Canadiens’ Future Core on Defence Is Taking Shape

Not long ago, I wrote about the crucial player development the Montreal Canadiens have been getting in 2022-23 at every level of the organization and nowhere is that trend more evident than with the team’s young defence corps, which features five rookies who have played a significant role this season.

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Last week, Jordan Harris inked a new two-year contract, a signing that further solidifies the future core of the Habs’ defensive group and a deal that will give general manager Kent Hughes plenty of options going forward.

Progressing Under the Radar

While fellow rookies Kaiden Guhle and Arber Xhekaj have garnered much of the spotlight for their more obvious impact this year, Harris has excelled in a third pairing and penalty kill role alongside waiver pick-up Jonathan Kovacevic. The 22-year-old, a third-round draft pick in 2018, has progressed quietly and considerably since turning pro with the Habs towards the end of last season. He’s an intelligent, mobile defenceman with impressive underlying numbers who still has lots of room to grow. His versatility on the ice has proven to be very valuable for head coach Martin St. Louis and now his new contract not only provides cost certainty, but it will give his general manager the needed flexibility to continue filling holes on his roster. It also helps that Harris is an all-around good guy.

Jordan Harris Montreal Canadiens
Jordan Harris, Montreal Canadiens (Photo by David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

While Hughes waits to see what Harris’ ceiling will be within the team’s depth chart, he can look for the much-coveted top-pairing defender. The power play quarterback who is capable of playing big minutes with Guhle as his partner and who will complete his defensive brigade while leading the Canadiens into an eventual contending window. Given that veterans Joel Edmundson and David Savard are likely on the move before their current deals expire, that leaves Mike Matheson as the lone veteran on the blue line of the future with a cap hit of $4.875 million while the five rookies will be playing on entry-level contracts or bridge deals, assuming that’s what Xhekaj gets beginning in 2024-25, for at least the next two seasons after this one. That’s how a championship squad gets built. Whether through free agency or trade, Hughes has the luxury to add a big name down the road he sees as a good fit.

More Reinforcements Coming

If the young defencemen with the Habs are developing better than anticipated this season, it’s largely because of the veteran support provided by Edmundson, Savard, and Matheson. All three have been leading by example and playing the right way with the right attitude. They take a lot of pride in being the big brothers in the dressing room. Matheson in particular has proven to be a great addition given his ability to play the up-tempo, offence-first style that St. Louis preaches. He’s definitely a keeper going forward.

Related: 2024-25 Canadiens Still Won’t Be a Contending Team

Perhaps the best news about Montreal’s flourishing defence corps is that there are even more prospects on their way. Lane Hutson, who is enjoying a tremendous NCAA freshman campaign with Boston University, and Logan Mailloux will be a Canadiens uniform before long. Meanwhile, in the American Hockey League (AHL), players like William Trudeau and the newly-acquired Nicolas Beaudin have taken big strides with the Laval Rocket. Not to mention that Justin Barron has already graduated into the NHL following a stint in Laval to start the year.

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This improved depth on the blue line will allow Hughes to strengthen other positions of weakness or even upgrade on defence. In other words, expect more Kirby Dach-like trades throughout the rebuild because the reality is there eventually won’t be enough room for everyone on the Habs’ blue line and moves will need to be made. It’s a good problem to have for a franchise needing to add top-end talent at every level of the organization and the general manager has already proven that he’s up to the task.