Canadiens’ Rookie Defensemen Take Over

When the Montreal Canadiens’ season began, nearly anyone asked would have said the team is at the start of a long rebuild and that the blue line would need a massive overhaul before it could contend. With the team starting the season with four rookie defensemen, who could blame them for thinking that? Since then, however, the blue line has proven to be further along than previously expected.

The play of inexperienced defenders such as Arber Xhekaj, Kaiden Guhle, and Jonathan Kovacevic has been at a level normally seen in veteran players. While no one has proven themselves to be a true top defenseman, they have exceeded expectations and there are some that have even been able to take on a top-four role already.

Current Canadiens Play 

Shockingly, as of Dec. 4, the Canadiens are in the race for the final playoff position, sitting three points behind the Florida Panthers, who hold the second wildcard position with 28 points. Their performance over the next quarter of the season will determine whether this team remains in a playoff race or not. However, the strength of the schedule will only get more difficult as they will embark on the traditional Christmas road trip. Not to mention the majority of the games played in December will be on the road, this could make or break the team’s hopes to compete and even cause them to fall into a lottery pick position. 

Related: Montreal Canadiens’ GM Comments Reveal Rebuild Process

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There is a segment of the fanbase that will be upset that the Habs have been as competitive as they have been, playing above .500, and sporting a .521 points percentage in their first 24 games. While this means they are unlikely to be in the Conor Bedard sweepstakes, it does mean that the current crop of young players has been able to play meaningful hockey and develop skills in key situations. Playing tight games, defending leads, trying to tie things up late, shutting down top opposition, among others. With management under general manager (GM) Kent Hughes focused on player development, this turn of events does favor that strategy. 

Canadiens Top Defensive Surprise – Kaiden Guhle 

The Canadiens’ top pick of the 2020 Draft, Kaiden Guhle was selected 16th overall. At 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds, he already boasts NHL size. Offensively he is still very raw, while he is heavily relied upon defensively, he is still on pace for a 30-point season over 82 games. There have been flashes of more offense yet to be tapped, especially in transitional play. That isn’t to say he doesn’t have areas to improve upon as he is still a rookie. He is a big, raw two-way defender whose skating, and mobility are a strength. 

This play against Connor McDavid is evidence of that mobility. Despite the speed of McDavid’s attack, Guhle kept pace, and more impressively, maintained gap control and even forced him to the outside, leading to a hit taking the Edmonton Oilers’ captain out of the play. It’s rare to see McDavid being challenged, then getting angled out of a play by a defender, and especially rare to see a rookie with that ability. 

Canadiens Wi-Fi  

Arber Xhekaj, aka “Wi-Fi” as his teammates have dubbed him, is another rookie defender earning himself a permanent role on the Canadiens’ blue line. When this 6-foot-4 238-pound behemoth defender was signed as an undrafted unrestricted free agent (UFA), he was seen as a long-term project. One year later, he leads the league in rookie defensemen scoring and has already proven to be a bottom-pair NHL defender with the possibility of more, as he boasts a 51.46 Corsi For percentage.  

With his seven points in 22 games (on pace for 26 points over an 82-game season), he has also shown an ability to contribute offensively, and he has room to expand his role. Head coach Martin St. Louis seems to think so as well as he added Xhekaj to the power play, leading to him scoring a goal with his accurate wrist shot. Also, St. Louis was using him and Juraj Slafkovsky to kill a five-on-three penalty. 

Arber Xhekaj Montreal Canadiens
Arber Xhekaj, Montreal Canadiens (Photo by Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images)

During the game versus the Oilers, Joel Edmundson was ejected for a crosscheck. With him out of the game, more ice time was shared by the young defenders, and they showed that they are capable of replacing him in the short term. His experience and leadership are not easily replaced, but the play of the rookies proves that he is expendable. Marc Dumont makes a compelling case for the Ottawa Senators being in the market for some added veteran help. He also suggests they are seriously scouting the Canadiens.

With the Canadiens already playing meaningful hockey going into the Christmas season, the rebuild is slightly ahead of expectations. Meanwhile, they are also adding value to their veterans, meaning it may be the time to make a deal and help the rebuild along. Not that there needs to be a trade made immediately, but if Hughes is provided the right offer for a veteran defenseman, he could be comfortable knowing that the blue line is in good hands.

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