Heading into the 2022-23 season, most observers expected that the Montreal Canadiens would lean heavily on a trio of veterans on the blue line: David Savard, Mike Matheson, and Joel Edmundson. Injuries to Matheson and Edmundson forced the Habs to ice an opening night lineup with four rookie defencemen, but rather than succumbing to their baptism by fire, Kaiden Guhle, Jordan Harris, Arber Xhekaj, and Johnathan Kovacevic have exceeded all expectations.
As Matheson and Edmundson approached game-readiness, the starting six from opening night had settled neatly into three established pairings: Guhle-Savard, Harris-Kovacevic, and Chris Wideman-Xhekaj. Fitting Matheson and Edmundson into the lineup would require careful disruption of this balance. Without an obvious weak link, incorporating the veterans into the lineup became far more complicated than anticipated, with healthy scratches for Harris and especially Xhekaj not well received by the fans.
The Canadiens have now played nine games with Matheson and sixteen games with Edmundson in the lineup, and the returns are night and day. Matheson has amply demonstrated the offensive talents that prompted his acquisition, fitting neatly into a role similar to Jeff Petry’s. Edmundson, on the other hand, has looked a step or two behind in most situations and has struggled to find the form that was integral to the 2021 Stanley Cup run.
Matheson: Better than advertised?
Arriving in Montreal, Matheson was generally regarded to have Petry’s offensive talents but not his defensive acumen. To quote Shayna Goldman from The Athletic, “Matheson brings value as a second-pair defender who can help transition the puck up ice. But he’s going to be a lot more exposed in Montreal, so the coaches will have to manage his usage to keep him at his best.”
Despite a limited body of work, Matheson’s offence is already undeniable. He leads the team in all-situations points per 60 minutes of ice time (points/60) and assists/60, while sitting second only to Xhekaj for goals/60. Matheson further ranks highly when it comes to puck possession metrics, sitting first among defenders when it comes to 5-on-5 on-ice shares of shot attempts (CF%), scoring chances (SCF%), and high-danger scoring chances (HDCF%), while placing third in shots on goal (SF%).
The small sample works against Matheson when it comes to goals: he ranks fourth in on-ice share of expected goals (xGF%) but second-last in actual goals (GF%). However, if one discounts the November 22nd game against the Buffalo Sabres, when Matheson was on the ice for three goals against and none for, the Montreal native has a passable 7/8 goals for/against ratio.
Matheson’s on-ice product has not gone unnoticed, with Martin St-Louis steadily increasing his ice time. Starting at 23:57 in his debut, Matheson has already reached a point where he is surpassing the 25-minute mark with fair regularity. Moreover, he has assumed Guhle’s position on the top pair alongside Savard, a position that involves both playing with and against the best on any given night. To that end, Matheson has the third highest proportion of five-on-five defensive zone starts among Habs’ blue-liners, trailing only Savard and Guhle.
Switching back to Matheson’s impact on offence, his presence appears to be paying dividends for Nick Suzuki, Cole Caufield, and Kirby Dach. The top line had been trending upward since Dach was placed on Suzuki’s left for the 10th game of the season. However, their numbers jumped just as dramatically, if not more so, after Matheson returned to the lineup. Originally derided for their poor underlying stats, the Dach-Suzuki-Caufield trio are showing that they can potentially be both scoring machines and possession monsters.
The ex-Pittsburgh Penguin is of course still an unfinished product, prone to some highly visible gaffes such as his fall during overtime on Monday night that led to Elias Pettersson’s game-winning goal. But so far, the pros are far outweighing the cons, and both stats and usage support the idea that Matheson has become St-Louis’s number-one blue-line option.
Edmundson: Rust, injury, or something else?
Edmundson signed a four-year contract with the Canadiens prior to the 2020-21 season. Coming off a subpar stint with the Carolina Hurricanes, Edmundson was an incredibly pleasant surprise, showing stability, strength, and an unexpected adeptness with the puck. Together with Petry, the new arrival formed one of the best blue-line duos in the league from a possession and goal share metrics perspective.
If 2020-21 was a season to remember, 2021-22 was a season to forget. Edmundson missed three-quarters of the year dealing with injury and the death of his father, only returning to the lineup well after the Canadiens had nothing left to play for. The 2022-23 season was supposed to be a fresh slate, but Edmundson spent training camp and all of October on the shelf. Nonetheless, Habs management and fans alike had high hopes when the defender finally returned to the lineup on November 3.
Unfortunately, 2022-23 Edmundson bears little resemblance to the player that was so instrumental to the Canadiens' Stanley Cup Finals run in 2021. Instead of “steady Eddy”, observers have witnessed a player who seems to be a step behind in multiple facets, including decision-making, positioning, aggression, and man-marking. Statistically, Edmundson has been one of the worst defenders on the roster. He ranks sixth or worse in CF%, SF%, GF%, xGF%, and SCF%, although he appears to have retained his aptitude for preventing high-danger chances.
Moreover, “sixth” may be misleading. While Edmundson ranks ahead of Guhle and Savard in several categories, Guhle and Savard logged heavy defensive minutes against top opposition. Edmundson, while certainly not sheltered, is still enjoying a 55.92% offensive-zone start frequency — roughly seven points higher than Matheson’s 47.83% and fourteen points higher than Savard’s team low 42.15%.
If Matheson can be accused of making visible gaffes, Edmundson is similarly prone to making more subtle mistakes that are no less impactful on the overall result. The defender found himself accountable (albeit certainly not solely responsible) for three goals against the Vancouver Canucks on Monday night. He failed to clear Ilya Mikheyev from the crease on the home team’s second marker, allowed Bo Horvat to sneak in behind him on the third, and was caught in no man’s land for Andrei Kuzmenko’s game-tying goal with 90 seconds to go in regulation.
All of this has not gone unnoticed by coach St-Louis. After starting the season in the 22-minute range, Edmundson’s usage dropped into the 17-18 minute region before recently rebounding back to 20 minutes flat. Additionally, Edmundson’s role on the team remains nebulous. The veteran has played mostly with Xhekaj and Guhle, but both rookies have performed better with other main partners: Xhekaj with Wideman (arguably), and Guhle with Savard (definitively). Further complicating matters, a Matheson-Edmundson combination going forward seems unlikely after a short but unpleasant two-game run, as evidenced by how St-Louis has instead placed Kovacevic on the top pairing with Savard out of the lineup.
On performance alone, Edmundson is currently a candidate for the third pairing — if not the press box. One can certainly argue that Harris, and especially Kovacevic, offer more to the Canadiens right now, and Xhekaj’s intangibles are unique among Habs blue-liners.
Truthfully, it’s difficult to pinpoint what is happening with the defender right now. Is he still trying to get up to speed after a long layoff? Is he having issues adapting to St-Louis’s system? Are there lingering physical issues?
Still, Edmundson is still more than capable of chewing up and spitting out big minutes, and his presence in the lineup offers a shield for St-Louis when the coach wants to protect a younger player from an unfavourable matchup or situation. Finally, there is also the potential consideration of protecting Edmundson’s trade value, should Kent Hughes wish to go in that direction.
Ultimately, the veteran has earned a prolonged grace period — but the Habs will have to be proactive in making adjustments and finding the right situation for the consummate professional.
All data sourced from Natural Stat Trick unless otherwise indicated.