FC Montreal

Pat Hickey: Canadiens have too many young, talented defencemen


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With so many blue-liners pushing for NHL ice time next season, the onus will be on Habs brass to properly identify who they need to keep.

Pat Hickey  •  Special to Montreal Gazette

Published Apr 19, 2024  •  Last updated 32 minutes ago  •  4 minute read

Canadiens defenceman Jayden Struble, 22, speaks with 20-year-old Lane Hutson, right, during Habs' season finale at the Bell Centre Tuesday night. Photo by John Mahoney /Montreal Gazette

Marc Bergevin was fond of saying you can never have too many defenceman.

But as the Canadiens address what could be a busy off-season, they might have too many defencemen.

There’s something appealing about having a depth chart that goes 11 players deep on defence, with eight of those players under the age of 23. This is a best crop of young defenceman since the Canadiens won their last Stanley Cup in 1993 with such players as Éric Desjardins, Mathieu Schneider and Patrice Brisebois.

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The problem is that there’s not enough room for all of them on the roster and, while there is the potential to have the AHL’s best defence corps in Laval, the key is for the Canadiens to identify which players can contribute to a future playoff run and which might be swapped for some much-needed help up front.

The task for coach Marty St. Louis and the front office became more difficult with the much-anticipated debuts of Lane Hutson and Logan Mailloux.

Hutson is listed at 5-foot-10 (maybe) and 162 pounds, but he is a dynamic presence on the ice. He resembles a water bug, constantly moving to find a shooting lane or an open teammate. There will be times when he will be outmuscled in his own end and he will find himself with unfavourable matchups on the road. But when the Canadiens have the puck, particularly on the power play, you want him on the ice.

It takes a lot to outmuscle Mailloux, who is 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds. He is also an offensive threat, finishing third in scoring among AHL defenceman. His defensive play is improving and he was named to the AHL all-rookie team. As a bonus, he and 2023 first-round draft choice David Reinbacher are right-handed shots and this is an area of need for the Canadiens. In the past season, the Canadiens were forced to use left-handed shots Kaiden Guhle and Jordan Harris on the right side.

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Jeff Gorton and Kent Hughes won’t be afraid to trade a promising defenceman if the deal is right. Two years ago, they parted with Alexander Romanov to get Kirby Dach and that worked out much better than the time Bergevin sent Mikhail Sergachev to Tampa Bay for Jonathan Drouin.

If there is a deal, it shouldn’t involve veterans Mike Matheson or David Savard. There are suggestions on social media that the Canadiens should move Matheson because his value is high, but you don’t move your No. 1 who is among the league leaders in minutes played and defence scoring. At 30, he has many productive seasons ahead of him and he’s homeboy who speaks French.

Savard is a shot-blocking savant who, along with Matheson, provides leadership and an example for the younger defencemen. His greatest value will be at the trade deadline next season. If the Canadiens are in a playoff run, they will need him. If not, he’ll be an attractive add for any playoff-bound team that needs a physical shot-blocker.

Women take centre stage: Danièle Sauvageau isn’t surprised that the Montreal entry in the PWHL is playing a game at the Bell Centre.

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“I thought it would happen but I’m surprised that it sold out so fast,” said the longtime women’s hockey advocate who serves as the team’s general manager.

The Montreal-Toronto game Saturday (1 p.m., CBC, RDS) sold out in 20 minutes.

The game will set a record for the largest crowd at a women’s hockey game, but also holds great significance for Montreal’s title hopes in the inaugural PWHL season. This could be a preview of the playoff semifinals and Montreal has to prove it can beat Toronto, which is unbeaten in four games against Montreal. Toronto is currently in first place in the standings, while Montreal has slipped to third. The PWHL rules allow the first-place team to pick its opponent in the semifinals and, if the current standings hold, Toronto will certainly select Montreal.

Montreal lost four consecutive games before the break for the world championships and superstar Marie-Philip Poulin missed the last three games with an injury. The good news is that she played in the world championships and she was the player of the game when Canada beat the United States in the final.

Coaching notes: When the Buffalo Sabres fired coach Don Granato earlier this week, Marty St. Louis moved up one spot on the NHL coaching tenure list. St. Louis has been on the job less than three years, but only seven coaches have been in the current posts longer.

And a coaching change with the Brooklyn Nets usually rates a ho-hum reaction in Canada, but the NBA team is poised to hire Sacramento Kings associate coach Jordi Fernandez. The 41-year-old Spaniard is also the coach of the Canadian team for the Paris Olympics.

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