BROSSARD — Prospects like Kaiden Guhle and Arber Xhekaj may act coy when asked about the openings on the Canadiens blue line this season, but rest assured, they’re well aware of what’s at stake.
As it stands, Kaiden Guhle seems to be pencilled as the front runner for one of the jobs, as well as Justin Barron, whose greatest advantage doesn’t necessarily lie with his skillset, but rather the fact that he’s a right defenceman on a roster that desperately needs to fill that position.
Guhle was paired with David Savard during the scrimmages on Friday, giving everyone a glimpse of a possible pairing to start the season. It’s also worth noting that Guhle also played with Savard at least year’s camp.
“When I was a young guy I couldn’t believe that I was lining up beside NHL players at camp,” explained head coach Martin St-Louis. “To get that experience, to be next to those guys, makes them think they’re not that far [from the NHL].”
For reference, other than Barron, who was paired with Mike Matheson, every other player vying for a job on the blue line was paired with a prospect rather than a bonafide NHL defenceman.
“He’s the total package,” said head coach Martin St-Louis. “We need to continue to evaluate Guhle but it’s clear he has a lot of maturity and he’s very smart.”
Guhle possesses the most developed skillset among the young defenders, but it may very well be his stoic, mature approach that will be the deciding factor. The Canadiens are in for a rough time on defence this season, and they’ll need players that can play through the muck without ruining their confidence. That’s exactly what Guhle brings to the table.
“He’s incredibly calm with the puck and his skating is excellent,” said Savard. “It’s clear he’s ready. He’s determined to stay here, and I’ll help him get there. He has so much talent and there are good odds he spends the entire season here.”
Despite Savard’s assertion that Guhle will likely spend the year in Montreal, nothing is set in stone. Guhle knows he must improve upon if he makes the team, especially if he hopes to avoid the AHL this season.
His self-described greatest weakness is timing, stating that he must improve his decision-making to avoid getting caught flat-footed once the tempo shifts upwards in the NHL, though, you’d be hard-pressed to describe his timing as anything but above average.
“He’s got it all,” said St-Louis. “That alone, what he has, I’m pretty confident he’ll play in the NHL.”
But as the famous poet Yoda once said, “There is another.”
Arber Xhekaj is known as a tough customer. There are few, if any, opponents who have gone toe-to-toe with him without regretting their decision. But today he put together one of the most promising performances since the start of development camp, and he did so without throwing a single hit.
“Historically, guys that play like him don’t have all the offensive attributes he has,” said St-Louis. “So for me, to watch a big guy like that move like that, make plays, feel comfortable at the blue line, but also be mean, that’s exciting.”
The lack of hitting in the intrasquad scrimmage allowed Xhekaj to focus on the most crucial aspects of his game, which is exactly what he must do if he’s to challenge Guhle for a spot on the blue line.
Arber, tout en finesse.
— Canadiens Montréal (@CanadiensMTL) September 23, 2022
His timing was perfect, as was his gap control. He pinched at the most opportune times, and rarely forced the issue. Without the burden of stealing someone’s soul via a hit on his mind, he quickly elevated his game to a level at which you could legitimately see him in the NHL.
“Sometimes those guys know it’s a big part of their game, and they almost play too aggressively,” said St-Louis. “They look for it, and if you look for that you forget the rest. Sometimes that gets you in trouble. Watching him today just play hockey was really, really nice. I know that’s part of his game, to be physical and aggressive, and we just have to control it.”
It’s still Guhle’s spot to lose, but if Xhekaj can continue to impress St-Louis with his slick play, we may very well have a two-horse race on our hands.