The Montreal Canadiens are carrying eight defensemen on their roster and have several players in the AHL that could warrant a call to the show soon. Could they swing a deal with the Winnipeg Jets?
The Montreal Canadiens are off to a fascinating start to the 2019-20 campaign. They have only played two games, but you would have a difficult time finding any games from last season that were more entertaining than either of the Habs first two contests of this season.
First, the Habs had a thrilling 4-3 shootout loss to the Carolina Hurricanes on the opening night of the season. They were behind 2-0 before coming back to take a 3-2 lead. The Hurricanes would tie the game in the third period and then win it in the skills competition that settles ties in the National Hockey League these days.
Two nights later the Canadiens took on the Toronto Maple Leafs. They found themselves trailing 4-1 in the third period but less than ten minutes later they were winning 5-4. Auston Matthews tied the game late and then Carey Price stopped Matthews, Mitch Marner and John Tavares to win the second game of the season in a shootout.
When Ken Hitchcock was head coach of the St. Louis Blues he dropped a line in a scrum while coming through Winnipeg that has stuck in my head ever since.
“There’s a price to be paid when you play the Winnipeg Jets,” he said.
It resonated because it rang true. The Jets, for years, had been one of the league’s biggest teams and they played like it. They took every inch of ice by force and inflicted abuse on any opponent who tried to take it from them.
It may be early in this 2019-20 season, but those days are clearly over.
The Winnipeg Jets defence, as it’s currently constructed, is a bet that aggression will be further phased out of the NHL.
It’s an interesting wager considering the Jets’ success on offence relies on big men (Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele, Adam Lowry) bottling teams in their defensive end with their combination of size, speed and board work that wears defenders down. Few teams have done it better over the past two years. And if an opponent was able to escape that gauntlet their reward was to skate into one of the most imposing back ends in the National Hockey League.
Through three games we can see Winnipeg’s smothering offensive game plan remains the same — and that’s not surprising given the returning personnel. However, the defence no longer greets opponents with hulking blueliners, but rather smaller, slicker skaters who will have to defend with good sticks and an ability to plug lanes.
Josh Morrissey is the perfect example — and he’s highly effective at this. He’s been the Jets’ top shutdown defender for some time now. The organization feels newcomer Neal Pionk is a player in the same vein. The same goes for 18-year-old Ville Heinola, who thrived against the likes of 6-foot-5, 225-pound Wheeler in training camp and hasn’t looked out of place at the NHL level.
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Outside of rookie Tucker Poolman, though — and maybe waiver claim Carl Dahlstrom — there’s no one in this defence group capable of meting out the same kind of punishment Winnipeg has been known for.
And this is causing problems on the scoresheet. The Jets have allowed 14 goals in just three games so far this season and 10 have come from the ‘high danger’ area in front of the net, per Natural Stat Trick. That number would look a lot worse if not for a few brilliant outings by Laurent Brossoit. No team has allowed more high danger chances early on than Winnipeg’s 49 across all situations.
Simply put, opponents aren’t forced to earn their goals through brilliant passing or highly cerebral plays. They simply get to the net for high risk opportunities over and over.
It just appears to easy to get into the prime area in front of the net against this defence, and it may very well get worse. One has to wonder where the response will come from when the likes of Tom Wilson or Ryan Reaves bully their way to the Jets’ net front.
Before the game last November in which Patrik Laine scored five goals, newly hired St. Louis Blues head coach Craig Berube told the Hockey Night in Canada broadcast crew his team was going to play an old school style of hockey against the Jets. It seemed an antiquated strategy at the time. It also backfired spectacularly that night as the Jets ran away with an 8-5 victory. But it didn’t look ridiculous come April when the Blues ground the Jets down and out of the playoffs, serving notice that grit remains a difference-making factor.
Is this Jets defence corps any better suited to absorb that kind of abuse?
Yes, the league is changing and you can’t dish out punishment the way you used to in front of the net, but if you’ve watched this team over the past few years you’ve noticed the Jets pushed those boundaries further than most. Their net front remained a war zone where Dustin Byfuglien, Tyler Myers, Jacob Trouba and Ben Chiarot all subscribed to the “no man left standing“ mentality that usually left opponents on the ice rather than pouncing on loose pucks in the crease.
