The Montreal Canadiens are in a difficult position. They have a number of talented young players on their roster, in addition to a number of outstanding veterans as well. The issue is that while they have plenty of good pieces, they’re missing a few truly elite stars to help get them over that Stanley Cup-sized hump. While they’ve taken steps in recent drafts to stockpile prospects in those weaker areas, it’s going to be a few years before they’re ready to make a full-time leap to NHL duty.
In the meantime, they can continue working on their rebuild or retooling or whatever it is that you want to call it. Part of that needs to involve moving out some of the older pieces on the roster and bringing in younger options to play. If the team isn’t going to be a full-on contender, the least they can do is provide ice time for developing players to help mould them into key pieces later on down the road.
Taking it a step beyond that, if the Canadiens want to foster a winning environment for their prospects and young free-agent signees, stocking the cupboard in the AHL and creating a contender for the Calder Cup is a good starting point.
Enter 23-year-old Jordan Subban, who is set to hit the free-agent market this off-season after the Los Angeles Kings declined to qualify him. The former Vancouver draft pick became a very good player in the AHL over the course of his entry-level contract, and despite going to free agency he has a highly appealing skill set that should catch the eye of the Canadiens.
He had a down year in the AHL last year, playing just 52 games between Utica and Ontario and notching four goals and nine assists with 66 penalty minutes. Even with those lowered offensive totals, Subban still outproduced all but two defenders from the Laval Rocket roster last year while missing 20 games of action.
In his first two years with Utica, Subban posted 11- and 16-goal seasons in addition to having 25 and 20 assists, respectively. Those numbers placed him in the top five on the team in scoring, which isn’t an easy feat, especially as a defenceman, and as a rookie in that first year as well. Compared to his defensive teammates in those two seasons, Subban stood out as one of the better point-producers on the blue line, while also handling heavy minutes.
The two graphs above chart how many primary points (goals or primary assists) a player had versus how much (estimated) time on ice. So the further to the right a player is, the more time he spends on the ice per game, while the further up, the more primary points they produce per 60 minutes.
In both of his first two seasons, Subban was a major leader in ice time per game, while also being one of their most effective offensive producers overall. While he was slightly behind in P1/60 in his rookie year, it is worth noting how many more total minutes he played compared to his teammates.
There’s definite talent there, and at just 23 years of age he’s proven to be a valuable commodity in the AHL, and at the very least he can be a great addition at that level.
So what does this all mean for the Montreal Canadiens?
Currently it means that signing Subban would add another body to the right-side defensive depth that features two standouts in Jeff Petry and Shea Weber at the top and the developing Noah Juulsen, who broke into the NHL last year, making his case for a spot.
Factor in the presence of Jordie Benn and Brett Lernout and it complicates things a bit further, unless the Habs decide to use Subban as an in-between type player. Similar to Mark Barberio a few years ago, the Canadiens should utilize Subban as their AHL standout who can be brought into the NHL lineup as needed.
Presently the only right-handed defenceman tentatively penciled in for the Laval Rocket is the aforementioned Lernout. Adding Subban gives them a dynamic puck-mover who can score, and take some pressure off Matt Taormina, who was their primary driver last year.
With an influx of talented forwards coming in this year from previous drafts, loading up the AHL club to make a deep run at the Calder Cup should be an easy choice for the Canadiens as an organization. It gives their prospects valuable experience before moving up, and allows the organization to take stock of their development during key situations.
For the NHL club, signing Subban is an almost zero-risk move, with a massive upside to it. He’s a young, dynamic defender who can score goals, and will likely cost the league minimum ($650,000 for 2018-19) to sign. If the Habs are indeed selling off assets and headed toward an on-the-fly rebuild, shipping out players like Benn or David Schlemko to open a roster spot for Subban is smart business.
If the team is going to lose games while stockpiling picks and prospects, utilizing younger players to see where they are at in development instead of older veterans who are a known quantity is the smart long-term play. We know exactly what players like Benn and Schlemko are, so what harm is there in giving a 23-year-old with an offensive pedigree and good AHL numbers a shot in the NHL? If he isn’t working out, chances are they can sneak him through waivers and he can play a major role for the AHL club. It’s a situation where there is no apparent downside for any group involved.