BROSSARD, Que.— Joel Edmundson, in a regular jersey at practice, nearing a return to play for the first time since last July, preparing to travel with the Montreal Canadiens for a road trip that starts in his home province of Manitoba and ends with stops in Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver—this was a welcome sight on Monday in Brossard.
It’s been a torturous six months for the 28-year-old defenceman who showed up at training camp prepared to build on arguably the best season of his seven-year NHL career and suffered a back injury on Day 1. He watched the Canadiens crumble in his absence, worked his way back to almost playing again before suffering one of several setbacks, took time off to tend to his father before inevitably losing him to cancer and, according to vice-president of hockey operations Jeff Gorton in an exclusive interview with Sportsnet, was facing the possibility of season-ending surgery.
We can’t say with any certainty that a procedure is now off the table. And coach Martin St. Louis couldn’t say on Monday whether or not Edmundson would play on this four-game swing through Western Canada.
But Edmundson participating in his first full practice in months, packing his bags, and joining his teammates with the potential of playing in view, is a sign he’s emerging from the dark cloud that’s engulfed him this season.
“We haven’t seen Eddy a ton, but every time he’s at the rink he loves hanging out with the guys, loves being around the team, and we all love seeing him come in every morning,” said Nick Suzuki after Monday’s practice. “He’s been putting a ton of work in. He’s had a rough year, but as a teammate, you can just keep in touch with him, see how he’s doing. He’s a bright spot in the locker room and really a leader, so it’s been a big miss for us this season. But it’s nice to see him almost coming back.”
Boy, have the Canadiens missed Edmundson. He was their steadiest player through a turbulent 2020-21 season for most of the others. He played an enormous role on the ice, shutting down the rush, punishing players in the corners and in front of the net with his 6-foot-5, 224-pound frame, stimulating offensive transition by killing plays and moving the puck efficiently, and acting as a force on the penalty kill—aspects of his play he took to another level in the playoffs, averaging over 22 minutes per game and helping the Canadiens to their first Stanley Cup Final since 1993.
But he was missed just as much, if not more, in Montreal’s room.
“He’s an amazing guy, on and off the ice. He’s a true leader for all the guys in that locker room,” said Josh Anderson.
“I think he’s more vocal. And when he’s playing leading by example,” said Suzuki. “He’s a heavy d-man, plays the right way, smart player. But in the room, he’s definitely vocal. Loves bringing the team together, and I think that’s his biggest strength.”
Look up and down the Canadiens lineup, and it’s hard to find many players with personalities that fit that profile.
Suzuki, as St. Louis put it a couple of weeks ago, is growing into that off-ice role on top of being a clear leader in the way he comports himself on the ice. Anderson has it in him to speak up inside and outside that room, as does Brendan Gallagher.
But alternate captain Paul Byron, who isn’t shy to say what needs to be said, has missed all but nine of Montreal’s 51 games this season. David Savard, who was only added to the group this past off-season, has been out a while with a lower-body injury. Jake Allen, a veritable vocal leader, has been out since January. Tyler Toffoli was recently traded. Carey Price has been out all season. And Shea Weber, Corey Perry, Eric Staal and Phillip Danault were all lost in the off-season.
The Canadiens have had a significant void without Edmundson.
And he’s surely been missing them just as much.
“Any time a player’s injured, it sucks watching, it sucks seeing your teammates go out there and battle and for the most part you’re on a different schedule than the guys,” said Anderson. “I think that’s the hardest part about it not being involved in the day-to-day meetings, on the road, the dinners and just the little things like that that create that bond.
“But I’m happy for him to be back on the same schedule as the players and being in practices with us. He’s right there. You can just see the smile on his face and the confidence the last couple of days being back with the team.”
The hope is that it gets wider in the coming days, with Edmundson continuing to take steps forward and (hopefully) being able to put this injury behind him.
“We’ve talked about it a few times where it seemed like he’s getting close and then had setbacks, so this is a good stretch here,” said Jeff Petry of his defence partner from last season who’s signed for two more years after this one at $3.5 million per. “It looks like he is getting close, and he’s a big part. He was a big part of our team last year, and he’s going to be a big part when he comes back in the lineup. That physical presence, what he brings, only strengthens our back end.”