Competition at Left Side Defence

Eggs Bennett 22-13

June 21, 2022

In case you missed it, the 2022 NHL Amateur Draft is coming to Montreal this year, and the Montreal Canadiens have the first overall pick! If you did somehow miss that news, congratulations on waking up from your coma.

On the quieter end of the news spectrum, another story is developing. In the past two weeks, Jonathan Bernier of Journal De Montreal reported that Brett Kulak had indicated in an interview that there was a chance he could return to Montreal, and the Habs announced they had signed Otto Leskinen to a one-year two-way contract.

In the meanwhile, on Monday the Memorial Cup got underway featuring two Montreal Canadiens prospects. Kaiden Guhle, who was named the WHL Playofs MVP after leading the Edmonton Oil Kings to a Memorial Cup appearance, and Arber Xhekaj, who was a factor in leading the Hamilton Bulldogs to a place at the tournament, will face each other in St. John, New Brunswick. 

The Memorial Cup feels like a foreshadow of September’s training camp as Guhle and Xhekaj will also compete for a roster spot on the Montreal Canadiens. A question begs to be asked. Do the Habs have a clog building at the left-handed defenceman (LHD) position?

The NHL Crew   

With the deadline trades of Ben Chiarot and Brett Kulak, the clog at LHD at the NHL level took a bit of a Drano hit.

Joel Edmundson, the veteran of the group with two years left on his contract, and Alexander Romanov, who is entering his third NHL season and expected to find his place in the top four judging by how he was used by Coach Martin St. Louis to end the season, are the shoe-ins in the LHD category.

In the “hopefuls” category, Jordan Harris was a new addition to the Habs D group after his university career ended, and he didn’t look out of place in Montreal. Kale Clague, who was claimed off waivers from Los Angeles in December and went on to play 25 games for the Habs, is an RFA who can likely be retained for a reasonable cap hit.

William Lagesson was acquired as part of the Brett Kulak trade. He played just three games in Montreal and is a UFA. At 26 and still struggling at the NHL level, it seems unlikely that Lagesson will be re-signed by the Habs.

The AHL Crew

The defence roster of the Laval Rocket, as with any AHL affiliate, is comprised of prospects in development who will be looking for as much developmental exposure as possible, as well as serviceable veterans who are unlikely to make an NHL roster on a permanent basis.

Gianni Fairbrother and Otto Leskinen are both under contract. Corey Schueneman is an RFA who was impressive in Montreal at times this past season and will likely be re-signed. Sami Niku and Xavier Ouellet are both UFAs who have been effective in Laval and decisions will need to be made concerning them.

Several of those guys can play both sides on defence, but with the crew of prospects graduating, something has to give.

The Prospect Crew

Kaiden Guhle, Mattias Norlinder and Arber Xhekaj are all on entry-level contracts and are believed to be competing for a spot on the NHL roster in the fall. Are any of them ready for a full-time job in Montreal?

Several LHD prospects are in development in various organizations, including Jayden Struble and William Trudeau. Their futures with the Habs are still to be determined, but the depth at the LHD position is significant.

Playing the Long Game

GM Kent Hughes has made comments that help us navigate the developing clog. He has said he does not envision playing three rookie defencemen in Montreal next season, and that he may regard Romanov as part of his veteran group. We should not expect to regularly see more than two of those rookies in the line-up at the same time.

Justin Barron, a right-handed defencemen, will be part of that rookie group under consideration for a spot in the Habs D group. We can also consider that playing one of Edmundson or Romanov on the right side on occasion would allow for a rookie to take a LHD slot, and to play two rookie LHD in the same game.

Furthermore, Kent Hughes and Jeff Gorton have both said repeatedly that their intention is to build a team that can consistently contend. They’re playing the long game on this rebuild. They’re more interested in developing the best player they can for a decade of service than in trying to squeeze too much juice out of an unripe fruit. Hughes has said he wants to use Laval as a developmental opportunity, moving players back and forth to work on specific things as required.

