Be it because of Marc Bergevin’s role as a badgering shutdown defenceman in his playing career, or because of the years Claude Julien spent under the shadow of Zdeno Chara, it seems like the Montreal Canadiens have a type when it comes to their defencemen. They want them big, they want them defensively responsible, and they want them mobile — at least in recent years. That preference shows in their trades, in their drafting, and in their free-agent acquisitions.
It’s fine to have a type. Everyone does. Big, mobile blue-liners can absolutely fit in the Habs’ system and prosper along with the team, a happy, healthy marriage that we have seen happen over the years. But problems arise when the fit isn’t there, when those defencemen can’t push past their limitations.
Is Joel Edmundson a Ben Chiarot or a Karl Alzner? Does he hold a top-four role next to some of the team’s best elements, or does he only fill cap space, giving no breathing room and little on-ice value?
In an earlier article, we dove into a statistical and systems analysis of the (potential) new Habs defenceman. Up to this point, Edmundson played his best hockey in the 2018-19 season as a member of the Stanley Cup-champion St. Louis Blues. He performed especially well in the playoffs. In the season that followed, however, his play dipped with the Carolina Hurricanes, a decline that could be partially explained by the change to a different defensive system.
With the Hurricanes and the Blues, Edmundson occupied the same role: shutdown defender. He didn’t score much, and he didn’t drive the play, but over the years his combination of mobility and reach allowed him to complement other blue-liners who could.
He won’t outright beat many NHLers in a straight line race, and he won’t be able to copy their abrupt cutbacks, pivots, and changes of direction. Like many other 6’4” players, Edmundson has some quirks to his stride, one of them being a lack of ankle flexion, limiting his ability to manoeuvre. But he still generates enough power to match the speed of forwards, and when they try to escape him in tight quarters he can fall back on his reach.
Edmundson clogs, contains, and cuffs. His towering presence is a deterrent in the middle of the ice. Attackers have to find ways to thread the puck around his stick before he closes on them. If they take too long, he only gets bigger and bigger as he approaches, looking to encircle and pin them to the boards.
The defenceman has the role of ‘engager’ in a pairing. He pushes the play to the outside, defends the front of the net, and, most of all, separates opponents from possession to allow his teammates to move the puck up-ice.
While defence is his main strength, his lack of lateral agility and his tendency to puck-watch (or man-watch) means clever opposing forwards can sometimes manipulate him. A fake followed by an abrupt cut can leave Edmundson behind. As he doesn’t possess explosive qualities, it can a take an extra half-second for him to recover a defensive positioning — enough time for attackers to attack the slot.
A lack of ability to quickly recover means that Edmundson has to temper his aggressiveness. If he doesn’t have clear defensive support, he establishes a larger gap with the opposition, giving himself more time to react to abrupt moves of attackers by extending his stick and backing off.
These tendencies translate to his rush defence. The Blues were better at giving him backcheck supports. In turn, the defenceman postured more aggressively against incoming attackers, even striking early in the offensive zone by skating forward at opponents. But with the Hurricanes, he didn’t get the same defensive support (at least in my viewings). As a result, as the camera panned to follow the opposing rush, it usually took an extra second or two for it to catch Edmundson retreating in the neutral zone.
One last flaw in his defensive game is his use of backward crossovers to match the speed of attackers. They creates a side-to-side movement that can also be exploited by manipulative forwards. Edmundson rarely put himself in position where opponents can beat him outright and cut to the slot, however. He prefers to give up a little bit more ice in front of him, and maybe access to the top of the zone, in order to prevent attackers from getting behind him and into dangerous ice.
Despite some notable weaknesses, Edmundson would immediately be one of the very best defenders in Montreal due to his tools, physicality, and ability to recognize and limit risks. For the same reasons, he would also become a trusted asset for Claude Julien on the penalty kill.
That being said, like on his previous teams, the coaching staff will have no choice but to place him with an efficient, poised, and skilled puck-mover. Otherwise, the pairing might never escape the defensive zone. It’s possible that the defenceman could suddenly build a better puck-moving game; Chiarot did it in his arrival in Montreal, and there are some encouraging elements.
When Edmundson doesn’t face pressure, he can make precise stretch-passes, hitting teammates at just the right angle to allow them to continue their play. When he finds himself on the weak side on breakouts, he always jumps on the attack with his forwards, helping them break the neutral-zone defence of the opposition. Unlike Chiarot, who skates better and at least showed boldness and flashes of skill in Winnipeg, Edmundson’s puck play is limited. His transition game suffers of a long list of problems.
He doesn’t look for options before receiving the puck, and his handling ability grades as below average. Both of those things slow down the execution of his passes. Edmundson rarely executes a catch-and-pass; he has to reposition the puck before sending it to a teammate.
He doesn’t move his feet enough to find options, and standing in one spot with the puck makes it easy for the defence to take away his passing lanes. In addition, pressure easily overwhelms him. Against the charge of forecheckers he rushes his plays, dumping the puck to the other team or sending it toward covered teammates who instantly lose it. Montreal simply can’t count on Edmundson to beat forechecking layers with passes, feints, or speed very often, if at all. This burden will fall entirely on his partner.
Surprisingly, for someone who has so much trouble in transition, Edmundson brings more offensively than you would expect. Again, he doesn’t attack space or move his feet to manipulate defenders or create passing and shooting lanes inside the slot (shutdown defenceman rarely do that), but he loves to jump down from the point for backdoor plays. He can manage some decent releases off passes.
Otherwise, his offensive game is limited to firing from the point. In a Canadiens team that aims to funnel all pucks on net, he should fit right in. But that’s kind of the issue raised with the acquisition.
While the Habs barely paid anything to earn the rights to Edmundson (a fifth round pick has a very low chance of becoming an NHLer), the defenceman doesn’t change the composition of the back end. He certainly improves it’s solidity, as it’s likely that he brings more value to the team than the other bottom-pairing defenders the Habs currently possess. But true strength comes from diversity.
The Canadiens need more offence from their back end. If they want to play with pace, if they want speed up-ice, they need blue-liners who can break opposing plays, but most of all ones who can pass the puck cleanly under pressure, and do so regularly.
Edmundson fit well with the St. Louis Blues because the team was predictable, drilled, and strong collectively; a well-oiled, Stanley Cup-winning machine. The defenceman came in every game and operated inside his comfort zone. He complemented other and wasn’t asked to do more than he could. Montreal’s young, mistake-prone group isn’t yet at that stage. A large load will fall on the shoulders of Edmundson every time he steps on the ice, especially if he is placed in the top four. He will have to repair plays and find ways to create advantages with the puck.
Can he do it? Maybe switching back into a zone-defence system will give him a much needed boost. Maybe his years of experience will give him the springboard to this larger role. And maybe he has kept some of his abilities hidden until now; I certainly doubted Chiarot when he first came in, and he proved me wrong.
Or maybe the organization simply intends for Edmundson to be their defensive-zone guardian on the third pair, which is a role he can play more than effectively. If that happens, and if his contract is written accordingly, and if all the Habs’ young defencemen still find the right chair when the music in training camp comes to an end, I think Montreal will have improved its team.