There are some tough choices ahead for Montreal’s decision-makers. Marty, Stephane, Kent and Jeff are going to have some interesting powwows over the next couple of weeks.
This is no longer a group of defencemen that lacks mobile puck movers, and that is a positive sign going forward for the club. As it stands right now, however, some of the best PMD’s have little or no NHL experience, and over the remainder of training camp, Kent Hughes and Marty St. Louis are going to want some questions answered before settling on its “Group of Seven”.
Is Edmundson having back issues again? Is there a definitive time frame on when he’ll return? If it’s his back flaring up…then it’s indefinite, and the club needs to look at replacing him in the short term.
The player best suited for Eddie’s role would be Arber Xhekaj. He replaces his jam, size and strength, and he’s had a terrific training camp. He looks confident and poised, and his mobility, strength and puck skills are more than adequate to play right now.
Where things get more complicated is when you consider that AX is not alone in that regard. Jordan Harris, Kaiden Guhle, Mike Matheson, Chris Wideman, David Savard, Corey Schueneman and Otto Leskinen have all had really strong camps so far as well
You don’t want two of these defencemen sitting in the stands, especially one of the rookies, so it makes sense to start the season with seven defencemen since there are at least 15 forwards who could be playing in the NHL. Better to have fewer possible losses on the waiver wire.
If Schueneman wasn’t having such a solid camp, Leskinen would most likely have the inside track on securing one of the seven spots. As it stands now, however, Leskinen is still exempt from waivers, so he is the most likely player sent down if Xhekaj, Harris and Guhle all make the team.
The question that arises if those are the starting seven is: who sits? You don’t mind one of the three rookies sitting out the odd game if they rotate it but it makes no sense for one of them to be the seventh guy. Schueneman and Wideman would be the most likely guys to sit out multiple games if that’s the route they choose, and if one of the rookies begins to have struggles, he can always be sent down.
The Xhekaj/Harris pairing has been excellent so far in camp. I would keep those two together until there are signs that they can’t handle it. Thus far, we have not seen those signs.
Obviously, it’s still early in camp, and someone may start to struggle but that could be the group and pairings that break camp if Edmundson is not back.
Ideally, you have Edmundson in the lineup but his absence makes it easier not to have to decide which impressive rookie has to be cut. This way, all three can stay for the season’s start, and if any are struggling when Edmundson returns then it’s off to Laval to find some confidence.
There is an argument to be made for not having three youngsters on defence, and many pundits have suggested that it should not even be a consideration. It is not common practice in the NHL to play games with three prospects on the blueline but it’s not like it hasn’t been done, and there are examples of it in recent times where it worked just fine.
The 2020-21 Colorado Avalance had four defencemen under the age of 23 (Cale Makar, Sam Girard, Bowen Byram and Conor Timmins) play at least 19 games, and that team was more than just competitive. Makar wasn’t technically a rookie but he only had 57 NHL games under his belt.
The Rangers had four greenhorns play at least a dozen games last season, and more than a handful of contests where there were three of them in the lineup, and they fared just fine on a team that made the playoffs easily. K’Andre Miller (who turned 22 in January), Zach Jones, Braden Schneider and Nils Lundkvist were all under the age of 22 and three of the four were rookies. There were games last season where the Rangers dressed five defencemen under the age of 24, and they more than held their own.
The oldest player on the 1991-92 Montreal Canadiens defence was 26-year-old J.J. Daigneault, and that team went to the playoffs and won a round. Five of the defencemen were under the age of 23 – Patrice Brisebois, Kevin Haller, Eric Desjardins, Sean Hill and Mathieu Schneider. Lyle Odelein was just 23 and Sylvain Lefebvre was one of the long tooths at 24. Within a year, that club won Montreal’s last Stanley Cup.
It’s not like Guhle, Xhekaj and Harris are raw teenagers, either. Both Guhle and AX played in the Memorial Cup last season and AX turns 22 during this season. Harris, 22, played four seasons of college hockey and got into ten contests with the Canadiens last season. Guhle will turn 21 in January. All are mature for their age and Guhle and Xhekaj are more than capable of handling NHL players from a physical standpoint.
If those three are among Montreal’s best six defencemen in the exhibition season, then put them in the lineup from Game 1 and evaluate them on a game-to-game basis. Sending them “down” to Laval if there are any hiccups is a pretty easy task – it’s not like they have to be flown across the continent, and none of them would be waiver eligible.
Under the previous management group, there was little chance of three rookies cracking Montreal’s defence group. Times have changed. There is a real sense that Hughes and company intend on having the best 20 players on the ice for the majority of this season, and for fans who want a taste of the future, it couldn’t be sweeter if that happens.
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