BROSSARD — Prospects like Kaiden Guhle and Arber Xhekaj may be timid when asked about the Canadians’ blue line openings this season, but rest assured they know full well what’s at stake.
From the looks of it, Kaiden Guhle seems slated for a front-runner for one of the jobs, as does Justin Barron, whose greatest asset isn’t necessarily his skills, but rather the fact that he’s a proper defender on a list like this one position urgently needs to be filled.
Guhle was paired with David Savard during Friday’s scrimmages, giving everyone a glimpse of a possible pairing to start the season. It’s also worth noting that Guhle also played with Savard for at least a year.
“When I was a young man, I couldn’t believe I had to queue up next to NHL players at camp,” said head coach Martin St-Louis. “Having that experience of being alongside these guys makes them think they’re not there yet [from the NHL].”
For reference, aside from Barron, who was paired with Mike Matheson, every other player vying for a blue line job was paired with a potential candidate rather than an actual NHL defenseman.
“He’s the whole package,” said head coach Martin St-Louis. “We must continue to evaluate Guhle, but it is clear that he has a lot of maturity and is very smart.”
Guhle has the most developed skills among young defenders, but it’s entirely possible that his stoic, mature approach will be the deciding factor. The Canadians are in for a tough time defending this season and will need players who can play through the dirt without ruining their confidence. This is exactly what Guhle brings to the table.
“He’s incredibly calm with the puck and his skating is excellent,” said Savard. “It’s clear he’s ready. He is determined to stay here and I will help him get there. He’s got so much talent and there’s a good chance he’ll be here all season.”
Despite Savard’s assertion that Guhle will likely spend the year in Montreal, nothing is set in stone. Guhle knows he needs to improve coming into the team, especially if he’s hoping to avoid the AHL this season.
His self-described greatest weakness is timing. He’ll need to improve his decision-making to avoid being caught flat-footed once the pace picks up in the NHL, but you’d have a hard time describing his timing as anything but above average.
“He has everything,” St-Louis said. “Just what he’s got, I’m pretty confident he’ll play in the NHL.”
But as the famous poet Yoda once said, “There is another.”
Arber Xhekaj is known as a tough customer. There are few, if any, opponents who have gone toe-to-toe with him without regretting their decision. But today he pulled off one of the most promising performances since development camp began, and he did it without scoring a single goal.
“Historically, guys who play like him don’t have all the offensive qualities that he has,” St-Louis said. “So for me it’s exciting to see a big guy move like that, make plays, be comfortable on the blue line but also be mean.”
The lack of hitting in intrasquad scrimmage allowed Xhekaj to focus on the most important aspects of his game, and that’s exactly what he needs to do if he wants to challenge Guhle for a spot on the blue line.
Arber, all things considered.
— Canadiens Montreal (@CanadiensMTL) September 23, 2022
His timing was perfect, as was his gap control. He tweaked at the most opportune times and rarely forced the issue. Without the burden of stealing someone’s soul with a punch in the head, he quickly brought his game to a level where he could rightly be seen in the NHL.
“Sometimes these guys know it’s a big part of their game and they play almost too aggressively,” St-Louis said. “You look for it, and when you look for it, you forget about the rest. Sometimes that gets you in trouble. Watching him play hockey today was really, really nice. I know it’s part of his game to be physical and aggressive and we just have to control it.
Guhle can still lose but if Xhekaj St-Louis can continue to impress with his skillful play we could be in for a two horse race.