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It’s well-known at this point that the Canadiens have ample depth on the left side of their back end.  How do things shake out for the rest of the organization?

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: Kaiden Guhle, Jordan Harris, Lane Hutson, Mike Matheson, Jayden Struble
RFAs: Arber Xhekaj
UFAs: None

Matheson did well in limited action in his first year with Montreal but took it a step further this past season, blowing past his career highs in assists (51) and points (62) to make him one of the higher-scoring blueliners in recent franchise history.  Yes, he makes some mistakes defensively and no, he’s not really a true number one blueliner.  But signed for two more years at $4.875 million, he’s someone who will either be a big part of the back end for a while yet or a very intriguing trade chip at some point.

Guhle’s sophomore year wasn’t a big improvement over his rookie year but it wasn’t a step back either.  He managed to stay healthy a lot more than in 2022-23 and spent a lot of time covering on his off-side.  His overall ceiling is fair game for questioning but it’s safe to say that whether he’s a future two, three, or a four, he’s going to be with the Habs for a long time yet.

Harris is certainly one of the more underappreciated players on the Canadiens.  He can play both sides and while he doesn’t possess much ‘wow’ in his game, he’s a pretty safe and reliable defender most nights.  Normally, on a lot of teams, that would be a good thing to have for a player earmarked for the third pairing.  But with the depth that the Habs have in this NHL group, he’s going to continue to be in trade speculation for a while.

Struble wasn’t expected to see much, if any ice time with the Habs in 2023-24.  However, injuries forced their hand and from there, he did well enough to stick as a regular the rest of the way.  He tired as the season went on but considering he was coming over from a college schedule, that’s not surprising.  His waiver exemption works against him in terms of making the Canadiens next season if the rest of the back end stays intact and his lower ceiling makes him possible trade fodder.  However, if he sticks around, he could be part of the plans for a few years at least.

Hutson had another dominant offensive season before getting in two games with Montreal to finish the season where he didn’t look out of place.  It’s possible that they could look to start him in Laval to get his feet wet – not moving anyone from this group makes that a bit more likely to happen – but with the offensive skill he possesses, I suspect the NHL coaching staff will want him soon.  His size is an issue but talent-wise, he could be a big part of Montreal’s future plans if he pans out as they hope he can.

Xhekaj’s sophomore year was a bit more erratic than his rookie campaign.  He struggled early on and after returning from injury, he wound up with Laval for a couple of months before returning in late January.  From there, he played a bit better.  At this point, he looks like more of a third-pairing player than a top-four piece but with the physicality he brings to the table, that could help keep him around for now, at least as they’re reportedly rebuffing trade offers for him.

Needs Assessment: Low – At this point, the Habs don’t need to be adding bodies to the left side of their back end.  If anything, it feels like they need to move one.  Do they have their long-term three lefties out of this group?  Perhaps not but if they don’t, it’s something they’ll have to address a few years from now, not this summer.


Signed: Adam Engstrom, William Trudeau
RFAs: Mattias Norlinder
UFAs: None
AHL Contracts: Chris Jandric
AHL Free Agents: Olivier Galipeau, Christopher Merisier-Ortiz, Tobie Paquette-Bisson

After an impressive rookie season, Trudeau’s sophomore campaign with the Rocket was more of a struggle.  In his defence, he was moved around a lot and didn’t have as big of a role as he played his way into in 2022-23 so that’s part of the reason.  It’s still too early to write him off entirely and if the Habs do move some depth out which would move Trudeau up the depth chart, it’s possible that he’ll be in the recall mix next season.

Engstrom had a quieter second year with Rogle but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  He noted that he was more focused on shoring up his defensive game and to his credit, he did just that even though it came at the expense of some of his offensive creativity.  Engstrom then finished up strong with a solid playoff run to help earn his entry-level deal a few weeks back.  He has legitimate NHL potential and can play both sides, making him one to keep an eye on if they don’t use him as a trade chip at some point.

Norlinder made things interesting at training camp as one of the last cuts, providing some hope that he could rebound from a tough first season in North America.  That didn’t happen.  Instead, he fell down the depth chart and was ineffective even offensively, the strong part of his game.  For whatever reason, he has not been able to figure out how to best utilize his skill set on the smaller North American ice surface.  A couple of years ago, he was a quality prospect.  Now, it’s fair to wonder if he’ll even get a qualifying offer.

Jandric was acquired in a midseason swap that corresponded with Montreal’s addition of Filip Cederqvist.  He spent most of the year in the ECHL but can hold his own at the AHL level.  In a perfect world, he’s in Trois-Rivieres again to start next season, available to be recalled when injuries strike.

Among the pending free agents, Paquette-Bisson is the most prominent.  He played a key role throughout the year, often playing in the top four while playing alongside some of the younger players.  He’s absolutely the type of defender they’ll want to add so if they can get him to stay, all the better.  Galipeau, meanwhile, has already signed overseas while Merisier-Ortiz was in the ECHL all season and will need to be retained or replaced for depth down there.

Needs Assessment: Medium – There’s definitely some work that can be done at this spot in the offseason, especially if Norlinder isn’t retained.  While it’s possible that one of Hutson or Struble is in Laval to start next season, it’d be an awfully young group on that side of the back end.  At a minimum, a veteran piece is needed while a few others may need to be signed as extra depth to start in Trois-Rivieres.

Other Prospects

There was a time not too long ago when this section would have been the longest read of the article.  Not anymore.  The cupboard is about as bare as it has been for a while when it comes to left-shot unsigned defence prospects.

Luke Mittelstadt was picked in the seventh round last year in his final year of eligibility following a strong freshman year at the University of Minnesota.  He wasn’t quite able to live up to that performance this season on a weaker roster.  There still could be some upside but he’s more project than prospect at the moment.

And with the recent release of Petteri Nurmi, that concludes this section of the article.  There’s Mittelstadt and no one else.

Needs Assessment: Medium – Considering how thinned out this section is, I’m almost tempted to go higher than this.  It’s not that the Habs don’t have young prospects, they’ve just about all signed now.  They have the pieces in place for the foreseeable future but where is the wave behind them to play in either Montreal or Laval?  I’m not saying they need to use the fifth pick here but if they don’t come out of this draft class with a couple of left-shot blueliners, it would be a little disappointing.

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