steady, two-way game and is very good in his own end, clearing the crease efficiently and closing gaps quickly. With experience, he should end up a top-four defender in the NHL.
Nils Lundkvist, 21, started the season on the Rangers’ third pairing with Patrik Nemeth but was sent down to Hartford when Schneider was called up. The 5’11” 185-lb. smooth-skating Swede, taken 28th overall in 2018, can move the puck efficiently with strong skating and good passing skills but is considered more a two-way player than an offensive defender. In 25 games with the Rangers in his rookie season, Lundkvist has just one goal and three assists, but more typical production was likely shown in his 2019 and 2020 WJC appearances for Team Sweden, where he picked up two goals and eight assists over 12 games. Like Schneider, the top four appears to be where he could end up as an established NHL defenceman.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Everyone knows the Maple Leafs are all-in this year, especially after you-know-who embarrassed them in the opening round of last season’s playoffs. Dangle something in front of them that will make their NHL roster stronger for a playoff run and nothing in this farm system is safe. Yes, the pressure has become THAT intense. And unlikely as it may be, the Leafs have the exact type of blue-chip prospect Montreal is looking for.
Topi Niemela, 19, has progressed so much since being taken 64th in 2020 that the young Finn is now clearly on track to be a top-four NHL defenceman rather than the potential third-pairing defender the Leafs thought they had drafted. In 43 games for Karpat in Liga this season, the 5’11” 165-lb. puck-moving defenseman has collected an impressive nine goals and 21 assists. Not a physically imposing player, the young Finn plays an even, consistent game where he is very good in his own end but really shines on offence, whether running the power play or taking charge at five-on-five. Niemela’s offence shone at the WJC, where he was a point-a-game player over the course of the 2021 and 2022 championships.
Holding down the first Wild Card position in the East, the Capitals would likely be willing to move prospects for roster players. Just consider the good Stanley Cup mileage they got from the Lars Eller deal and it’s likely the two teams will have player discussions of some sort. The Caps don’t have the deepest of prospect pools, but one defender ticks off most of the boxes.
Vincent Iorio, 19, a late cut from Team Canada’s WJC selection camp, is a two-way defenceman who does all the little things well. The 6’3” British Columbia native is a four-year starter with the WHL’s Brandon Wheat Kings and was taken 55th in 2020. He has a very good shot from the point and has shown little hesitancy to use it in junior hockey. He is also becoming an increasingly confident passer, at one time a weakness in his game. Despite Iorio not being an especially dynamic player, there are enough good things in his game where he should become a reliable defenceman at the NHL level, perhaps even top four with more development. Third-pairing appears to be a safe floor for this prospect.
Minnesota is holding down a playoff spot in the West, but it’s a tight race. Like most of the other teams on this list, a timely injection of NHL talent to the right part of the roster might be enough to open some daylight on the competition. When dealing with Montreal, any move to benefit the team’s present will cost the Wild piece of their future.
Calen Addison, 20, is already with his second NHL organization, having been drafted 53rd back in 2018 by Pittsburgh. A very typical example of the smallish, puck-moving defenceman that’s becoming more prevalent in the modern game, the 5’11” 180-lb. Brandon, Man. Native has been honing his game the past two seasons with Iowa in the AHL. Though his size is always going to give him some trouble in his own end, exceptional skating and quickness helps to make up for it. Addison can play the point effectively on the power play and has clear top-four potential. At the 2020 WJC, Addison had a strong tournament for Canada, picking up a goal and eight assists in seven games.