MONTREAL– Veteran defenceman Joel Edmundson, who is recovering from a lower-back injury that kept him out of the lineup this season, has resumed skating, indicating a return to the Montreal Canadiens active roster is on the horizon.
Back injuries are rather delicate, and there’s no timetable for his return just yet, however, it would be wise to take stock of the current play by the Canadiens’ defensive core, seeing as there will be some movement once Edmundson is cleared to play.
Several teams have shown interest in trading for the Canadiens’ alternate captain, putting together strong offers to acquire Edmundson’s services, but at this point, it’s unlike Kent Hughes will move the veteran rearguard. It may become a more attractive option at the traded deadline.
With a bevy of inexperience players on the blue line, one could assume it would be easy to find several good candidates for an assignment to the team’s AHL affiliate, the Laval Rocket, but given the strong play of several of their defencemen, the decision will be a little more complicated than anticipated.
Based purely on their underlying numbers, Kaiden Guhle is the first name that comes to mind. Though it would be unfair to punish the 20-year-old defenceman due to his usage, which leaves him facing the opposing team’s best players, players such as Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, and Auston Matthews.
It’s worth noting that despite some questionable possession numbers, Guhle’s numbers have consistently improved as the season unfolds.
Guhle has also shown that not only can he handle an elevated number of minutes early in his professional hockey career, and that he has a certain untapped offensive potential that should be explored further throughout the season.
Nick Suzuki sticks with the play, cashes in on his own rebound to make it 2-1!
First NHL point for Kaiden Guhle too! pic.twitter.com/x3LricSssF
— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) October 18, 2022
Jonathan Kovacevic is another player whose name will be thrown around once Edmundson is cleared to play, but the 25-year-old has done a good, if not great job since he was claimed on waivers from the Winnipeg Jets.
Kovacevic has done a fantastic job mitigating the shots allowed by opponents while he’s on the ice, leading all defencemen in that regard, and currently possesses a 52 percent share of the overall shots during his shifts, the second-highest mark on the blue line.
His low cost of acquisition may lead to yet another visit to the waiver wire, but as a right-handed defenceman, he would become one of the most coveted players to go through waivers in the early part of the season.
That leaves Arber Xhekaj and Jordan Harris, both of whom can be sent to Laval without waivers.
But the fact of the matter is both rookies have played well above expectations since making the roster out of training camp.
Harris doesn’t just generate a ton of shots on net, though that’s certainly a fantastic attribute for a young defender in the NHL. He also possesses a positive shot share this season of 51.6 percent and the best expected-goals share percentage among all defencemen. The Canadiens have also outscored their opponents 5 to 1 while Harris is on the ice, and though that’s not a sustainable rate, his expected goal share points to Harris making a positive impact on the team.
That leaves the Sherrif, Xhekaj. While on the ice this season, the team has controlled 53.7 percent of the shots, an impressive number given that Xhekaj went undrafted.
But the Canadiens have struggled to control high-danger opportunities and high-danger goals while he’s on the ice, leaving Xhekaj towards the bottom of the defencemen rankings when it comes to those very important numbers.
However, it’s worth noting that Xhekaj brings something to the team that none of the aforementioned players can provide.
He epitomizes entertainment.
He’s Lyle Odelein 2.0, and for those who were lucky enough to watch Odelein play, that is the highest possible compliment for a defenceman trying to find his place in the league.
Other than his ability to ragdoll veteran NHL players with reckless abandon, like an angry Hulk tossing around helpless Loki, Xhekaj can also absorb much of the opposition’s ire, which makes life easier for the rest of his teammates.
As it stands, he’s probably the likeliest player to make his way to Laval once Edmundson returns, but he still has time to improve his numbers and perhaps force management’s hand.
Regardless of which player is sent to the AHL, the mere fact that there’s a discussion as to which rookie deserves to be sent down is a very positive sign for the team and their youth movement on defence, given the discussion revolves around the group of young defencemen defying all reasonable expectations.
(Statistics via NaturalStatTrick)