Again, there was a price to be paid. The question this year is much different than years past: is there anyone left to collect?
It’s been a very interesting start on the ice. If you look at how the Canadiens roster is currently being configured, it could be an interesting season in the general manager’s office as well.
Right now, the Canadiens are carrying eight defensemen. This is a bit unusual, as they would normally carry one extra defenseman instead of two and have a pair of extra forwards around. This makes for a bit of a logjam on the blue line.
Cale Fleury surprisingly made the team due to an impressive training camp. This was great news for the 20 year old and the organization, but not the best for veteran Christian Folin. He has been a healthy scratch for both Habs games along with veteran Mike Reilly. Both players were acquired within the last 18 months in order to add some depth to the roster.
They are doing that, but you have to ask if they have more depth at the moment than is necessary. How many games in a row are both Reilly and Folin going to sit in the press box together before a roster move is made? Especially when you consider the only extra forward on the roster, Nick Cousins, left the team’s practice early yesterday with an injury.
With Fleury in the top six and Noah Juulsen reportedly skating and approaching a return to game action sooner rather than later, the Canadiens may be one of the few teams in the league with too many defensemen. You don’t want to lose depth players like Reilly and Folin on waivers for nothing in return.
There are plenty of teams around the league that could use help on the blue line. Chief among them is the Winnipeg Jets. Consider that since they were eliminated from the postseason in April, the Jets have lost Jacob Trouba in a trade with the New York Rangers, Ben Chiarot and Tyler Myers to free agency and Dustin Byfuglien who is apparently considering retirement.
This has forced them to use 18 year old Ville Heinola in a prominent role and has seen Neal Pionk used as a top pairing defender. Carl Dahlstrom was picked up on waivers a week ago and played nearly 20 minutes against the New York Islanders on Sunday night.
It is not a great situation for the Jets. They could use another NHL ready defender, or maybe two of them. They have already recalled Sami Niku from the Manitoba Moose who might be able to help plug the dam. They could still use another option to knock Anthony Bitetto or Tucker Poolman out of the top six.
So, the Canadiens have extra NHL defenders and the Jets don’t have enough of them. It stands to reason that they would might be able to become trade partners.
Now, before we get too excited, I really don’t see a huge blockbuster brewing here. I’m sure the Jets would love to acquire Jeff Petry, but the Canadiens have no reason to trade him at this time. They will be attempting to make the playoffs and dealing away one of top two defensemen wouldn’t help that cause.
What I can see happening is the Jets looking to acquire a bottom pairing defender. I think they are happy to trot out Josh Morrissey, Sami Niku, Ville Heinola and Neal Pionk in their top four right now. Aside from Morrissey there is a lot of question marks there, but there is only one way to find out if a young defenseman can handle a top four role and that is to throw him to the wolves.
I could definitely see the Jets having interest in a veteran defender that can play on the third pairing and move up to the second pairing from time to time if a guy like Heinola is struggling in a specific game.
It’s possible that if the Habs really like what they’ve seen from Fleury and Josh Brook that they could dangle Noah Juulsen in a trade. He’s not really a veteran but he played well at the NHL level last season before being injured. The problem is, he is still injured, though he is apparently close to returning.
The Jets have a plethora of good, young forwards that the Habs would be interested in acquiring. But, would the Jets be comfortable moving a player like Mason Appleton, Kristian Vesalainen or Jack Roslovic in a trade centered around Juulsen? Probably not, so the Canadiens would not be interested.
What I could see happening is the Jets making a minor deal for Folin or Reilly. They could be trusted to play on the third pairing and be an upgrade on Bitetto or Dahlstrom. Not a huge upgrade, but an upgrade for sure and a little added depth to a weak roster spot.
It’s always fun to speculate on big trades and try to find deals that bring big names to Montreal. That doesn’t really make sense in this case. The Jets need some depth on defense and I could see them trading a sixth round pick for Christian Folin to give them a better option for their third pairing. The Habs have recently turned 7th round picks into Cayden Primeau, Jake Evans and Brett Stapley so they could turn a late pick into an interesting prospect pretty quick.