When the Montreal Canadiens acquired Joel Edmundson (or more accurately, the negotiation rights to Edmundson before free agency begins), the initial reviews were lukewarm. Used largely as a fourth defenceman for the Carolina Hurricanes, Edmundson was appreciated for his size and physical presence, but was also panned for his subpar possession and goal-generation metrics and erratic play style.
As a Hurricanes fan who wants the team to win, it was frustrating to watch Edmundson this year. As someone who loves fun, chaotic hockey where nothing makes sense, he was one of my favorite players on the team to watch.— Corey Sznajder (@ShutdownLine) September 12, 2020
Some non-metrics on Edmundson: Very little patience with the puck - off the glass as soon as he sniffs pressure. Defensive skating is exploitable by skilled players. Wanders all over the ice in CAR instead of supporting teammates in predictable spots. https://t.co/eo9dufpoTp— Jack Han (@JhanHky) September 12, 2020
At the same time, Edmundson’s raw metrics, including from his tenure with the St. Louis Blues, are not that bad. The (possibly) newest Canadiens player generally hovers around the 50% mark for shot attempts, shots, goals, expected goals, and scoring chances.
The problem is that 50% is subpar when the rest of his team is taken into consideration. In St. Louis, Edmundson came in roughly 2-5% below team averages, but in his sole year in Carolina, that number cratered to as much as 8%. Yes, Edmundson can point to his defensive responsibilities, but we also have to take into consideration that his primary defensive partners in the past two seasons were Colton Parayko, Alex Pietrangelo, Brett Pesce, and Jaccob Slavin.
Based on this, Edmundson the Blue was a servicable mid-tier defenceman bolstered by elite playing partners. If Marc Bergevin paid a fifth-round draft pick for negotiation rights last year, there probably would be limited consternation. However, Bergevin has acquired Edmundson the Hurricane, a replacement-level defender despite playing with very good partners.
So, which Joel Edmundson do the Canadiens hope to sign?
The answer to that lies in figuring out what happened in the Tar Heel State. Either Edmundson has fallen off a cliff at age 27, or something just didn’t quite fit in Carolina.
Watching the tape, it seems that the Hurricanes use a variation of man-on-man coverage in their defensive zone, while the Blues prefer a more conventional zone defence.
In a man-on-man defence, all defenders follow their attacker around even after a pass is made. The team swirls and chases in the zone to not let the opposing team get any time and space with the puck. It’s a strategy that fits mobile blue-liners well.
While Edmundson skates at an NHL-average level, he is a lot more suited to guarding the front of the net by boxing out players. When he positions himself to the slot, he can shoulder-check to identify threats and cut passing lanes with his long stick. In the Hurricanes’ system, the 6’4” defenceman was often working very hard to bypass bodies as he tried to attach himself to his check. His on-ice awareness suffered.
The following video compares the Hurricanes’ system to the one of the Blues. You can immediately see Edmundson’s higher level of comfort in the second one.
A man-on-man system creates more pressure on the opposition, but can also lead to a dramatic breakdown if a defender decides to jump on a different attacker. Edmundson can correct mistakes with his range, but he lacks the superior explosiveness to quickly recover defensive-side positioning if an unexpected switch happens.
In the clip below, Brady Skjei follows an opposing puck-carrier down the wall of the defensive zone. As the puck is moved to another attacker, he decides to ram that attacker on the wall. It isn’t necessarily a bad choice — he was the defender closest to the new carrier — but it surprised Edmundson, who intended to follow that opponent. A drop-pass ended up beating the two Hurricanes defencemen.
The change in defensive system could partially explain why Edmundson didn’t manage the same on-ice impact with Carolina. It can take some time for a player to adapt to a change of a different team, and especially to a different strategy. The defenceman was no stranger to a man-on-man system, as Mike Yeo attempted it in St. Louis, but the coach got fired due to disastrous results soon after implementing it. So we can’t really say that Edmundson had a long and fruitful experience with the defensive tactic.
Similar to the Blues, the Canadiens employ a zone system. It could be a selling point for the organization in the negotiations.
There’s also one other facet of Edmundson’s game that, thanks to 10 games in the bubble, now needs to be looked at: his playoff performance. One perk of playing for the Blues and Hurricanes is that Edmundson already has 57 games of playoff experience despite entering only his sixth NHL season. In contrast to his average-at-best regular season performances, playoff Edmundson is a beast statistically.
Not only are his raw metrics up into the mid-50s, Edmundson now outperforms his teammates — by 2-5% during the Blues’ Stanley Cup run, and by 6-12% during the Hurricanes’ stint in Toronto. Naturally, there are some caveats to this. The playoffs are by nature a limited sample size, Edmundson’s teammates remained very-high-quality players (Pietrangelo in St. Louis and Skjei in Carolina), and Edmundson’s numbers this year are somewhat inflated because he only played one game against the Boston Bruins before being sidelined by injury. Nonetheless, if this Edmundson shows up in the Tricolore, Bergevin will be well within his rights to add another feather in his cap.
Edmundson is not an elite player, but he is a player with the tools to succeed in the right environment — and flounder in the wrong one. Should he sign, how Edmundson performs with the Canadiens will depend on the team’s ability to play to his strengths and offset his weaknesses. Given that this is something that the team is capable of controlling, a fifth-rounder is well worth the risk.