Guhle a sure bet to start with Canadiens, Xhekaj closing in on spot

Tim Stutzle scored and dished out two assists and Claude Giroux buried the eventual game-winner as the Ottawa Senators defeated the Montreal Canadiens 4-3.

It was a high, hard shot through a maze of bodies, with two Ottawa Senators rushing to block it and one fighting to see it.

The puck came to Kaiden Guhle, arriving on his stick as he took a step towards the high slot. With his head up, with total composure under pressure and without hesitation, he released it quickly and fired it past a screened Anton Forsberg to punctuate his impressive training camp for the Montreal Canadiens with his second goal of the preseason.

The 20-year-old arrived in September as the prohibitive favourite—among the young players he’s competing with—to carve out a position for himself on Montreal’s blue line. With every performance he’s authored, he’s since made it all but certain he’ll be with the Canadiens well beyond October.

On Thursday, in the penultimate game of his team’s preseason, Guhle stood out as much as he has at any other point over the last three weeks. The 6-foot-2, 205-pound defenceman was strong in front of his own net and in the corners, poised on the breakout and at the offensive blue line, crisp in his passing, and totally in his element against a Senators lineup that resembled the one that will start the regular season next week.

Guhle may not have been playing on an official NHL ice surface in this exhibition in Gander, Newfoundland—as part of the 2022 Kraft Hockeyville celebration—but he looked like a full-time NHL defenceman in this 4-3 loss that left the Canadiens 0-6-1 in preseason.

The Edmonton native has done exactly that all throughout camp, which is more than any of the other young players in competition with him could say.

It seems obvious the Canadiens want to buy them time, hence 25-year-old Otto Leskinen (who’s been playing professional hockey dating back to the 2017-18 season) getting an extended look beside Montreal’s veteran blueliners over the past two games.

On Thursday, he was seemingly on the ice every second shift, but didn’t appear smooth or convincing on any of them.

Without any pressure on him, Leskinen bobbled the puck regularly. And on Ottawa’s second goal, he gave away the middle of the ice—and a two-on-one chance Brady Tkachuk capitalized on.

Even in quarterbacking the first unit of the power play, Leskinen looked anything but comfortable.

Corey Schueneman, the 27-year-old who debuted with the Canadiens last season after three-and-a-half strong campaigns in the AHL, struggled just as much on Tuesday at the Bell Centre.

And though 27-year-old Madison Bowey, who started behind the eight-ball due to an injury at the beginning of camp, hasn’t been bad, he also hasn’t exactly stepped up to show he’ll break through after being limited to just 158 NHL games since being drafted 53rd overall by the Washington Capitals in 2013.

The need for a reliable veteran—likely to be acquired through waivers by the Canadiens between now and the start of the regular season—has only been reinforced by spotty performances from Leskinen, Scheuneman and Bowey and by the lack of consistency from all the young defencemen outside of Guhle.

Jordan Harris has had his moments, exhibiting the strong skating stride that carried him through an impressive college career at Northeastern before signing with the Canadiens and getting 10 games under his belt last spring.

But the 22-year-old lefty hasn’t been entirely convincing in his own end, and even less so in the offensive zone, where he’s struggled to apply pressure and get shots through traffic.

What Harris has shown is an ability to play games at this level, a strong work ethic and a lot of maturity, but not enough polish to join Guhle to start the season in Montreal.

Justin Barron—the 20-year-old, right-handed defenceman acquired in the trade that sent Artturi Lehkonen to the Stanley Cup-winning Colorado Avalanche last season—is in the same boat. He’s loaded with skill, but has appeared tense and nervous in his attempt to exhibit it.

It seems much more viable to start Barron on the top pair with Harris on the Canadiens’ AHL affiliate in Laval than it does placing him in over his head on Montreal’s second pair.

And then there’s Arber Xhekaj.

The 21-year-old needs some seasoning, but not so much of it that he’d look out of place on the Canadiens’ third defence pairing to start.

That Xhekaj fills a specific need—especially with big Joel Edmundson sidelined indefinitely with a back injury—gives him the edge in the race to that final spot. He’s a 6-foot-4, 238-pound defenceman with a mean streak, and he’s shown it from the start of rookie camp through the end of Thursday’s game.

Two-thirds of the way through it, he tuned up one of the NHL’s toughest players (Auston Watson) to reply to a heavy hit Watson threw on teammate Kirby Dach. And Xhekaj was in big, bad Tkachuk’s face later in the frame after dumping linemate Tim Stützle on his rear end for encroaching on goaltender Cayden Primeau early in the first period.

The Canadiens don’t have anyone else on their blue line playing as heavily as the Hamilton native does, and his ability to skate well, make plays in tight spaces and even chip in some offence makes him a logical choice to win his spot out of camp.

Guhle has already secured his, and the way he scored that goal to get his team in Thursday’s game only helped confirm it.

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