Habs Defence, Projecting Ahead | Feature

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Habs Feature | NHL, Montreal Canadiens, Prospects, Kaiden Guhle, Jordan Harris, Justin Barron, Arber Xhekaj, Mike Matheson, Logan Mailloux, David Savard, Joel Edmundson

Justin Barron, Montreal Canadiens (Photo by Martin Chevalier, Journal de Montreal)

ROCKET SPORTS MEDIA | MONTREAL, QC. — On February 10, the Montreal Canadiens signed defenseman Jordan Harris to a two-year, $2.8 million contract.

Drafted in the third round (71st overall) by Montreal at the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, Harris has been reliable and relatively constant since the beginning of the year. Prior to his lower-body injury, the 22-year-old had recorded three goals and 12 assists in 60 games and was averaging 18:34 ice time per game.

In a rebuilding team dealing with multiple injuries, Harris managed to play well despite his young age. Harris’ growth and quality of play is one of the positive storylines from this season.

However, Harris is not the only young defenseman deserving praise for his play this year. Before getting injured, both Arber Xhekaj and Kaiden Guhle showed they both have the potential to be part of the Canadiens’ defense complement for years to come. Guhle will likely be earning top minutes on the backend.

What’s more, the Habs also have good defense prospects in their system.

The Canadien’s future at the blueline is bright and might get brighter after the 2023 NHL Entry Draft.

So what could the Canadiens defensive trios look like in 2024-’25?

The Veterans

Every team needs veterans. Good veterans can bring leadership, experience, and potentially, the ability to mentor younger players.

So far this year, David Savard has played this veteran role very well. Savard leads by example on and off the ice. He also plays the right way, leading the team with 163 blocked shots.

While Joel Edmundson has not played particularly well when healthy, he is another leader on the team and is well-liked in the dressing room. Edmundson leads the team in blocked shots per 60 minutes and, despite missing 21 games, is fourth in hits with 91.

However, both Savard and Edmundson will probably not be with the team beyond 2023-2024. Edmundson was part of trade interest this year and will most likely be traded this summer or next season.

Savard is signed until 2024-2025, but is the kind of defenseman who can gather interest from another team. I don’t expect him to stay with the Habs until the end of his contract.

This leaves Chris Wideman and Michael Matheson. Out of the two, Matheson is the only one I see staying with the Habs in the next couple of years. He is signed until 2025-26 and might be one of the only veterans left on the team after next year’s trade deadline.

In 2024-25, I believe Matheson will be the Habs’ fourth or fifth defenseman, a role that suits his talent level and that allows him to have an impact on the team.

The Rookies

This season, fans got the chance to see four rookies play NHL games: Harris, Arber Xhekaj, Justin Barron, and Kaiden Guhle.

All of them have demonstrated that they have the talent to become good NHL defensemen.

Harris is a good middle-pairing defenseman. He skates extremely well, is reliable, helps the transition to offense with quality passes, and can join the rush to contribute to the scoresheet.

Xhekaj is physically imposing, has a heavy shot, and plays with an edge. Unfortunately, he is out for the remainder of the season after an upper-body injury he suffered during a fight with Edmonton Oilers’ defenseman Vincent Desharnais.

Xhekaj’s willingness to defend teammates and his hard hits have made him a fan favorite. In the future, I see him playing in the bottom pair on a competitive Habs team.

Barron is a very intriguing prospect. After an underwhelming training camp, he was sent down to the AHL, where he took time to find his footing. But Barron worked hard to improve his game, and he’s been showing it since his recall.

Barron now has three goals and 13 points in 27 games with the Canadiens and is showing he has some offensive upside. If he continues to develop, he will be a regular player in the lineup.

Last but not least, Guhle is probably the rookie defenseman with the brightest future. He plays like a veteran and already looks like a steady top-pair player. In an interview with Sportsnet, Rob Ramage, the Canadien’s Director of player development, even compared him to Ryan McDonagh.

Guhle already has 18 points in 44 games played. In a couple of years, he will surely play in the top-pairing.

The Prospects

Two Canadiens defensemen prospects have been making headlines throughout the year. I am talking of course of Lane Hutson and Logan Mailloux.

Hutson was the Canadiens’ 62nd draft pick last year. Measuring barely 5-foot-9 and 148 pounds at the time of the draft, many scouts believed his small stature would hinder his chances of playing in the NHL.

Since then, Hutson grew to 5-foot-10′ and added 10 pounds of muscle.

In his rookie season, he notched 12 goals and 43 points in 33 games, which leads the NCAA in points among all defensemen.

His production is also the most productive season in both points and points per game for a NCAA freshman defenseman since 1990-91.

Hutson has a high hockey IQ and elite stick handling and vision. This was shown multiple times this season, including in a game where he had four assists.

His high-end skills make him a promising prospect and I see him being a top-four D-man.

On his end, Mailloux was a controversial first-round pick by the Canadiens in 2021. Since then, Mailloux took part in therapy sessions and a consent program.

On the ice, Mailloux has demonstrated good things this season. With 24 goals in 56 games, he leads the OHL in goals for defensemen.

The 6-foot-3 and 212 pounds youngster has a hard shot and the ability to become a great offensive defenseman. He even managed to score a natural hat trick this season with the London Knights, one of his goals being a Michigan.

In 2024-2025, he should be one of Habs’ top pairings.

Newest Hab

Last week, the Canadiens officially added Jayden Struble to the organization by signing him to a two-year entry level contract.

A second round pick (46th overall) in 2019, Jayden is a mobile, strong, physical and responsible d-man.

Struble is not offensive minded and I don’t expect him to contribute a lot to the offense at the NHL Level. However, he remains an interesting prospect.

He will have to compete for a roster spot in the big club, since he is one of many left shot defensemen in the organization. Considering this, he will mostly likely play with the Laval Rocket next year.

Future Outlook

After this assessment, I believe the Habs will have a very good top-six rotation in the future.

My evaluation does not take into account any free agent signing or trades involving young defensemen that could happen. Therefore, the Habs defense group could be even better than anticipated.

With that in mind, I believe the Habs top six could look like this in 2024-2025.

Kaiden Guhle – Lane Hutson

Mike Matheson –  Logan Mailloux

Arber Xhekaj / Jordan Harris – Justin Barron

This lineup is deep, talented, and diverse. With changes to the forward group and the development of forward rookies and prospects, I think this group of defensemen will allow the Canadiens to be a competitive team in 2024-’25.

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2 COMMENTS

    • Hello Saskie. I know about Kovacevic of course. I did not mention him (nor Adam Engstrom) to keep the article shorter. Thank you for the comment!

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