The Montreal Canadiens gave their fans a taste of what’s in store for the future on Saturday night as they iced three rookie defencemen in their lineup against a top team like the Tampa Bay Lightning.
It was the first time the Canadiens had done so since the end of the 2015-2016 season, which saw the Canadiens finish the season with the likes of Joel Hanley, Darren Dietz and Ryan Johnston on their blueline due to a long list of injuries to veteran defencemen. However, the key difference in this situation is that the Canadiens are not simply looking to fill roster spots with this sudden infusion of youth, but rather to prepare and evaluate what lies in store for them moving forward. It shows a real break from tradition in Montreal, as the thought of willingly playing three rookies against one of the top teams in the league would have been a scrutinized decision. but, as Bob Dylan once said, “the times they are a-changin’.”
Influx of Youth
Montreal Canadiens general manager Kent Hughes has talked at length about how he would like to get younger at certain positions. With the Montreal Canadiens having one of the oldest defensive corps in the league last season, it was predictable that Hughes would look to get some younger blood on the back end, especially with Shea Weber being unofficially retired. The trading of pending free agent Ben Chiarot was an automatic for the rookie general manager, and moving Jeff Petry seems like an inevitable summer trade waiting to happen.
“We have young prospects on defence like Kaiden Guhle and Jordan Harris. Xhekaj is signed and joining the system as well. Struble is another,” said Hughes during his press conference after trading Ben Chiarot on March 17. “We feel we have some good, young prospects coming. Whether we need to do something on an interim basis, we’ll make the decision.”
There would be no need for an interim solution, as Alexander Romanov had quickly become the most utilized defenceman on the Canadiens’ backend. The hard-nosed 22-year-old defenceman had grown by leaps and bounds under new head coach Martin St. Louis and was the most utilized player on the team at even strength since the NHL Trade Deadline. The surprisingly effective play of rookie Corey Schueneman leading up to the NHL Trade Deadline also added more momentum to the defensive overhaul. His improved play has lightened the hit of trading away dependable defenceman Brett Kulak.
The Canadiens weren’t done with their tinkering, though, as the Canadiens’ acquired right-shot defenceman Justin Barron at the NHL Trade Deadline and signed top NCAA defenceman Jordan Harris to his entry-level contract. Both rearguards were brought in slowly and eased into the NHL, giving the Montreal Canadiens faithful a sign of what’s to come down the line.
A Sign of Things To Come
On Saturday night, the Montreal Canadiens announced Harris would make his NHL debut, drawing into the lineup for Chris Wideman. The move raised many eyebrows, as Wideman was one of the most offensive successful defencemen in the NHL during the month of March, but the Canadiens wanted to give their future a chance to show the world what they could do. With rookies Schueneman, Barron and a debuting Harris and sophomore Alexander Romanov in the lineup, the Canadiens iced the youngest defensive corps in over 20 years.
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David Savard, the lone defensive veteran over the age of 30 (Joel Edmundson is 28), was tasked with holding down the fort defensively to start. However, as the game went on, Romanov was once again the most used defender for the Canadiens with 22 minutes of ice time, showing the growing confidence St. Louis has in his abilities. Barron and Schueneman were played over 20 and 19 minutes, respectively, while also getting multiples presences during overtime, another rarity in the history of Canadiens’ OT deployment. Despite playing in his first game, Harris was played nearly 16 minutes and never once looked out of place, as he used his quick feet and wits to get himself out of trouble and initiate quick transitions.
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The Montreal Canadiens would come back from two separate two-goal deficits and closed the door on the Tampa Bay Lightning at even strength in the second and third periods to pull off the 5-4 shootout victory. The mobility on the backend, the quick and crisp transition, defencemen joining the rush and even initiating the zone entries were all a significant change of pace from how the Montreal Canadiens have played over the last decade. Head coach Martin St. Louis voiced this change in pace in his latest press conference, displaying a refreshing approach to rolling with a young defence corps and using them in crucial moments.
“I’m not going to be a coach that’s going to protect a tie. I got to stay in the present and plan for the future, and the future is some of these kids have to get those reps,” said head coach St. Louis on the usage of his rookie defencemen in pressure situations. “So I’m not scared to take a chance in overtime and give those guys some reps, but they have to earn it 5-on-5, and I think they’ve done that.”
There were a few mistakes throughout the game, but the learning and experience gained were more valuable than the eventual win. Barron, Harris, Schueneman and Romanov all seemed to pick up their pace as the game went on, and all four contributed to the Canadiens’ victory in their own ways. It gave the Canadiens faithful a glimpse into the future, a Montreal Canadiens club predicated on speed and skill; from the blueline out.