An Offensive Approach to the Defence
October 12, 2022
By Grant McCagg
The Montreal Canadiens will have an opening-night roster with four rookie defencemen on it.
You read that correctly. When Jeff Gorton, Kent Hughes and Marty St. Louis promised a new outlook and approach, they weren’t kidding. Never mind getting their rookie blueliners’ feet wet, the decision-makers are holding their feet to the fire. Sink or swim, rooks. Feet wet, head wet, no sweat!
Johnathan Kovacevic, Arber Xhekaj, Kaiden Guhle and Jordan Harris have a combined 14 games of NHL experience between them. It’s the first time in Montreal’s 112-year history that four rookie defencemen made the team out of training camp. Heck; it’s the first time more than two made the squad. It’s a powerful signal that the new regime is not going to take a conservative approach to building this team.
Kaiden Guhle played as if he had been to a half dozen NHL training camps, and there was little doubt right from his first exhibition game that he would be winning a regular spot on Montreal’s blueline coming out of training camp. He’s ready to play a top-four role on a team lacking quality returning blueliners. Expect him to see ample time on the penalty kill, and perhaps even some power-play time if he continues to produce as he did in the preseason, where he notched three goals.
Guhle is already one of the better skaters in the NHL, and he plays with the poise of a ten-year veteran. He had one notable gaffe the entire preseason where a rolling puck bounced over his stick and the puck ended up in the net. Aside from that, his puck play was flawless, and he demonstrated that he is going to join the rush and create offence right from Day 1 wearing a Habs uniform.
Guhle told Recrutes a couple of years ago that his main objective in terms of improving his game was to become a better stickhandler, and he has done just that. It would not shock me if, by season’s end, he is considered the best defenceman on the Canadiens, and logging major minutes. He looks like a solid Calder Trophy candidate going into the season.
Despite not being drafted in the OHL, Xhekaj made the Kitchener Rangers as a walk-on. The year before that, he made St. Catharines Junior B Team as a walk-on as well. Never drafted in the NHL, he got an invite to Montreal’s rookie camp last year, ended up getting invited to Montreal’s main camp and signed an NHL contract before going back to the OHL for his last season of junior.
Now Xhekaj makes the Montreal Canadiens opening night roster, beating out several other young defencemen who were drafted in the top three rounds in the past few drafts. It appears that AX never gets the axe.
What a fantastic story, and an inspiring role model for young junior players who don’t get drafted in the NHL. Never give up on your NHL dream.
Xhekaj looked like an NHLer from the first scrimmage of the preseason until the last exhibition game. His mobility and puck skills looked fine in the OHL last season and in this year’s rookie showcase but there was concern that his game would break down once the competition increased. That was not the case. Xhekaj handled NHL speed and skill well.
Jordan Harris also starts the season with the Canadiens, and just like Guhle and AX, he earned it. It came down to Harris, Xhekaj and Leskinen for the final two spots, and Leskinen once again found himself demoted to Laval….something that Xhekaj and Harris have never experienced. Leskinen struggled somewhat in his final exhibition game and that likely sealed his fate for the time being.
You may see Harris, Xhekaj and Kovacevic rotating as the extra defenceman until Joel Edmundson returns, and then either Harris or Xhekaj being sent down or Kovacevic going on waivers if he struggles (unlikely).
Bergevin and his conservative coaches would never have considered starting the season with three rookie defenceman, let alone four. It was a gutsy decision but one borne at least partially out of necessity given the injuries on defence and the turnover. Let’s face it – the Canadiens aren’t teeming with veteran defencemen. The thing is that Hughes had time in the offseason to add some for camp, however, and he chose not to do it. Bergevin would have invited every unsigned 35-year-old defenceman on the planet and Julien would have preferred at least half of them over any rookies.
That said – the three drafted rookie defencemen that did make the team were Bergevin picks, so while the new management group deserves accolades for being bold, Bergevin also deserves some credit for starting the rebuild in earnest several years ago.
Many pundits suggest that the Canadiens are just now starting the rebuild and need to “tank” for several more years. Four rookies making the blueline suggest otherwise – the rebuild is closer to being finished than it is to beginning.
Emil Heineman is close to being NHL ready.
Heineman had a great camp up until his thumb injury and is not far from being NHL ready. Look for him to keep developing nicely in the SHL when he recovers and is likely sent back to Sweden. If he has a productive season and comes back next year even more polished offensively and defensively, he will push hard for an NHL spot, Several veteran forwards will be moved by the summer unless the Habs surprise everybody and contend. Just as five rookies made this year’s team out of camp, expect a half dozen young players or more to push hard for NHL spots between now and the end of the 2024 training camp.
Rafael Harvey-Pinard, Jesse Ylonen, Mattias Norlinder, Otto Leskinen, Cayden Primeau, Gianni Fairbrother, Heineman, Justin Barron Filip Mesar, and Owen Beck will all be vying to crack the squad next year, and some will succeed.
The first six listed will be the most likely to contend for NHL spots over the next 12 months as they will all be waiver eligible at this time next year. They aren’t necessarily the best prospects but it’s never wise to lose young players for nothing who become waiver eligible for the first time, and by next summer, the Canadiens will be in a position to be building in a similar fashion to how Detroit did successfully for many years. Let most of their young draft picks develop slowly in the AHL and hope that they are ready to play in the NHL by the time they are waiver eligible. No rushing players to the NHL because of need.
When you add in what will likely be a top-10 pick in 2023, or perhaps even another top-five selection, one can’t help but think that next year’s camp will be especially competitive for a number of prospects. Laval will have quite a few drafted prospects in the lineup this season but starting next year, look for that number to only increase. The AHL affiliate in 2023-24 and beyond should be comprised predominantly of draft picks, and that hasn’t been the case for the past 25 years.
By the fall of 2004, the likes of Jan Mysak Lane Hutson, Sean Farrell, Jayden Struble, Oliver Kapanen, Luke Tuch and the 2023 top picks will also be keen on winning NHL spots and pushing the incumbents, so healthy competition throughout the farm system is on its way.
The kids are coming and they’re alright. It’s an exciting time to be a fan and to have high hopes for the future.