Is Montreal’s under-23 defence group the best in hockey? The draft-day additions of David Reinbacher and Bogdan Konyushkov have certainly vaulted the Canadiens into the main discussion.
It’s been a long time coming for an organization that hasn’t had one of the top young defence corps since the early 90s when GM Serge Savard accumulated a deep stable that included Eric Desjardins, Matt Schneider, Patrice Brisebois, Kevin Haller, Lyle Odelein, Craig Rivet, Peter Popovic, Sean Hill and Eric Charron. The current U23 depth has the potential to be even better.
Consider this list as NHL clubs opened up training camps:
Quality and quantity. Four first-round picks and two in Engstrom and Hutson that have demonstrated that they should have been first-rounders. Seven top-100 picks. Two are already in the NHL, three others knocking hard on the door, and a minimum of eight with legitimate NHL upside.
There are some excellent young defence groups in the NHL. Anaheim, New Jersey, Detroit, Columbus and Buffalo immediately come to mind. None of them have the same depth of U23 talent with the possible exception of Anaheim.
The Devils obviously have two blue chippers in Simon Nemec and Luke Hughes but there is a significant drop in NHL potential after those two.
Seamus Casey, Casey McCarthy, Ethan Edwards, Topias Vilen, Daniil Orlov, Chase Cheslock and Charlie Leddy all have outside shots at one day being NHL regulars. Among that group, Casey was the only one taken in the top 60, and there are reasons for that. None of them have legitimate top-four upside outside of Nemec and Hughes. The Canadiens have at least six with that potential.
Perhaps if Sakhir Mukhmadullin and Nikita Okhotyuk were still in the organization and Kevin Bahl hadn’t turned 23 this summer there could be an argument made for New Jersey but the depth is not there to be in the discussion. The Canadiens also have 23-year-old blueliners who are too “old” for this discussion in Jordan Harris and Nicolas Beaudin
Will Hughes and Nemec both be better than ALL of Montreal’s young defencemen? Perhaps. But it’s likely a stretch to say they will both be significantly better. Neither Nemec nor Highes projects to be elite shutdown defencemen at this time. They have tantalizing offensive potential but neither is looking like the next Miro Heiskanen at this juncture.
Buffalo would also be in the discussion if Rasmus Dahlin was still under 23 but he is now a four-year NHL veteran while Montreal’s promising young group, in addition to all being younger, has no players with more than one year of NHL experience.
After those five, Buffalo’s top defence prospects are NHL longshots. Owen Power may end up being better than all of Montreal’s young defenders (no surprise as he was a first-overall pick) but it is difficult to argue that Montreal’s depth isn’t far superior. If you ranked the top eight U23 defencemen in the organizations outside of Power, six would be Montreal blueliners. Ottawa has a future star on the blueline in Jake Sanderson and Tyler Kleven has a ton of potential but much like Buffalo, the quality of U23 defencemen drops after that. Jacob Bernard-Docker and Lassi Thomson are both 23 now.
Buffalo has made 21 top-100 picks in the past five drafts but only three were defencemen. Mattias Samuelsson just turned 23 so he is also out of the equation. The Habs in the past five drafts have selected eight defencemen in the top 100, so it only stands to reason that they have better depth. Buffalo has focused on forwards in the past couple of drafts, and there is no doubt that the Sabres’ overall U23 prospect forward crop is at the top of the league.
Columbus chose two highly-touted defencemen in the top 15 of the 2022 draft and Stan Svozil and Sam Knazko are knocking on the door for permanent NHL employment. As a first-round pick, Ceulemans is also expected to develop into an NHLer and Andrew Strathmann is a skilled and fiery undersized defenceman.
While Jiricek may be a blue chipper and Mateychuk may one day be capable of running an NHL power play and top-four minutes, the depth after that falls off when stacked up against Anaheim or Montreal.
The clubs that come closest to Montreal in terms of quality defensive depth at this time are Detroit and Anaheim.
Detroit has what may be the best U23 defence prospect in the world in Moritz Seider. He is certainly in the discussion with Owen Power and Jake Sanderson.
It depends on how highly one rates Swedish first-rounders Wallinder, Edvinsson and Sandin-Pellikka but if given the choice between those three and Mailloux, Hutson and Guhle, I would take Montreal’s trio. The clear edge at this time between Seider and Reinbacher goes to the more established German but when one compares Montreal’s top seven defence prospects to Detroit’s, Montreal has more sure bets in Xhekaj, Barron and Engstrom than Detroit’s 5-7 trio of Gibson, Buium and Cleveland as all three Canadiens have established themselves at the pro level. From 2-7, Montreal has a stronger overall group with more offensive upside.
The Ducks had the best U23 group in the league last June but with the club understandably focusing on forwards at the 2023 draft, Montreal closed the gap with the selections of the top available defenceman in the draft class and a 23-minute-per-night KHLer in Konyushkov.
