With just two games left on the preseason schedule, the Montreal Canadiens have a few crucial decisions to make regarding the openings on the blue line.
The internal competition has been quite intense at training camp, seeing as the Canadiens currently own a rather impressive prospect pool from a defensive point of view.
With that in mind, it’s the perfect time to get a better sense of how the players vying for a spot in the opening night roster have fared at training camp.
For clarity, all defencemen 25 and under, currently signed to an NHL team that actively participated in training camp scrimmages and preseason games shall be considered. The rankings are based purely on their performances from the start of rookie camp.
Check out the top-5 forward prospects at camp by clicking here.
1. Kaiden Guhle, 16th overall (2020).
The WHL Playoff MVP carried his excellent play into camp, quickly establishing himself as the most NHL-ready among all the defensive prospects in the organization.
When it comes to evaluating Guhle’s game, it’s not a matter of identifying weaknesses rather than identifying areas where his already strong skill set can be improved.
His anticipation borders on the elite, which allows him to use his incredible wingspan to disrupt plays in the neutral zone. His fantastic skating allows him to join the rush with the greatest of ease, while also allowing him to return to the defensive zone in the blink of an eye if the opposition gains control of the puck.
— Matt Drake (@DrakeMT) September 26, 2022
Guhle isn’t just a well-rounded player, he’s excellent in almost every situation he’s placed in, particularly when it comes to generating controlled exits, one of the most crucial aspects of generating offence in the NHL.
Kaiden Guhle: the best defensive player in the data set. Almost never conceded the zone. Beaten up the middle zero times in 216 minutes. All the break
— Mitchell Brown (@MitchLBrown) October 4, 2022
2. Jordan Harris, 71st overall, 2019.
When it comes to developing defensive prospects, there are no predetermined roadmaps, but for some prospects, like Jordan Harris, spending a significant amount of time in the NCAA will lead to a player that is mature beyond his years, both on and off the ice.
The biggest criticism of his play would centre on his lack of controlled exits while playing on the right side, though it’s always difficult to generate exits while receiving pucks on your backhand.
Ideally, he would be played on the left side, but overall, his versatility is a significant boon for a team that lacks right-handed defencemen.
“We have a lack of righties and we’re most likely going to need a guy to play the right side, said head coach Martin St-Louis. “He uses his feet really well and he’s used to playing on that side.”
St-Louis hits on one of Harris’ greatest assets: his skating. It’s not just a matter of speed, though he certainly ranks among one of the fastest defensive prospects on the team. His crossovers are flawless and his first stride is almost perfect from a technical standpoint.
Gotta love Jordan Harris here. Tap back behind the goal, immediately on his horse to join the rush, gets a quality scoring chance.
Kid is pushing for that roster spot. pic.twitter.com/fccZ0MDpBO
— Matt Drake (@DrakeMT) September 29, 2022
With speed to burn and an affinity for making the right decisions at the right time, Harris has stood out among the sea of defensive prospects at camp.
3. Arber Xhekaj, Undrafted.
There are few better stories than Arber Xhekaj’s ascension among the Montreal Canadiens defencemen at training camp.
He started with a bang, literally, knocking out Ottawa Senators prospect Zachary Massicotte at the prospect tournament in Buffalo, but it was his play following the fight that re-enforced the idea that he’s more than just 240 lbs of pure muscle and mustache.
He quickly shifted his focus from physical play to smart decision-making, which led to immediate praise from his head coach.
“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.”
He doesn’t project as a top-pairing defenceman, but there’s no doubt he has the potential to become a regular NHL defenceman in the future.
Arber Xhekaj took all of the shots. Seriously. He had 22 5v5 shots in a single game!
Transition efficiency lacks, but he tries plays: draws pressure, uses the middle, goes cross-ice, etc. Same with playmaking. Both are encouraging signs. A real force defending the rush, too. https://t.co/mXg5TsVr9k pic.twitter.com/JzTie4ObE3
— Mitchell Brown (@MitchLBrown) October 4, 2022
4. William Trudeau, 113th overall, 2021.
If not for Guhle, Harris and Xhekaj’s advanced development, William Trudeau would have finished at the top of the Montreal Canadiens prospect power rankings at training camp.
At first glance, there’s not much that stands out as elite from his game. He usually makes the right play, he’s quite physical, does a good job closing the gap on puck carriers, and has a certain offensive potential that’s worth exploring.
William Trudeau crée l'égalité!
William Trudeau ties it up!
— Canadiens Montréal (@CanadiensMTL) September 16, 2022
Rather, it’s the sum of the parts that places him among the best defensive prospects. He’s the type of player that coaches tend to trust, and seeing as there’s no rush to get him into the NHL, he has plenty of time to work on his skating, which, shouldn’t be considered a flaw, but could stand to be improved.
Most importantly, he possesses a very high hockey IQ, which usually leads to an easier transition once a player makes the jump to professional hockey.
5. Otto Leskinen, Undrafted.
The 25-year-old defenceman’s play at camp can only be described as quiet, but confident. He hasn’t taken part in a bevy of great plays, but it’s hard to pinpoint any glaring mistakes in his game.
That’s exactly what the Montreal Canadiens wanted to see from Leskinen, seeing as he’s currently signed to a one-year contract, and important decisions regarding his future are imminent.
“One guy we haven’t heard much about is Otto Leskinen,” said St-Louis. “He’s very calm on the ice. He piques my curiosity, a very intriguing player.”
Big fan of this rush by Otto Leskinen (47), leads to a quality scoring chance. pic.twitter.com/ilP1BhagfG
— Matt Drake (@DrakeMT) October 1, 2022
If he can maintain his solid play in the offensive zone while mitigating chances against in the defensive zone, Leskinen is likely to be among the first-call-ups from the Laval Rocket this season.
Justin Barron, 25th overall, 2020.
He entered camp as one of the most viable candidates for a job on the blue line, but there’s no doubt Justin Barron’s stock has dropped significantly in the last few weeks.
Perhaps it’s due to heightened expectations, or his professional hockey experience, but Barron rarely stood out for the right reasons in the defensive zone.
His offensive abilities are well documented and his skating is fantastic, but Barron did himself no favours at camp, being outplayed by a significant margin by his closest competition.
It’s worth remembering Barron is just 20 years old, which means he still has plenty of time to find his rhythm, but based on his play at camp, some time in the AHL would do him some good.
The same can be said for Gianni Fairbrother, Mattias Norlinder and Madison Bowey, who should play a prominent role for the Rocket this season.
An honourable mention goes out to prospect Miguel Tourigny, who wasn’t given ample opportunities at camp but played a fantastic, engaging style of play throughout the prospect tournament in Buffalo.
Tourigny could end up becoming one of the best value picks made by the Montreal Canadiens at the 2022 Draft.
Miguel Tourigny, a 5'8'' 2+ overager dman Montreal selected in the 7th round, looks surprisingly fantastic. Certainly one of the best looking bets from the 7th round. pic.twitter.com/Nk0pOjcENN
— Byron Bader (@ByronMBader) July 12, 2022