The Habs have brought in plenty of defencemen in recent years to their system. The left side is the deeper of the two as Montreal has depth at that spot among their NHL options while several of their better prospects also play that side.
For the purpose of breaking down the defence pool, it will be done by handedness regardless of whether or not they can play the opposite side.
Signed: Joel Edmundson, Jordan Harris, Mike Matheson
Matheson is Montreal’s big addition on the back end this summer after being acquired from Pittsburgh in exchange for Jeff Petry and Ryan Poehling. With four years left on his contract, he’s the blueliner on the longest deal and at $4.875 million, he’s also the most expensive. However, he’s far from a prototypical top defender. While it looked like he could be one early in his career, he has been sheltered more in recent years. The Habs won’t have that luxury so it will be interesting to see how he fares in an expanded role.
Edmundson is entering his third season in Montreal, making him the longest-tenured Hab blueliner. Seriously. He was certainly missed at the beginning of last season and while he wasn’t the usual steady player he typically is upon his return, some of that can be chalked up to injury. He’ll be tasked with playing a bigger role than he’s accustomed to as well with Ben Chiarot now with the Red Wings and Alexander Romanov being moved to the Islanders at the draft.
Harris gets listed here since he finished last season in the NHL where he held his own in a limited role. There is a limit to how high his ceiling is and it wouldn’t be surprising to see his special teams playing time continue to be limited. That’s going to put him in the 16–18-minute range when he’s in the lineup. Some time in Laval is also a possibility if the Habs decide to shuffle through a few youngsters as the season goes along.
Needs Assessment: Low/Medium – For what the Habs are aiming for this season, they have what they need. There are a couple of veterans that can take on bigger roles than they’re used to without the pressure of trying to win right away while one spot (if not two if a lefty moves to the right) will be used for prospect development. This isn’t an ideal back end in the long run but for now, they can work with this structure and hope that the youngsters establish themselves in time.
Signed: Gianni Fairbrother, Kaiden Guhle, Otto Leskinen, Mattias Norlinder, Corey Schueneman, Arber Xhekaj
AHL Contracts: Olivier Galipeau
AHL Free Agents: Terrance Amorosa
Let’s start with Guhle. He’s listed here because he’s turning pro and doesn’t yet have any NHL experience but I wouldn’t be surprised if he spends most of the year with the Habs. Honestly, I think he could be in the lineup on opening night. He should be capable of taking a regular shift at even strength and the penalty kill, allowing him to approach 18-20 minutes nightly, lessening the need for Matheson and Edmundson to take more they can handle. If he’s in Laval, you can add some power play time with an eye on playing closer to 25 minutes a night. He’s a big part of Montreal’s future plans, that’s for sure.
Schueneman is the other one on this list that could be with the Canadiens depending on how things go. He’s now waiver-eligible and will turn 27 next month. That makes him more of an ideal candidate for a seventh defenceman role that spends a lot of time in the press box while being able to play 15 minutes or so when he’s in there. If he clears waivers and is in Laval, I think he’s still going to have a bit of a limited role with the Rocket looking like more of a developmental team next season.
Norlinder and Leskinen are two newcomers of sorts; Norlinder spent most of 2021-22 overseas while Leskinen played elsewhere for the entire season. The two are similarly-styled players, good skaters that can move the puck and have strong offensive instincts. Defensively, they’re a bit iffy. Last season wound up being a bit of a write-off for Norlinder who will likely need to spend most of 2022-23 in Laval and adapt to playing in North America. Leskinen, who appears likely to play his off-side, should have a prominent role with the Rocket and could be in the mix for a recall or two when injuries arise in Montreal.
Fairbrother was limited last season due to injury and had a limited role when he was in the lineup. He brings some physicality to the table and can kill penalties, making him a candidate to play a regular role on the third pairing but unless injuries arise, he’ll be hard-pressed to play much higher in the lineup.
Xhekaj is one of the biggest wild cards Laval has next season. Yes, he was one of the more imposing defencemen in the OHL last season but when you’re a lot older, bigger, and stronger than most players in that league, that’s to be expected. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him in a limited role to start next season as well, one that will allow him to adjust to playing at a higher level and learn what he can and can’t get away with in terms of physicality and elements that may have worked in junior that won’t in the pros. If he’s further along in his development than I think he is, then he’ll push for an impact role right away.
Galipeau got in a few games with Laval last season but spent most of last season in the ECHL with Trois-Rivieres. With the depth in front of him, it’d be surprising to see him break camp with the Rocket.
Needs Assessment: Low – There aren’t many veterans in the mix but there are plenty of intriguing pieces for Jean-Francois Houle to choose from. At least one will be moved over to the right side. Maybe there’s a spot for another player like Galipeau that’s earmarked for Trois-Rivieres but otherwise, there’s nothing that has to be done here.
Lane Hutson is the player that stands out the most in this group. He’s certainly the most talented of the group and undoubtedly had first-round talent. However, his lack of size caused him to drop to the back of the second round. Even if he grows an inch or two, his smaller stature will present him with some limitations in the pros. That said, his skill set makes him one of Montreal’s most promising prospects in terms of pure upside.
Jayden Struble is a player who has a very high ceiling in terms of raw upside but also has lowered odds of getting there after three years of college. He did manage to stay healthy last season which was promising and while his offensive game was quiet, he did take several strides forward defensively. With Harris turning pro, Struble should be in for all the playing time he can handle and then the Habs will try to turn him pro in March or April. He’s a candidate to see action late in the year with the Habs.
Adam Engstrom was a third-round pick last month and was somewhat of a late riser after a strong second half of the season. He’s still a long way from being ready to play in North America though. He’ll stay in Sweden’s junior program for 2022-23 and then will look to make it in the pros. He’s a longer-term project, especially with the new rules in the transfer agreement with Sweden that make it much more difficult to bring a Swedish-born player over and put him in the minors.
Petteri Nurmi was also from last month’s draft but was a seventh-rounder in his third year of eligibility. He has already established himself in Finland’s top division but played a very limited role. Because he was drafted at 20, the Habs only get his rights for two years (it’s usually four for players drafted out of Finland) so he’ll have to progress quickly to get a contract.
Then there’s William Trudeau. He has been a fairly productive blueliner over the past two seasons in the QMJHL and should have a chance for an even bigger year in 2022-23. Even so, with all of the prospects ahead of him in the system and the 50-contract limit, the 19-year-old is going to be fighting an uphill battle to get a contract by June 1st. Improving his skating would certainly help his odds with that particular element being quite important with this new regime.
Needs Assessment: Medium – Assuming Struble signs next spring and doesn’t opt for free agency, the Habs might have enough depth in the minors to offset the lack of short-term help coming behind him. Hutson is a few years away from being pro-ready and Engstrom is probably on a similar timeline. Nurmi and Trudeau are longshots for contracts so while this part of the prospect pool is pretty deep, the non-pro section could look quite a bit thinner before long. Even with it being an organizational strength, the Habs will likely be looking to add a few more options next summer.