Depth and quality. If Drysdale is able to bounce back fully from his serious knee injury it may ultimately tilt the group in Anaheim’s favour if Zellweger, Lacombe and Mintyukov also reach their full potential. That quartet has excellent offensive upside but none have the all-around games of Reinbacher and Guhle. Mintyukov may have more offensive potential than Mailloux but he’s not as big or rugged as Mailloux. While they both need work defensively, Mailloux is bigger and more competitive in his own end. They have similar upsides, with the offensive edge (playmaking) going to Mint and the defensive edge to Mailloux.
Will Zellweger be better than Hutson? He’s a little bigger and skates better, so the assumption is that he may be a better NHL defender. As far as offensive upsides go, however, Hutson is at the top of this entire U23 class as his puck skills, jukes and vision are unparalleled.
One can easily make the argument either way with these draft classes but with Guhle, Xhekaj, Trudeau, Konyushkov, Engstrom and Barron already proving themselves at the pro level there are fewer question marks. A slight edge goes to Montreal at this point.
Have the Canadiens had the best group of young defencemen in the NHL? The 1992 group mentioned above was in the running but Detroit in 1992 had Bob Boughner, Jason York, Nick Lidstrom, Jamie Pushor, Yves Racine, Vlad Konstantinov, Steve Chiasson and Dennis Vial all under the age of 25.
After the 1981 draft, the Canadiens had Rod Langway (already 24), Chris Chelios, Craig Ludwig, Tom Kurvers, Gaston Gingras, Ric Nattress, Robert Picard and Gilbert Delorme in the system. Langway, Chelios and Ludwig would play close to 4000 NHL games between them, win five Cups and five Norris trophies, so the first three in that group were terrific blueliners. Unfortunately, by the time Chelios was suiting up for the Habs, Langway was long gone. Edmonton in 1981 had Paul Coffey, Kevin Lowe, Charlie Huddy, Steve Smith and Risto Siltanen…all under the age of 23. Montreal’s U23 group in 1981 couldn’t touch that.
When Larry Robinson broke into the NHL in 1972-73, Guy Lapointe was the youngest regular defenceman on the Canadiens at 24. Players were drafted at 20 years of age in those days so it was rare to see a deep group of premium defence prospects under the age of 23 on one team.
The Canadiens didn’t have decent U23 defence depth in the 1970s until the 1974 Amateur Draft when Pollock drafted Rick Chartraw, Gilles Lupien, Marty Howe, Barry Legge and Joe Micheletti. The latter three took one look at a defence corps that featured Robinson, Lapointe, Savard and Laperriere and decided to join the WHA instead. By that time, Robinson was already 23…so as revered as Pollock was for his drafting prowess in Montreal’s heyday, he never had a young group of defencemen as promising as the current group either while he ran the club until the late 1970s.
It’s been a long time coming for the NHL’s most storied franchise – a young defence group that may well be the best in the league. We must exercise some caution, of course. Highly-touted blueliners don’t always turned out as hoped.
In the summer of 2011, the Canadiens had a U23 defence group that included PK Subban, Nathan Beaulieu, Jarred Tinordi, Mac Bennett, Darren Dietz, Yannick Weber, Morgan Ellis and Josiah Didier. It was assumed by many optimistic Habs fans (including myself) to be one of the most promising young corps in the league. The main difference with today’s group is that Guhle, Xhekaj, Barron, Engstrom, Trudeau and Konyushkov have already established themselves at the pro level. There is much less uncertainty with the current group – we already know that at the very least it will be a solid corps, and has a chance to be a great one.
Let’s face it – Montreal’s dynasties for the most part were built on goaltending and offensive firepower. Montreal doesn’t win five Cups in a row in the 1950s without Jacques Plante, Maurice Richard, Jean Beliveau, Bernie Geoffrion, Henri Richard and Dickie Moore. As formidable as the Big 3 were for much of the 1970s, the Canadiens aren’t winning multiple Cups without Ken Dryden, Guy Lafleur, Steve Shutt, Yvan Cournoyer, Jacques Lemaire and Peter Mahovlich. Savard, Robinson and Lapointe at their peaks couldn’t lead Montreal to a Cup the season Dryden sat out even with great offensive firepower. When Dryden, Cournoyer and Lemaire retired in 1979, Montreal’s defence corps (which by then also included Langway) couldn’t bring Montreal a fifth championship as the Canadiens lost in the second round to Minnesota.
There are different ways to build a contender. Pittsburgh won Cups without a great defence. Chicago and Detroit won multiple championships without truly elite goaltending. New Jersey earned titles on the backs of Scott Neidermayer, Scott Stevens and Marty Brodeur. Vegas just won a Cup with no 70-point scorer and a journeyman goalie. There is no set formula for building a champion.
All that said; the popular adage has always been that teams are built from the net out, and Montreal looks to have taken care of the defence part. If the young forwards develop as hoped and the club receives above-average goaltending, there is no reason why the club can’t be a serious contender for a few years over the next decade. All of the pieces will be there.