Marc Bergevin says that you can’t have too many defencemen. The 2019-20 Montreal Canadiens may come close to testing that theory. Fourteen defencemen on NHL contracts are taking part in NHL camp, plus Gustav Olofsson who is injured indefinitely.
If we assume that spots are secured for Shea Weber, Jeff Petry, Ben Chiarot, and Victor Mete, that leaves 10 players fighting for essentially three spots.
Like we did with the fourth line candidates on Thursday, let’s take a look at the rest of the players.
The Long Shots
The first pairing that stuck out on Friday morning was the pairing of Cale Fleury and David Sklenička. The two players spent all of last year in the American Hockey League last year with the Laval Rocket and have varying potential. Sklenička is a player who will have to show a lot more to be a regular in the NHL and is likely years away at best.
Fleury showed a lot in his first season and was one of the best players in the team’s rookie camp. This assignment shows he may have work to do before making he team. He simply has too many people to pass, at least for now.
As mentioned Gustav Olofsson is out indefinitely. It’s hard to imagine him earning a spot, but the former Minnesota Wild player needs to get on the ice first.
The New Kids on the Block
Otto Leskinen and Josh Brook both got very interesting positions in Friday’s practice. Leskinen, making his first appearance at an NHL camp was slotted on the left of Mike Reilly (more on him later) and Brook got perhaps the best spot of the people on this list: on the right of Brett Kulak.
Leskinen impressed me last year at development camp, and was even better this year at both pre-season camps. It will be interesting to see how he does against NHL competition, but I think some AHL time is necessary before he gets to the NHL.
I would have said the same thing for Brook: more AHL time is necessary after he played seven games there a year ago but playing next to Kulak shows that the team wants to take a close look at him. His placing may have been the surprise of the first day.
Xavier Ouellet and Karl Alzner were without a doubt two of the leaders of the Laval Rocket last season and it goes beyond Ouellet getting the team’s captaincy after Byron Froese was traded.
Ouellet also helped Laval’s power play and showed enough to earn a long look in training camp this year. A year ago, he cleared waivers. He would have to do so again this year if he goes down. His ability offensively and his experience makes him a dark horse for one of the remaining spots.
A lot has been said about Alzner. He’ll be given a chance to make the team and live up to his contract, but with the depth in the organization I’m not sure he will be able to be one of the team’s top six defencemen. When you consider the noticeable savings on the cap the team gets by sending him to Laval, he probably won’t be an option for the seventh spot.
The Front Runners
Entering training camp, the front runners would have to be the players who finished last year in the NHL, and what Claude Julien had on Friday at practice did nothing to change that.
The most interesting revelation was that Mikey Reilly asked to play on the right side. He likely saw the opening for him there, and he’ll get some time there and will likely get a long look. If nothing else, his versatility makes him an option to be one of the extra defencemen even if he doesn’t earn a starting spot.
Brett Kulak did nothing to lose his spot on the team’s second pairing next to Jeff Petry, and his play was very solid. I really want to lock him into a spot on the left of the third pairing but I will leave the door open given the level of competition in camp. His position is what made Josh Brook’s placing next to him so notable. It’s Kulak’s spot to lose.
Noah Juulsen is one of the forgotten players in the shuffle. Injuries and the emergence of other young defencemen have pushed Juulsen farther and farther down in the pecking order. Fully healthy, he’ll have every opportunity to earn his spot back but the fact that he doesn’t need waivers means, like the young forwards, he needs to stand out. Playing next to Ouellet is an opportunity for both of them to show why they deserve to be in the NHL.
Christian Folin finished last year next to Jordie Benn on the team’s third pairing, passing Reilly after being acquired from the Philadelphia Flyers. He’s also a player with experience who is versatile and can be an extra possibility. He skated with Alzner, and the two of them should get plenty of ice time in the pre-season. Like Kulak, it may be his spot to lose.
The pairings are fluid, and the lack of a clear third pairing makes it even more interesting. How the pairings evolve — along with the play of Ben Chiarot next to Jeff Petry — may dictate the fate of the majority of these players.
Regardless, like on the forward side, players will have to earn every bit of ice time they get.