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Montreal Canadiens State Of the Rebuild – The Defensive Situation

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Montreal Canadiens defenceman arber xhekaj

Now that the Montreal Canadiens have completed their second complete rebuild season, it’s time to take a closer look at where the organization stands in terms of its long-term plans.

The ‘State Of The Rebuild’ series will evaluate several categories, including current NHL talent, prospect value, draft capital, trades, coaching, contracts, and management.

Today we will examine the state of the defencemen currently playing in the NHL.

State Of The Montreal Canadiens Rebuild Series – Published

Montreal Canadiens Defensive Situation

Much has been made about the Canadiens’ improvements on the blue line in the last few seasons. Moving on from players like Ben Chiarot and Joel Edmundson has helped, as it has allowed the team to give important ice time to players who are expected to play a significant role in the team’s long-term rebuild plans.

David Savard and Mike Matheson are the remaining veterans, though it should be noted they were asked to do a little too much this season. Savard is best suited for a third-pairing role, whereas Matheson’s ideal landing spot would be somewhere in the top four, not necessarily as a team’s busiest player.

Usage is very important as we evaluate the play of the eight defencemen who played more than 200 minutes at 5v5 for the Habs this season.

For example, Arber Xhekaj mostly played on the third pairing, with some light usage on the second pairing. Kaiden Guhle, on the other hand, was almost exclusively used in the top four, with some significant time on the top pairing.

We also have to remember the Montreal Canadiens struggle from a defensive standpoint. They allowed the fifth most shots per game, the third-most expected goals against per game, and the fifth most high-danger chances per game.

Simply put, they’re one of the worst teams in the league when evaluating most defensive metrics, although thanks to the play of the goaltenders, the Habs were a mid-pack team when it came to actual goals against, finishing 15th overall in the NHL.

Relying on goaltenders to bail you out can be a risky proposal.

That’s not to say fans should cast doubt as to Samuel Montembeault and Cayden Primeau’s impact on the team, but very few contending teams rely solely on their goaltender to find success.

A good goaltender is important, but it will all be for naught if the defencemen he’s playing behind fail to control the play.

Montreal Canadiens Defencemen – Expected Goals Percentage

To get a better idea of how the defencemen performed, we can start by evaluating their expected goals percentage (xGF%). This metric determines which team is expected to score more goals when certain players are on the ice.

The Habs controlled a little over 46.4 percent of the expected goals last season, giving us a baseline as to how players on the blueline performed.

montreal canadiens defencemen xgF%

As you can see, Xhekaj is the only defenceman who managed to finish the season above 50 percent in this very important statistical category. Some may argue he produced those numbers due to his usage, and they’d be right, to a certain extent. Xhekaj mostly played on the third pairing, though he did spend some time in the top four.

But he does not control where he plays, nor does he dictate his ice time. That’s up to head coach Martin St-Louis.  Xhekaj could, however, control his play when he was on the ice, and the numbers suggest he did a great job within that assignment.

We tend to want players to continuously move up the lineup, which has led to some criticism in Xhekaj’s case. Some have suggested he has limited value because he probably won’t end up playing in the top four, but that type of thinking is counterproductive in most industries, including hockey.

It’s called the Peter Principle. If every employee rises in the hierarchy through promotion they will eventually reach a level where they can no longer advance, which means they’ll be used in a position that is well above their talent level.

Xhekaj may not end up winning a Norris Trophy, and that’s fine. Expecting him to defy the odds continuously is a little too ambitious, especially when we consider he already defied the odds simply by making the NHL directly out of the OHL.

On the flip side, Jayden Struble’s numbers quickly cratered after a strong start to the season. That’s to be expected when we consider how little professional experience he had before making the jump to the NHL. That being said, unless there’s an opening in the lineup heading into training camp, more time in the AHL would do Struble some good. It would allow him to adapt to the lack of time and space in the NHL.

As per usual, Jordan Harris quietly had a very solid season despite a lack of consistency in his usage. Harris is the type of defenceman that doesn’t necessarily jump off the page when you watch him play. But his well-rounded skill set has produced very encouraging underlying numbers in his first two complete seasons in the NHL, and that’s worth exploring further. The same can be said about Johnathan Kovacevic and Justin Barron, although their numbers are a tier below Harris’.

