MONTREAL — Marc Bergevin has spent the better part of his eight years as Montreal Canadiens general manager tweaking and re-shaping his defence.
It’s fair to say now that’s no longer a priority. Not after recently adding Joel Edmundson to a big, strong, mobile and versatile NHL core, and certainly not after drafting Kaiden Guhle with the 16th overall pick in the 2020 NHL Draft.
A well-rounded group is locked in and under contract at the NHL level through 2022. And if the overall Canadiens’ prospect pool has, by consensus, become a treasure chest, what they have coming on the blue line is their crowing jewel.
Alexander Romanov, the 20-year-old Russian the Montreal brass has dubbed “the Assassin,” will debut this coming season and could be considered the best of the bunch. But then there’s Cale Fleury, who already got his feet wet in the NHL this past season and promises to be a legitimate player at this level.
Noah Juulsen, 22, has 44 games of NHL experience and is hoping to get back to proving he can become a top-four defenceman after suffering from the nightmarish side effects from a freak head injury that sidetracked his development for the better part of two years.
Josh Brook might be considered a project, but he’s an elite-skating, puck-moving defenceman who brings size and skill to the equation.
You could say the same of 2018 and 2019 picks Jordan Harris and Jayden Struble, who are currently patrolling Northeastern University’s blue line. Their coach, Jim Madigan, sees two players who are all but guaranteed to graduate in short order and become quality NHLers.
And then there’s Mattias Norlinder, a player Bergevin recently referred to as his best prospect currently not playing in the NHL, a dynamic Swedish lefty who can play the right side and whose skill level is eye-popping.
So, why Guhle?
“We go by what we like, what’s available at the time, and we saw a big defenceman with range, with skill, a very good skater who’s mobile and, for us, he checks all the boxes,” Bergevin told Sportsnet just moments after making Tuesday’s pick.
What a luxury to be able to just go with whom they deemed was the best player available instead of drafting by need.
Up front, youngsters Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi have come to Montreal as a dynamic one-two punch up the middle. Ryan Poehling is hoping to emerge in short order, Jake Evans already has, and Cam Hillis and Jesse Ylonen are starting their pro careers.
And Cole Caufield, the explosive goal scorer who shattered records with the United States National Development Program Team prior to being taken 15th overall by the Canadiens in the 2019 Draft, is waiting in the wings. He’ll be given time to continue his development at the University of Wisconsin this season.
And with promise of Montreal’s upcoming talent on defence, Guhle can be afforded more time to develop with the Western Hockey League’s Prince Albert Raiders.
“With the depth we have right now, we’re not under any pressure to rush our young defencemen,” said Bergevin in his meet-the-media Zoom session following the first round of the draft.
So, what’s Guhle starting with?
“I think I’m a very physical, very good-skating two-way defenceman,” the kid said via Zoom, wearing a Canadiens hat for the first time on Tuesday. “I like to be hard on other team’s best players. I like to make a good first pass, jump into the rush, use my skating to my advantage. Definitely like to be very physical on the ice. So I’d say a very good two-way defenceman, very physical, very good-skating player.”
A trusted NHL scout we touched base with last week described him as a defenceman who “has a good gap and is very effective in killing plays and getting his stick in the pass lanes.”
The scout also said Guhle plays physical, that he’s willing to put his body on the line to block shots, and that “he looks like he’ll become a legitimate NHL player.”
There are things the six-foot-two, 186-pound lefty would like to immediately start working on.
“I think my decision making under pressure can get a little bit better at times,” Guhle said. “I think sometimes I’m just throwing the puck away. I obviously think that can get a lot better. I think my offensive side of my game can also improve. That’s what I’ve been working on a lot this summer trying to improve — those two things. I know in the NHL you have even less time than you do now, the game gets so much quicker, so your decision making has to be so much faster. You’ve got to know what you have to do with the puck before you even get it, so I think that’s the biggest thing I’ve also been working on this summer too.”
Bergevin reiterated the Canadiens were attracted by the Sherwood Park, Alta., native’s speed, physicality and character.
“Based on what we see, he’ll be an important part of the blue line in the future,” Bergevin said of Guhle, who scored 11 goals and 40 points in 64 games with the Raiders this past season.
The pick capped a wild day that started with Bergevin’s announcement he was placing defenceman Karl Alzner on unconditional waivers to buy out the remaining two years of his five-year, $23.1-million contract.
Just a few hours later, Bergevin traded centre Max Domi and the 78th overall pick in this year’s draft to the Columbus Blue Jackets for power forward Josh Anderson. A move he said was facilitated by Columbus’ need for help up the middle, and a move we suggested could pay massive dividends for the Canadiens if Anderson rebounds from an injury-plagued season that saw him limited to one goal and four points in 26 games.
It’ll be a priority for Bergevin to get the six-foot-three, 222-pound righty signed over the coming days, and he feels confident he’ll be able to do that.
“We obviously, before we make a trade, when somebody’s an RFA… it doesn’t take a genius to know where the money should fall in,” said Bergevin. “So at the end of the day, we’ll be able to agree on a contract.”
Then Bergevin said his attention will shift the opening of unrestricted free agency Friday, with an aim to fill out the rest of his forward group with a bit more size, edge and scoring.
Good plan, because his defence appears to be set, both for now and for the foreseeable future.