The Montreal Canadiens didn’t bring defenseman Chris Wideman back from the Kontinental Hockey League just to bury him in the American Hockey League. That much is obvious based solely on the fact his one-year, $750,000 deal is a one-way contract.
Meanwhile, even if Sami Niku signed a two-way, $750,000 deal, the Canadiens similarly didn’t bring him aboard simply for giggles. He’s no longer exempt from waivers, meaning, if he gets cut from training camp, the recent Winnipeg Jet, who got his previous contract terminated, can just as easily play somewhere else altogether next season.
Niku vs. Wideman
So, the Canadiens have a decision to make. It’s not necessarily a huge decision on which the outcome of the 2021-22 season hinges, but it is a difficult one. Assuming they stick with seven defensemen, do they go with the unproven Niku who may have higher upside or do they go with the veteran Wideman, who, despite having been an NHL cast-off at one point, led all KHL defensemen in scoring last season (nine goals, 41 points in 59 games)? Of course, there are other options, but, realistically, it comes down to those two, as the Canadiens have made some degree of commitment to them that they haven’t to others, in the form of their respective deals.
In some ways, it’s like choosing between six eggs over easy or half a dozen scrambled for dinner. Sure, they say it’s an all-the-time food, but who really eats eggs at any point other than for breakfast, unless it’s the only thing you’ve got left in the fridge? And that’s largely the point.
The top six spots on defense are theoretically set with Shea Weber projected to be out for the season: Jeff Petry and Joel Edmundson on the first pair, Ben Chiarot and David Savard on the second and Brett Kulak and Alexander Romanov on the third. Either Wideman or Niku are slated (at least at this point) to get the odd game and only play regularly in the event of injury. In other words, you’re only going to play them under specific circumstances.
Who Plays with Romanov?
There’s admittedly always a chance one of them beats Kulak out for a spot beside Romanov, with the latter being a natural leftie. Both Niku and Wideman are right-handed shots, while Kulak shoots left like Romanov. However, that’s realistically about as much of a factor as the weather outside the day a decision needs to be made. Romanov played the right side often last season and he can do so again. He’s also gone on record as saying he can play both. Yes, he’s a leftie and it may be less than ideal, but it is what it is at this juncture.
Considering Kulak has been with the Canadiens for three seasons, has experience playing with Romanov and is just a few seasons removed from effectively playing top-four minutes beside Petry, don’t kid yourself. It’s Kulak’s spot to lose. He’s got the inside track and there’s not much more if anything at all either Niku or Wideman can offer that Kulak can’t.
Related Link: Canadiens’ Wideman Adds Scoring Depth to Blue Line
Of course, Kulak’s set to hit unrestricted free agency next summer. So, the Canadiens do have to start thinking about the future. That might mean giving prospect Mattias Norlinder (or Kaiden Guhle) a go when the time comes or even re-signing Kulak or Wideman, because, as unproven as Niku is, ultimately Wideman is only on a one-year deal himself before he becomes a UFA again.
Wideman vs. Radulov
If you thought Alexander Radulov had a lot to prove when he first came back from the KHL to play for the Habs back in 2016-17, at least he had been a proven top-six forward when he left the NHL initially. Wideman played less than 14 minutes per game during his most productive season in the NHL in 2016-17 when he scored 17 points for the Ottawa Senators.
For some perspective, Victor Mete averaged 14:09 with the Habs last season. So, if Radulov had to start back at zero when he returned to North America, Wideman’s into negative digits. Maybe his time in the KHL unlocked some previously untapped potential, but chances are good, with ex-Hab Darren Dietz tallying a third-ranked 37 points league-wide last season, the KHL is just better-suited to his skillset.
At 31, Wideman is arguably out of his prime, unless he drinks from the same fountain of youth as Petry. On the other hand, Niku is just 25. He’s going to be a restricted free agent next summer and the Canadiens simply have more to gain nurturing him instead of Wideman, especially considering how highly touted of a prospect the former was once upon a time in the Jets system, as an ex-Eddie Shore Award winner in the AHL. However, it’s worth mentioning Wideman won it with the Binghamton Senators three years earlier.
The Case to Waive Niku
It could very well be that Niku doesn’t pan out and the Jets did all they could to get him to develop into a dependable defenseman. However, in terms of asset management, the best play for the Habs is to give Niku as much playing time as possible. It’s at least possible he outplays Kulak and wins a spot beside Romanov, but, likelier than not, that means trying to sneak him through waivers to play him in the AHL. If he does get claimed, so be it… the Canadiens are in the exact same spot they were at this point last week, without anyone so much as anticipating Niku being a Hab.
Theoretically, the Canadiens can go with eight defensemen out of training camp. It’s hardly an unorthodox strategy. However, the Canadiens went with seven defensemen out of training camp last season, and it was like pulling teeth for Mete just to get dressed for a game.
While the Canadiens did lose Mete to the Ottawa Senators for nothing and there’s a real risk of the same thing happening to Niku, there are simply more worthwhile forwards to use on that last roster spot. True, Niku’s outgrown the AHL at this juncture and he may need regular NHL playing time to grow as a player. It’s just not coming with the Habs barring an injury. The signing was a good move on the part of general manager Marc Bergevin. Best to file it under the nothing ventured, nothing gained category, though. He added depth on defense without giving up anything and, if he just as soon loses it, no harm, no foul.
The same is undeniably true with respect to Wideman. However, the Canadiens need someone to fill the role of seventh defenseman. It may as well be him. NHL fans should know at this juncture what they would be getting in Wideman, whereas Niku remains a bit of a question mark. Hopefully everyone finds out sooner rather than later what they’ve got in him too. Chances are good it won’t be with the Canadiens, though… at least not this coming 2021-22 season.
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.