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Analyzing Montreal Canadiens Rookie Defencemen’s Early Results

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Montreal Canadiens defenceman Jordan Harris

With the NHL season beyond the 10-game threshold, it’s a perfect opportunity to evaluate the play of the many rookies that currently find themselves on the Montreal Canadiens blue line.

Starting the season with four rookie defencemen is the epitome of risk, but for the most part, Montreal’s young defencemen have done a fantastic job holding the fort.

Jordan Harris

Changes to the defensive group were inevitable as Joel Edmundson returned to the lineup, but it was somewhat surprising that head coach Martin St-Louis decided to break up his most reliable pairing.

When Harris and Jonathan Kovacevic were on the ice, the Canadiens controlled the majority of the shots, the expected goals, the scoring chances, and the goals.

They’re the only pairing to find themselves on the right side of 50 percent in all the aforementioned statistics.

One of the driving forces behind their great numbers was the sheer number of shots the pair put on the net, and that’s where Harris shone the brightest, putting 18 shots on net since the start of the season.

As is the case with almost every other player in the lineup, Harris had a hard time controlling high-danger chances, but there’s only so much you can expect from a player who has spent less time on the ice than most of his teammates have spent in the penalty box.

It’s also worth mentioning that only David Savard has played more 5v5 minutes this season than Harris, who, by all accounts, is producing great numbers in a relatively difficult assignment.

Harris may only have 21 games of NHL experience, but he has the know-how of a 21-year veteran.

Jonathan Kovacevic

When Winnipeg placed Kovacevic on waivers, there was significant pushback from Jets fans, and we’re starting to see why.

Even if he’s slated to be a healthy scratch in Saturday’s game against the Golden Knights, you could argue that Kovacevic has been the Canadiens’ best defenceman from a statistical point of view.

He ranks first on the team in shot control (55.5 percent), scoring chance control (50 percent), expected goals share (53.7), and expected goals against.

He’s yet to hit the scoresheet, but it’s only fair to point out that his underlying numbers are bordering on elite, indicating that when Kovacevic is on the ice, great things happen.

There will be a logjam on defence, especially once Mike Matheson returns, and Kovacevic is one of the likeliest candidates to be removed from the lineup, but he probably shouldn’t be.

Even if the Canadiens acquired him for free, they should be reluctant to sideline Kovacevic given his great results.

Arber Xhekaj

When Xhekaj is not busy stealing souls, which is quite entertaining in its own right, he’s playing a simple, yet effective brand of hockey.

Much like the two other rookies, Xhekaj is one of the team leaders in terms of shot control (54.7), and he’s also quietly become one of their most efficient shooters, having put 19 shots on net at 5v5 since the start of the season.

Only Cole Caufield (27) and Brendan Gallagher (24) have more shots on net than Xhekaj, which makes his results even more impressive given the aforementioned wingers take more shots than a first-year university student.

Xhekaj shots on net

If we filter the results by ice time, he remains among the top-3 players in terms of shots per 60.

Xhekaj, who has played the majority of his games alongside Chris Wideman, does struggle when it comes to controlling high-danger chances, but when we take a look at his overall numbers relative to his teammates, he’s making a positive impact in that department as well.

Kaiden Guhle

In the history of the franchise, only one Montreal Canadiens player has received more all-situations ice time as a rookie than Guhle has, and that happens to be a player who won the award as the best defenceman in the league a little later in his career: P.K. Subban.

As someone who pays close attention to statistics, it would be hypocritical to ignore Guhle’s underlying numbers, but there’s also something to be said about the challenges involved in playing on a team’s top pairing as a rookie.

And while Guhle’s numbers aren’t particularly great, it’s worth noting that both he and David Savard aren’t exactly ideal players to face the opposing team’s best players.

In an ideal world, the pairing would slot into the No.2 role, especially since they spend so much time playing special teams.

It’s an exhausting assignment that Guhle has handled quite well, even if he faces the Auston Matthews’, Sidney Crosbys, and Alex Ovechkins of the league regularly.

It’s also worth noting that in his few shifts alongside Harris, Guhle produced fantastic numbers. The sample size is quite limited, but it’s an avenue worth exploring in the future. The same results occurred in his limited time playing with Kovacevic.

Guhle may not have had great underlying numbers to start his career, but the situation in which he produced those numbers was simply not conducive to having great on-ice results.

(All statistics are 5v5 unless otherwise noted, via NaturalStatTrick)

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