Savard struggled, but again, he was playing above his station on most nights. There was one very interesting development in his case toward the end of the season, as his numbers skyrocketed the moment he played alongside Xhekaj. Savard brings more to the table than just his play on the ice, but it’s worth noting that he only produced above-average numbers once Xhekaj was added to his pairing, whereas Xhekaj maintained solid numbers regardless of his defensive partner.

MUST READ: It’s Time To Put More Respect On Arber Xhekaj’s Name

While Matheson and Savard’s underlying numbers tanked once they were placed on the top pairing, Guhle’s numbers were much better, indicating that the young defenceman is slowly yet surely turning into a reliable top-four defenceman. Fans may push back on the idea that Guhle’s numbers paint the complete picture, but I would suggest the fact that he played on the top pairing and finished with better numbers than both veterans is an encouraging sign. In addition, Guhle was often used on his offside, which is a very difficult proposition for any defenceman, let alone a second-year player facing the opposing team’s best players any given night.

Montreal Canadiens Defencemen – Production

My friends in the data analysis industry will cringe when I bring up production from the blue line, but the situation in Montreal is a little different than most. St-Louis often discussed the importance of having his defencemen join the rush, stating that he wanted to see more production from the back end.

And that’s exactly what he received. Matheson set a career-high in points, with 11 goals and 51 assists in 82 games. Say what you will about his defensive play, but Matheson was the first Canadiens defenceman to finish the season above 60 points since P.K. Subban did it in 2014-15.

Ideally, you’d want Matheson to produce above-average underlying numbers, but when we consider that he’s playing on the top pairing of a team that finished among the bottom five in the NHL three years in a row, his possession numbers are easier to accept.

To put a fine point on Matheson’s value we simply need to take a look at the defencemen who outscored him this season. Matheson finished ninth in defenceman scoring, trailing some of the best defencemen in the NHL. Those defencemen also happen to be some of the highest-paid defencemen in the league.

Players like Quinn Hughes, Cale Makar, Roman Josi, Victor Hedman, and Adam Fox

It’s simply not realistic to expect Matheson to be dominant at both ends of the rink when he carries the 62nd-highest salary cap hit among all NHL defencemen ($4.875 million).

In addition to Matheson’s impressive production, Guhle, Kovacevic, and Barron also set career highs in goals.

MUST READ: Mike Matheson’s Impact On The Montreal Canadiens Lineup

Potential Vs. Reality – Montreal Canadiens Brass Tacks

While the average age on the blueline skews quite young, we also have to accept that the current group of defencemen has not yet reached the point where we could suggest the Montreal Canadiens have one of the best bluelines in the NHL.

The defensive group is overflowing with potential, and adding a player such as Lane Hutson to the mix should improve the team’s underlying numbers, but for now, the Canadiens are among the worst teams in the league when it comes to mitigating scoring chances.

If this were based purely on potential, I’d grade the Canadiens with a seven or eight on 10, but seeing as we’re discussing the play of the defencemen this season, there’s no way to suggest they deserve a passing grade without delving into intellectual dishonesty.

Simply put, the current group has the potential, but the results need to catch up to the process.

Montreal Canadiens State Of The Rebuild Grade – NHL Defencemen: 3/10

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peter

I am not confident about the long term success of Xhekaj as he already his been operated on twice and just turned 23 & also looks about 10 years older than Guhle.

morrisk

agreed. Leave him as a bonus third liner and go from there…

Tyrone

Keep in mind Guhle has already had his knees operated on at least twice. He’s no different than Xhekaj. And, I’d argue bad knees will end a career faster than bad shoulders could.

peter

When were his knees operated on? Certainly not since he was drafted.

Tyrone

One was in Junior, and apparently that’s it. I thought there was a second one, but it didn’t require surgery, he just missed a long time with it, and then missed the remainder of the season with a high ankle sprain. He’s also missed a chunk of time with a shoulder injury too. He’s had at least 4 significant injuries that I know of and I’ve seen braces on both his knees when there have been videos inside the dressing room. It definitely caught my eye because I was surprised someone so young was already wearing them. It was certainly a cause for concern.

morrisk

So then, the tone of this article seems to be that the Habs would be leaning towards Zayne at pick #5 to bolster their D corp.

We all know the Habs need another top 6 forward, preferably to go on the 2nd line with Newhook and Dach. But they then also need one more RDman to play on the top 4.

