Rookie camps and prospect tournaments give management a perfect opportunity to gauge player development, but the ramp-up to the 2022-23 season will be a little different for the Montreal Canadiens, particularly for their defensive prospects.
Nine defencemen will participate in the 2022 Prospect Challenge, which kicks off on Thursday, as the Canadiens face the Buffalo Sabres: Arber Xhekaj, Justin Barron, Kaiden Guhle, Jordan Harris, Gianni Fairbrother, Mattias Norlinder, William Trudeau, Miguel Tourigny, and Santino Centrorame.
As it stands, there are only four locks on the Canadiens’ blueline: Mike Matheson, Chris Wideman, David Savard, and Joel Edmundson. Corey Schueneman, who requires waivers to be sent to the AHL, will certainly have the inside track when it comes to filling out the blue line, and Kent Hughes has been clear about the possibility of adding another defenceman to the roster. However, regardless of the potential changes, the tournament will give two or three defencemen a rare opportunity to earn an NHL roster spot out of camp.
Of course, the roster spots, while coveted, also come with the caveat of significant risk and potential long-term development harm. Last season, the Canadiens allowed the most goals against in their franchise history, and they did so while employing players such as Jeff Petry, Brett Kulak and Ben Chiarot. With a crop of inexperienced defencemen set to take the next step in their careers, there’s a rather high probability of setting yet another unfortunate franchise record, especially since Carey Price won’t be around to save the day.
A fluid blueline fueled by waiver exemptions will mitigate some of the risk, giving younger players a chance to dip their toes in the frosty NHL waters at their own pace, but there’s no doubt the Canadiens will have their hands full when it comes to managing the pressure facing their young blueliners.
Two Spots Up For Grabs
One of the main players to watch will be Justin Barron. The Nova Scotia native struggled to stand out at the Montreal Canadiens’ development camp in July, which, frankly, means very little in the grand scheme of things. But given the season is rapidly approaching, Barron will need to prove he can handle relatively difficult minutes in game-day scenarios to secure one of the roster spots. He’s a smooth skater and has more experience than most of his competition, but it’s safe to say his decision-making needs to be improved.
Kaiden Guhle will also be under the spotlight, especially given his impressive upward trajectory last season. Yes, he’s only 20 years old, but he’s the epitome of an old soul. There’s little doubt he’ll be able to impress Canadiens brass both on, and off the ice, thanks to his calm demeanour and an unquenchable thirst for victory.
Guhle, along with the well-rounded Jordan Harris, should be served a healthy dose of ice time in Buffalo, though it wouldn’t be surprising to see Mattias Norlinder emerge as a dark horse option for the Canadiens. Not only is Norlinder older and more experienced than his counterparts, but he also possesses the type of high-end skill and speed the Montreal Canadiens hope to include on the blue line, as has been repeatedly explained by Kent Hughes and Martin St-Louis. Despite a relatively underwhelming 2021-22 season, Norlinder still ranks as the defensive prospect that’s the closest to being NHL-ready.
All these youngster will be looking to prove their doubters wrong and that the hype is real, and that all starts in Buffalo this Thursday.