When one looks at the Montreal Canadiens’ depth chart, there is one weakness that jumps out, and it’s nothing new to those who follow the team: the left side of the defence is presently weak, and the pipeline offers no hint of immediate relief.
Victor Mete formed a pair with Shea Weber this season, though with mixed success. Mete’s speed allowed him to backcheck effectively, and he had a good breakout game. Unfortunately, he doesn’t add much offensive production.
Karl Alzner was signed as a free agent two seasons ago to become a steady regular on the second pairing, but it quickly became apparent that he could not keep up with the quicker pace of the game, and found himself in the AHL this season, with seemingly no future on the Canadiens’ roster.
Brett Kulak was acquired at the start of the season for two AHL defencemen, Matt Taormina and Rinat Valiev. Kulak quickly emerged as the best defenceman in Laval, and he was catapulted all the way to top pairing with Shea Weber, briefly, before settling into a pairing with Jeff Petry.
Mikey Reilly added a bit of speed and puck-carrying in his time, looking great when he was on his game and struggling mightily when he wasn’t. He, along with Kulak, will need a new contract to play for the team next season. There is a lot of uncertainty about a future in Montreal for either, and Kulak is the most likely to return given his place in the top four to end the year.
Xavier Ouellet was brought on board as part of the tryouts for the left side at the start of the season, but, along with the departed David Schlemko, failed to hold on to a roster spot with the Canadiens, finding his way to Laval. Ouellet is another restricted free agent uncertain of being qualified.
David Sklenicka adapted slowly to the faster North American game, but by the end of the season in Laval became a steady physical force on the third pairing. Attaining the NHL seems a bit far-fetched at this point for him.
Gustav Olofsson really did not have an opportunity to prove himself this season because of season-ending shoulder surgery, but were he healthy, odds are he would have been given some time in Montreal as a third-pairing defenceman. But there will be lingering questions about his health, and what missing large periods of time on multiple occasions might do to his development.
The Canadiens also have three unsigned draft picks who play defence on the left side. First off there is Alexander Romanov, who bucked the trend this season playing in the KHL as a 19-year-old, which speaks to his talent level and potential. He is definitely one bright spot for the Canadiens, but at least one year away from coming over to North America.
Then there are two Junior defenders playing out in the WHL: Jarret Tyszka and Scott Walford. Both are due for contracts this summer, so we will know quickly whether the Canadiens see them as part of the solution going forward. Regardless, they wouldn’t be options for Montreal next season.
Jordan Harris, for completion’s sake, is still a few years away from thinking of turning pro.
The left side was weak this season, and there appears to be no immediate fix coming up through the system.
So how do the Canadiens fix the issue? By trading one of their promising defenceman on the right side.
The Canadiens have three such players of note: Noah Juulsen, Cale Fleury, and Josh Brook. All three are projecting as NHL players, maybe as soon as next season when they will fight for the same roster spot in the NHL. Juulsen has a lead over the two younger players because of existing NHL experience, but Fleury and/or Brook may have a higher ceiling overall. That’s where the argument becomes that Noah Juulsen may need to be sacrificed in a trade for an equally promising left-handed defenceman.
The Los Angeles Kings come to mind as a potential trading partner. They’re a team that is quite set on left side of the defence (and also stuck with an unmovable Dion Phaneuf contract), but they are thin on the right side. Could Juulsen be packaged with a late-round pick to pry promising youngster Kale Clague out of L.A.?
Perhaps the Canadiens would prefer to look for a more experienced defenceman who can immediately slot into a top-four role next season. In which case perhaps Brendan Smith from the New York Rangers or Cam Fowler from the Anaheim Ducks could fit the bill, and the price might be a package built around Juulsen.
Juulsen certainly has trade value as a steady young defenceman who can slot into an NHL roster right away. It would mean shipping out yet another first-round selection, but analyzing the depth built up by Marc Bergevin, perhaps Juulsen’s best use for the team will be as a trade chip. His value could be in addressing a major weakness for next season and going forward, rather than battling with two other prospects for one spot on the roster, and most likely biding his time in Laval should he lose out.