Assuming Hudson makes it on the team and does at least reasonably well throughout the season, then Matheson gets traded by the TDL…so no need to worry about that. So on the L side, its Lane and Guhle as #1 and #2. That’s fine. And then there’s Engstrom lurking…

On the Right side, its a bit more mirky. Like Lane, I have no doubt that ReinB will crack the top 4 at some point during this season. Could be right out the gate, or not. But can we say the same for Mailloux? And nobody lurking…

So in this draft, it seems (or SHOULD BE) that the Habs will obtain 1A (a top 6 winger) and 1B (a top 4 RDman). However they get these is anyone’s guess.

john harmsworth

I think we should not sell Xekhai short as he’s shown constant improvement and has the basic tools to be a top four guy. I think his underlying numbers suggest he should get time on the second pairing to see what he can do. I would not advocate for a Dman at the first draft pick, unless perhaps Hufhes chooses to pull another pick and prospect deal for a high grade forward such as Zegras. Given what’s available in the draft, would we be up in arms if we traded Hutson straight across for Zegras and then took Levshunov, Parekh or Cole Hutson a bit later Cole Hutson with our fir4st pick? A big move that could provide even bigger dividends. Who knows, we might even still get Lindstrom with our first pick.

peter

He didn’t improve this year, in the NHL but he was great in Laval – tied for 7th in points amongst Canadien defencemen and he got more powerplay time than any of them except for Matheson. With a 107.2 MPH slapshot and the only 2 defencemen on the team he had more goals than was Hutson & Mailloux!

Last edited 19 days ago by peter
peter

He had the same amount of goals as Gustav Lindstrom who played 30 less games for the Canadiens.

Dana

Of the forwards considered for the puck at 5, I think the riskiest is Lindstrom. Checks off a lot of boxes which is why he is ranked so high but he still missed half the season and his stats were good but not better than the others considered and he played on a team with other high end talents like 2026 probable first overall pick Gavin Mckenna and draft eligible probable first rounder Andrew Basha. He was a third round pick into the WHL. Berkley catton was the first overall pick in the W the same year and produced big numbers, third in goals and fourth in points in the W and the most of draft eligible players, but size is a concern. Iginla, ninth overall into the same league scored at a similar pace as the other two but is the youngest by half a year which is material. Plus he became dominant as the year progressed and was excellent in both the playoffs and the U18 championship.
Eiserman is a goal scoring machine and 9 months ago was the only strong option to celebrini for first and all he did was score at better than a goal a game.
Demidov was widely ranked third coming into the season and is now ranked second by many. Was a thrill show this year, but a playoff knee injury raised a red flag for some although it appears to be minor.

All this to support the notion that amongst forwards considers at 5, Lindstrom might have the most risk from injuries and not always have been considered elite on the way up until this year. Perhaps I’m manufacturing risk that’s not there but why roll the dice on a pivotal pick? Something to consider if you favor a forward

Drey

I agree on pretty much all concerns with the players you mentioned.
I am also REALLY high on EISERMAN.
This kid has never, EVER, dipped under a GAG his entire young career. Every age. Every league. And every single tournament, all he’s ever known is filling the net!
Granted I have no idea what his 200ft game looks like but I’m not very concerned. I’d like to see a player with a possible 50 goal a year average on the team for once.It might not be him, but I’m VERY INTERESTED to see how he’s gonna turn out wherever he goes! And he’s NOT 5’7” for a change.
No offense to Caufield lol. I just think he’s got a better chance at transitioning because he’s normal sized. And he’s in pretty much everyone’s top 5 in forwards.
I’d be very happy to hear his name called!
Peace

Tyrone

Amen to that!

Dana

Do you remember all the poor defensive plays Brett Hull made? Me neither! No doubt there were plenty but all the goals, including cup winner with a skate in the crease, that’s how he is remembered Yes eiserman has baggage but the guy can and will score, not at Hull rates but the point is leverage the strength and frankly, he brings what we need most.

Best case scenario for me is we get two of those desirable forwards this draft. Lots of ways to do it and I think we are at the stage of the rebuild where we should get more aggressive.

habbernack

Their “D” zone concept sucks. Can’t blame evrything on the “D” men. For that matter their whole defensive concept sucks. 5×5 in their own zone , they go into penalty kill mode. No pressure applied at all. They give time and space