Aside from the obvious, there’s plenty else to worry about with regard to the latest update surrounding the injury to Montreal Canadiens defenseman Noah Juulsen.
Juulsen Out Indefinitely
Of course, with the update that Juulsen is out with a vision-related injury, first thoughts should be with the 21-year-old defenseman. While the official party line is that Juulsen is expected to make a full recovery, speculation had run rampant that it was career-threatening. Even with the update, little has unfortunately changed in that regard.
Since it took almost two months to get that much out of the Canadiens since Juulsen last appeared in game action, it didn’t completely quell concerns. That’s especially true since, in the official medical update, they added how, “out of respect to the player and the healing process, we will have no further comment at this time.”
That reads more like an obituary unfortunately, which puts things in perspective. Firstly, it could always be worse for Juulsen, who, thankfully, wasn’t reportedly concussed in the Nov. 19 game against the Washington Capitals, in which he was struck in the face by the puck on two separate occasions. That’s the positive take.
The realistic take is Juulsen, despite his three games played in the American Hockey League this season, had been establishing himself as a regular bottom-four, right-handed defenseman for the Canadiens. Now, chances are he will be out a long while at the very least.
Kulak and Benn Pick Up the Slack
The injury has put extra stress on the Canadiens’ blue line, which is far from deep. Of course, Juulsen’s injury did indirectly afford the opportunity to jump from the AHL to the Canadiens to Brett Kulak, who’s been running with it. Unfortunately, Kulak is a left-handed shot, so he wouldn’t really be able to replace Juulsen in the lineup.
In the immediate future, from the vantage point of the typical fan, it should put on hold any plans to trade Jordie Benn ahead of the trade deadline. It’s not the worst news, as Benn has rekindled some of the mojo he displayed upon first being acquired, when, deployed as a depth defenseman as he should be, he performed more than adequately.
With the Canadiens in a playoff spot, Benn is a decent theoretical substitute for Juulsen on the right side on the third pairing. He’s far from a permanent solution, seeing as he’s a decade older than Juulsen and on the cusp of unrestricted free agency (hence the argument general manager Marc Bergevin should trade him).
Beyond Benn (who shoots left, but can play on the right) though, there’s not exactly any immediate help in terms of right-handed shots. It’s ironic, because, even with the injury to Juulsen, the right is deeper than the left from a larger organizational perspective.
Bergevin’s Job Gets Harder
The next on the depth chart would be Cale Fleury, a third-round pick from 2017 who’s in his first professional season with the Laval Rocket and still adjusting. He’s impressed, but it would be a stretch to assume he could translate his modest success in the AHL so far to the NHL right away.
Then, in terms of potential, it would be Josh Brook, who’s coming off an appearance for Canada in the World Juniors as a 19-year-old and still playing in the Western Hockey League. Brett Lernout is another possibility, but, despite having all the tools, he hasn’t put them together on a consistent-enough basis in the AHL and is much less likely to in the NHL. The trick is refusing to sacrifice the development of these guys just to fill a position Juulsen had been almost to perfection.
Seeing as the Canadiens have vaulted into a playoff position over the last few months, clearly replacing Juulsen isn’t impossible in the short term. It further goes to show, as tragic as Juulsen’s injury is, there is work to be done, at which, to the Canadiens’ credit, they’ve been largely successful.
Bergevin’s job has gotten harder, though. (More of) an organizational hole on defense has effectively presented itself, and, because Bergevin needs Benn in the thick of a playoff race, he has one less trade chip with which to address it.
Logic dictates the Habs will find a way to pull through, as many outside-the-box options to replace a third-pairing defenseman conceivably exist. The best solution is also the most obvious one: that Juulsen eventually pulls through himself. The loss of a 21-year-old former first-round pick as an asset is never easy to overcome. Coming back from a vision-related injury must be considerably tougher. Here’s to a lengthy career ahead of Juulsen but, first things first: the full recovery that is expected and for which everyone is clearly hoping.