The Montreal Canadiens go into the next season with a large group of young defensemen trying to make the big club. Alexander Romanov is one of those young defenders that will undoubtedly make the Habs’ roster next season, which will create a log jam on the backend – especially on the left side.
One or more of the current Canadiens defenders could see themselves on the outside looking in when it comes to playing next season. Who will that defender be? Who will replace him? Here is a look at who’s in and who’s out on the Habs Defense in 2020-21.
The Current Roster
Currently, the Canadiens defensive roster has only three players who won’t be going anywhere – well two, anyway. They are Shea Weber, Ben Chiarot, and Jeff Petry. Petry could be moved because he’s an FA after next season, but for now, we’ll say he’s staying. The other guys that round out the roster are Victor Mete, Brett Kulak, Karl Alzner, and Xavier Ouellet. Besides the first three, the Habs thin out pretty quickly as you go down the depth chart.
The Canadiens also have another group of defenders on the fringe of making the NHL, playing big minutes with their AHL affiliate, the Laval Rocket. They are Noah Juulsen, Josh Brook, Cale Fleury, Otto Leskinen, and Gustav Olofsson. Of this group, only Juulsen and Fleury have shown the potential to be NHL ready next season.
Over the last couple of drafts, the Canadiens loaded up on left-handed defensemen (LHD) and added some very good talent to their prospect pool: Alexander Romanov, Matias Norlinder, Jayden Struble, and Jordan Harris, to name a few. Romanov, as mentioned earlier, is ready for the NHL roster now and could arguably be better than anyone on the left side not named Chiarot. The rest of the group are still a few years away and unless one of them really stands out in pre-season, it’s very unlikely we even see them compete for a spot next season.
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Romanov is NHL ready right now and is the big reason there could be some changes on the Canadiens blue line. Management is so confident in the fact that Romanov can step on the ice and play at the NHL level that he will almost be guaranteed a spot on next year’s roster – barring a complete meltdown in pre-season. If he gets that spot, who does he replace? The other question is what if one of the other prospects steps up his game and wins a spot on the roster?
There are a few defensemen that will need to sign new contracts for next season and one the Habs would like to free themselves from. Folin is an unrestricted free agent (UFA), while Juulsen, Mete and Ouellet are restricted free agents (RFA).
The odds are that Folin will not be re-signed and let go to play elsewhere, but the real question is what to do with the RFAs? Mete and Juulsen should both be re-signed. Juulsen, despite his injuries, is a better defender than Mete and could potentially still be a top-four right-hand defenseman (RHD).
Mete is a solid defenceman but his size plays against him. Plus, the fact that Romanov could easily pass him on the depth chart would leave Mete on the bottom pair or in the press box. Although Ouellet is an RFA its not likely he will be offered a contract. It’s starting to get crowded on the left side and the Habs will need to weed out the fringe players to make room.
The one contract the Canadiens will look to get rid of is Karl Alzner. His albatross contract – which has been mostly buried in the minors – could be bought out before next season and give the Habs some cap relief. The Canadiens will only save $666,667 next season but it will still be better than having the highest-paid player in the AHL and allow Bergevin to move past one of his biggest mistakes.
Next Season’s Pairings
Barring a free-agent signing or trading for a top for LHD, the Habs pairings will not look much different from this season except on the bottom pairing. Everyone would love to see Romanov play alongside Weber – and it could happen – but he should at least start on the bottom pair until he proves he should move up. Until then the pairing of Chiarot and Weber will remain the same while Petry will be on the right side of the second pairing. This is where things start to get mixed and matched. Depending on which Kulak you get will determine whether he or Mete sit in the press box.
Romanov and Juulsen should round out the bottom pairing with Romanov progressively moving up the lineup as the season moves on. This leaves Kulak or Mete as one of the odd men out. It seems weird to have your second-pair guy rotate in and out of the lineup but until Romanov gets settled in that would be the best option.
Who’s In & Who’s Out?
This is all assuming that the Habs don’t sign a free agent or don’t make any moves in the offseason – whenever that might be. If they do sign someone, like Torey Krug for instance, then a move will have to be made involving either Kulak, Chiarot, or Mete. We all know, however, that the Habs don’t seem to be able to sign the big-name free agents and unless they feel next season is the season, they must turn it around. Then they could also stand pat and let Romanov develop into that top-pairing guy.
Romanov could also flop in the preseason and start in Laval, then the Habs need not make any changes. Either way, the Canadiens will have a much-improved blue line and a lot less bottom-pairing/fringe NHL defenders.
So the question remains: who’s in and who’s out? Well, it seems without any outside moves, the backend will stay relatively the same. Weber, Petry and Chiarot will remain the top three while Kulak, Mete, Romanov, and Juulsen help round out the bottom three and the extra player. Juulsen will be in along with Romanov, while Alzner, Ouellet, and Folin are out. The defense pairings should look like this next season:
Chiarot – Weber
Mete/Kulak – Petry
Romanov – Juulsen
Fleury, Brook, Leskinen will all be on the cusp of making the team and could provide some competition in 2021-22, especially Fleury who could even make the team next season and cause more of a pile-up.
When you think about it, having too many good, young defenders isn’t really a bad thing.