Ironically, the Montreal Canadiens defense has been a sore spot for the Habs, from a bird’s eye view of their unfortunate 2021-22 season. There’s more than meets the eye though, especially with prospect Jordan Harris signing on and making his debut this season in one fell swoop.
Harris coming on board is yet another sign things are trending in the right direction for a team that has allowed the second-most goals (3.77) and third-most shots (34.6) per game. Ditto for Harris’ two-way game and reported mobility.
To be fair, in ex-general manager Marc Bergevin’s defense, most of the below names, Harris included, are his draft picks. And he deserves credit for eventually straying from his focus on acquiring shutdown defensemen (like Shea Weber, Karl Alzner, Ben Chiarot and Joel Edmundson).
Unfortunately, the shift to more fleet-of-foot defensemen may have been “too late” for Bergevin personally, as one of many factors contributing to the argument Bergevin had to go. Not necessarily “too little,” though as the team’s projected defense corps of the future proves.
It turns out the defense seems to be in good hands once the old guard leaves the ship. Here’s how the team’s defense projects past 2026, once the likes of Joel Edmundson, Jeff Petry and David Savard have become unrestricted free agents:
Seventh Defenseman: Jayden Struble – Logan Mailloux
In the here and now, Corey Schueneman has shown enough to stay in the conversation of potential seventh defensemen for next season. Schueneman’s one of many call-ups during the team’s injury-riddled 2021-22 season who will possibly stick. However, Schueneman’s also going to be in his 30s by the time 2026 rolls around. It’s possible he stays in the organization, but it’s simply unlikely he doesn’t move on in some way, based on the circuitous route he’s taken to reach the NHL up to now.
So, the conversation shifts to the likes of Jayden Struble, coincidentally Harris’ Northeastern University teammate. He’s reportedly leaning towards a return to university for now, but he projects as an offensively capable defenseman, perhaps with more physicality. He could conceivably figure into the top six, but a lot obviously needs to be determined. The same can be said of Logan Mailloux as well.
In fact, maybe a lot more. There’s little disputing Mailloux’s had a strong campaign since returning to the Ontario Hockey League from suspension and, in a vacuum, the 2021 first-round pick has legitimate upside. However, there are obviously extenuating circumstances.
On skill alone, Mailloux would place higher in this projected lineup. However, he’s also not general manager Kent Hughes’ pick and it remains to be seen how he matures in the coming years. Montreal is a hard market in which to play under the best circumstances. Mailloux obviously comes with a lot of baggage and it’s a legitimate possibility he fails to thrive in this specific environment, in which case that baggage could turn to packed bags en route to another destination.
Third Pairing: Mattias Norlinder– Alexander Romanov
Alexander Romanov is perhaps a surprise to be played as low as the third pairing, including on the right side as primarily a left-handed shot. However, he’s been deployed on his off side in the past and it’s more so a reflection of the overall strength of the team’s defensive-prospect pipeline.
Romanov’s been a standout on the team’s defense this specific season, but, again, that’s kind of like being one of the best cars on a second-hand lot. Of course, Romanov’s still just 22 and there’s room to grow. His offensive game will have to if he’s to move up the ranks, but, looking at it another way, he could serve as the perfect complement to Mattias Norlinder.
The Swedish 2019 third-round pick made his debut with the Canadiens this past season, tallying a single assist in six games. It obviously wasn’t the most impressive start to a career, but, again, Norlinder was played during a transitional period for the team before being returned to his Swedish club. It’s what needed to happen regardless.
So, the suggestion Norlinder would only reach the third pairing is maybe recency bias at work here, with Norlinder realistically having a much higher ceiling. Again, a credit to the both the quantity and quality of prospects on defense the Canadiens have in the system. An embarrassment of riches, really.
Second Pairing: Jordan Harris – Justin Barron
Talk about recency bias. Maybe Norlinder gets played higher, maybe Harris lower, but the fact remains Harris projects as a legitimate top-six defenseman, while Justin Barron projects as a top-four.
So, this is a quasi-conservative estimate overall for the team’s second pairing of the future. Maybe Barron exceeds expectations and becomes a top-pairing defenseman, which would be ideal, because the right side is significantly weaker than the left (hence Romanov projected as being deployed on his off side).
It all speaks to the practicality of the trade to acquire Barron in the first place (for Artturi Lehkonen). If Barron pans out, the trade will end up being a stroke of genius, helping the Habs fill a huge hole in their lineup. If not, it nevertheless speaks of awareness on Hughes’ part that the right side is an issue.
First Pairing: Kaiden Guhle – Player X
In spite of the criticism Bergevin faced by focusing on shutdown defensemen, there is likely always going to be a need for someone who can play the role on a team. Even if it’s a one facet of a superior player’s all-around game. Kaiden Guhle at the very least projects as someone who can take on that singular aspect.
Ideally Guhle would become a force at both ends of the ice. However the fact that’s he’s getting compared positively to Weber (at least from a defensive standpoint) is a good start and sign there’s a future for him in the organization, potentially as high up as on the first pairing.
If he doesn’t though, he wouldn’t be able to carry a first pairing on his own. So, the Canadiens would have to bring in someone else, whether that’s via free agency or the draft, with several top-end options available this coming summer (like Simon Nemec). Of course, that would arguably only be a viable option if a center like the top-projected prospect, Shane Wright, is no longer available. Ultimately, the lack of depth at center remains a higher priority, following the departures of Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Phillip Danault last offseason. That’s obviously only half the story as the defense is in much better shape. Maybe not presently, but give it a few years.
After 10 years of writing hockey, Ryan decided it was as good a time as any to actually join The Hockey Writers for the 2014-15 season. Having appeared as a guest on such programs as CBC Radio One’s Daybreak, Ryan has also written for the Montreal Gazette and Bleacher Report and worked for the NHL itself and his hometown Montreal Canadiens. He currently writes about all things Habs for THW, with it being a career highlight for him to have covered the 2021 Stanley Cup Final as a credentialed member of the press.