Given how rarely rookies are given roster spots in the NHL, few were expecting the Montreal Canadiens to enter the 2022-23 season with more than one rookie defenceman in the lineup.
At most, there was discussion that a player like Jordan Harris or perhaps even Arber Xhekaj could end up joining Kaiden Guhle in the opening-night lineup, but the idea that the Canadiens would eventually play up to five rookie defencemen at once seemed impossible.
Now that Xhekaj, Guhkle, Harris, Johnathan Kovacevic, and Justin Barron have gained crucial experience during a rather tumultuous season, not only should they have a better appreciation of what it takes to stick in the NHL, they have convinced Canadiens general manager Kent Hughes that he could trade a player like Joel Edmundson, who served as a mentor for many of the young defencemen.
Now that Edmundson has been traded to the Washington Capitals in exchange for a pair of draft picks, Hughes expects his slightly less inexperienced defencemen to absorb the minutes that would normally be given to Edmundson.
“That’s the plan,” said Canadiens general manager Kent Hughes. “Joel was a big part of our room, he had a leadership role. Our young players learned from him. Defensively, we’re young. We were young last year too. Our young players gained a lot of precious experience last year and they’re ready for more responsibility this season.”
While it’s true the Canadiens added some relief to their salary cap situation by trading Edmundson, the most important aspect of the trade will be the precious ice time the young defencemen who are expected to play a big part in the rebuild will receive.
And when it comes to finding ice time for his younger players, the work is far from done.
To truly turn the page on last season, players such as Mike Hoffman, Joel Armia, and Christian Dvorak will have to be moved. At the very least, Hughes must do everything he can to trade them without having to use important assets to facilitate the negotiations.
Unfortunately, when it comes to some of the players, such as Hoffman, offering his services for free did not yield a single bite from 31 NHL teams, which means it may not be a feasible game plan.
But that doesn’t mean Hughes is done trying.
“It’s a possibility,” said Hughes when he was asked if more veterans should expect to be traded. “It’s more likely to be forwards than defencemen because we have an abundance of forwards.”
Beyond liberating minutes for players like Juraj Slafkovsky, Alex Newhook, and Rafael Harvey-Pinard, simply moving one of the aforementioned forwards would give the Canadiens a significant boon when it comes to their salary cap maneuverability.
And it would signal the Montreal Canadiens are entering the next chapter of their rebuild, one that focuses on growth and chemistry rather than trade deadlines and free agency.