The Competition is Real

All things considered, Harris, Guhle, Norlinder, and Xhekaj are all battling for a maximum of two LHD slots. That doesn’t consider guys like Clague, Schueneman, Leskinen and Fairbrother who will also want a look in, even if they are all more likely to fill placeholding roles than have a long-term future with the Habs. The clog is real, and the competition is on.

Jordan Harris, who turns 22 this summer, may be the readiest of the lot. In 10 games with the Habs last season he scored a goal and was a plus three in just over 16 minutes ATOI. My eye test had him looking solid with David Savard, and my hope is that Marty splits the Romanov-Savard pair next season to allow a third pair of Rookie LHD-Savard.

Mattias Norlinder, who turned 22 in April, saw six games of NHL action last season, collecting an assist and going plus two in just over 12 minutes ATOI. Norlinder also played 37 games with Frolunda last season after returning to Sweden. While he is used to playing with men, Norlinder will be adjusting to the NHL rink. I’m expecting a healthy dose of Laval for Norlinder.

Kaiden Guhle, recently gaining the nickname of Iron Kaiden, is believed to be NHL-ready. The 16th overall pick of the 2020 draft plays a complete game that will be on display in St. John,. He’s the youngest of the true contenders for a role, but his body is built to play with men. HuGo may still prefer to pace his development and include a stop at Laval along the way. Guhle is likely the best prospect of the entire LHD group, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be good for him to spend time in Laval.

Arber Xhekaj is another physical specimen available to the Habs. The 21-year-old was an undrafted player who was invited to last year’s training camp, impressed, and was signed by the Canadiens to an entry-level contract. Xhekaj is the only player of the crew that I’ve had the opportunity to watch live, on multiple occasions, so my impressions are a little lopsided here.

It’s no surprise that Xhekaj caught Marc Bergevin’s eye since he is a physically dominant, defensive defenceman. He’s huge, at 6’4” and 225 pounds, and he’s not afraid to use that size to strike fear in opponents. That’s not a metaphor – I watched some young opponents literally shy away from Xhekaj. Fans love him for his nasty and scanning the rink you’ll find his jersey on the backs of many. When he makes a big hit, you’ll see some do the chopping motion – his initials are AX, after all – in appreciation. His physicality is both his strength and his weakness, and he will need to work on his discipline at the next level. Untimely penalties, and a couple of suspensions for illegal hits are part of his repertoire.

Xhekaj can shoot, but his skating is average, and his offensive ceiling is not likely where he will make his bread and butter. His puck handling is strong enough that he might make a solid defensive partner for a high-end offensive defenseman. He is well-positioned defensively, and fairly consistently able to get his strong shot through traffic.

My eye test on Xhekaj says that if he can make it at the NHL level, it will be after seasoning in the AHL.

Predicting a Winner

It may be that neither of the kids “wins” the spot on the Habs LHD on a permanent basis in this coming hockey year. My expectation is that we can take Hughes at his word, and Laval will be a training ground.

What if the entire season is devoted to development, and at any given time, two of those young players is in the line-up, while rotating in and out of Laval to work on specifically identified areas of their game? I know strategic development has been foreign to the Habs, but what if?

What if the future in Montreal features Guhle and Barron – a reunification of a Team Canada pair – and there is a desire to play them as top pair together in Laval before promoting them?

What if Edmundson is moved for a haul at the trade deadline, and that becomes the perfect time to promote someone?

What if one of these prospects is dealt, out of positional strength, to bring back a player who can fill a hole?

What if a package to move up in the draft includes a LHD prospect?

There is absolutely a healthy dose of competition developing at the LHD position in Montreal, but it’s too early to call it clog. These young players still have much to prove before they are ready to assume an NHL roster position. Nonetheless, the future projects to be bright at LHD.

Published by Lori Bennett

Hockey is my hobby. I love a respectful hockey chat or debate, but it stops being fun if we're jerks.

One thought on “Competition at Left Side Defence

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