Canadiens Mike Matheson, Young Defence To Force Roster Moves
The Montreal Canadiens have an overabundance of talent on the left side of their defence, so much so that some offseason moves will be inevitable.
A lot can change in one season in the NHL.
The Canadiens went from a very questionable defensive brigade last season, to one full of promise and a new leader at the forefront leading the way.
This sudden change of fortunes for the Canadiens could allow them to make not one, but a few moves this summer to alleviate the organizational logjam at the position.
The Kids Are Alright
The additions of Kaiden Guhle, Arber Xhekaj, and Jordan Harris on a full-time basis this season were a major injection of talent for the Montreal Canadiens.
It’s the first time in the modern era that the Canadiens ice three rookies at the same position on defence.
With the inclusion of right-handed rearguard Johnathan Kovacevis and Justin Barron, the Habs’ defensive core has looked much more promising this season; as all these youngsters continue to grow together as a group and get acclimated to the NHL game.
Kaiden Guhle was the first to stick out of the bunch, earning a top-4 role with the Canadiens out of camp and never turning back.
The 21-year-old played an average of 20 minutes a game and registered four goals and 14 assists for 18 points in 44 games this season; almost all of which came from even strength.
He was routinely asked to play against the opposition’s top lines on a nightly basis and looked to be finding his groove in the NHL before his injuries hit.
Arber Xhekaj also quickly endeared himself to the Canadiens’ coaching staff and fan base, with his physical play and surprising offensive potential.
The Habs enforcer showed his ability to play in whichever situation head coach Martin St-Louis decided to use him; developing a name for himself as a player to be feared across the league.
Meanwhile, Jordan Harris has had a more discreet, yet equally effective rise to prominence on the Canadiens’ backend.
The 22-year-old continues to play sound, two-way hockey for the Montreal Canadiens down the stretch.
The former NCAA–standout has registered four goals and 13 assists in 17 games and has looked primed to take on even more responsibility down the stretch this season with injuries to Guhle and Xhekaj keeping them out for the rest of the season.
Yes, the kids are alright.
A New Leader
Although the youngsters on the club have performed well and shown some significant growth since the start of the season, no defenceman has surprised more than Mike Matheson this season.
The 29-year-old has seemingly found an extra gear to his game now that he’s healthy; putting up an impressive eight goals and 21 assists for 29 points in just 40 games.
Producing at a 60-point pace over a full 82-game season, Matheson has emerged as the unquestioned leader for the Canadiens on the backend, playing over 25 minutes a game on a nightly basis.
He’s used in every situation and has seemingly claimed the long-vacant role of powerplay quarterback that was left by Jeff Petry upon his move to Pittsburgh.
Matheson has become a crucial element to the Canadiens’ transition game and their ability to generate offence on the rush, due to his exceptional skating and strong shooting ability.
He’s quite easily the Canadiens’ No.1 defenceman at this junction and playing like a bonafide top-pairing player down the stretch.
The emergence of the Montreal Canadiens’ youth and Matheson’s rise to prominence offer the Canadiens another opportunity to use an organizational strength to their advantage on the trade market this summer.
After general manager Kent Hughes leveraged Alexander Romanov into Kirby Dach in a combination of trades, one could expect the Canadiens to try to make a similar set of moves this summer.
Joel Edmundson, who was of interest to many teams leading up to the NHL Trade Deadline, but was ultimately retained due to concerns over his health, has returned to form in March and could be a quality trade chip for Hughes this summer.
With only one year left on his deal at $3.5M, there could be a few interested teams that will be looking for a veteran presence on their blueline at a reasonable price.
Notwithstanding the more obvious candidate, the Canadiens could also use some of their left-defence prospects, such as Mattias Norlinder or William Trudeau as potential trade chips in larger trades this summer.
Although Trudeau has had himself a very solid year in the AHL as a 20-year-old, it will be difficult for him to find himself a spot on the Canadiens long-term.
He’s shown great promise in the AHL and looks to have serious NHL potential, but, with Lane Hutson and Adam Engstrom looking promising, it may be a tough fit.
The same is true for Norlinder, who was passed on the Canadiens’ depth chart by Trudeau during the season and will have to keep pace with Nicolas Beaudin and Jayden Struble for ice time next season.
The Laval Rocket, like the Canadiens, will be loaded with left-shooting defencemen next season; meaning there could be a prospect that’s eventually included in a trade this summer.
Needless to say, Kent Hughes has a lot to work with as he looks to improve his club in other positions of need.
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If you think its logjam city now, just wait until Lane arrives. Lets assume for a moment that he does return to college for one more year only. That means by 2024 offseason, one of Matheson, Harris, or Guhle have to go…can’t play all four on the left side. Matheson is the real deal, and with a cap hit of under $5M per for the next 3 seasons, he can’t be traded (unless he somehow flounders). Guhle seems to be the next Shea Weber, or close to it…not really a scoring prowess, but a very good defender and can hit peeps. So IF Lane turns out to be the next Brian Leetch, then Harris is odd man out. And think of what return they could get for him by that point?
The right side is a bit easier. Thinking Mailloux, Barron, and X (X = TBD)
That’s one hell of a D corps beginning 2024!
Kovacevic has earned his place on the right side too.