On March 16, 2022, the Canadiens traded Ben Chiarot to the Florida Panthers for a first-round pick, a fourth-round selection, and prospect Ty Smilanic. This deal was not only met with near universal acclaim from the Habs faithful, but it triggered a bull market for defencemen.
As we approach the 2023 NHL Trade Deadline, a major topic of discussion in Montreal has been whether general manager Kent Hughes would be able to turn the trick again, this time with Joel Edmundson. Much of this conversation has centred on whether Hughes can or can’t. However, recent developments may prompt a shifting of the narrative: the better question now might be whether Hughes should or shouldn’t.
A mere two days prior to the Chiarot trade, the Colorado Avalanche acquired pending UFA defenceman Josh Manson for a mere second-rounder and a prospect (Drew Helleson). Five days after Chiarot was dealt, Hughes wound up with a bigger haul than that for the much less heralded Brett Kulak. A year on, the market for defencemen — of both offensive and defensive varieties — hadn’t cooled at all. Jakob Chychrun, the crown jewel of the trade class, commands a price that starts at two first-rounders plus a prospect. The Columbus Blue Jackets are rumoured to be demanding three picks (a first-, third-, and fourth-rounder) for Vladislav Gavrikov, likely using David Savard’s price in 2021 (a first and a third) as a benchmark. Chicago Blackhawks blue-liner Jake McCabe is expected to fetch a first-rounder at minimum, while the going rate for Luke Schenn starts at a second- or a third-round selection.
All of that may have changed when the Boston Bruins acquired Dmitry Orlov on February 23, 2023. After being linked with Gavrikov at a rumoured price of at least a first- and a third-rounder, Boston general manager Don Sweeney turned around and grabbed the much better Orlov, plus a servicable bottom-six presence in Garnet Hathaway, for a more reasonable price of a first, second, third, and Craig Smith.
In doing so, Sweeney has arguably poured cold water over the defenceman market — especially the one for defensive types. If Orlov, a multi-dimensional 0.5 points-per-game player averaging 22:43 of ice time per game, is roughly equivalent to two or three draft selections, then it becomes very difficult to justify the Blue Jackets’ similar asking price for Gavrikov, a 0.2 points-per-game player with minimal offensive upside averaging 22:20.
For the Canadiens, any change to the market for Gavrikov risks a considerable knock-on effect for Edmundson, whose value has largely been pegged to that of the Columbus defender owing to the similarities in playstyle between the two players. Furthermore, Edmundson, beset by continuous injury issues over the last two years, has been trending downward even before the Orlov deal.
Unlike Gavrikov, who is generally perceived to the best out of a bad lot in Columbus, Edmundson has not managed to stand above his less illustrious peers in Montreal. He holds a team-worst -21 rating, and sits only fifth out of 10 blue-liners in five-on-five on-ice expected goals percentage. Given this, unless Hughes receives an offer that bucks the trend, it may be prudent for the Canadiens’ general manager to hold onto Edmundson for another year. Waiting an extra season for Edmundson to adjust, to adapt, and to get healthier could do wonders for both Edmundson’s on-ice performance and his price.
Of course, holding onto the Brandon, Manitoba native is not without its risks. Presently, much of Edmundson’s market value relies on a belief that the player can regain the outstanding form that he showed two years ago, when he showcased dogged physicality, excellent positioning, and surprisingly strong possession metrics, in forming one of the league’s most unsung defensive duos with Jeff Petry. With each passing year, Edmundson’s career season fades further and further into the rear-view mirror, and out of the memories of NHL general managers. This season’s deadline — depressed market or not — may yet still represent the high-water point of Edmundson’s value league-wide, and a third consecutive poor season would all but end the conversation around the potential 2024 UFA.
That said, Edmundson is still on the younger side of 30, and his particular brand of on-ice physicality centres more on using his body to gain positioning and leverage, rather than the more taxing shot-blocking-centric approach of a David Savard or the big collision-oriented strategy of Arber Xhekaj.
There is ample precedent for a potential Edmundson rebound if placed in the right situation. The Edmundson that Marc Bergevin picked up was the epitome of a reclamation project, and it was the Canadiens’ system under Claude Julien (and inherited by Dominique Ducharme) that brought out the best in the defenceman. While head coach Martin St-Louis has no intention of replicating that specific structure, it’s hardly farfetched to think that the Canadiens can come up with something more amenable for the veteran. After all, the local team environment, with St-Louis and Director of Hockey Development Adam Nicholas, has never been better for nurturing Edmundson’s revival.