The Montreal Canadiens are going to start their series with the Pittsburgh Penguins tomorrow.
The Montreal Canadiens are ready to take on the Pittsburgh Penguins tomorrow to begin their Best-of-5 play-in series. The winner will advance to the official 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs where they will face one of the four teams that received a bye through the qualifying round.
The Penguins are heavily favoured in this series, even the biggest Habs fans will tell you that. The Pens just have far more superstar talent and are deeper at every position, especially up front. Their top six, headlined by Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin is among the best in the hockey world.
The Penguins defence isn’t as impressive as its forwards, but it solid and a little deeper than the Montreal Canadiens blue line. Based on the Habs most recent practices and their exhibition game, it appears their third pairing will be Victor Mete and Xavier Ouellet.
With all due respect to Mr. Ouellet who has carved out a solid career as a professional hockey player, he likely doesn’t get anywhere near the ice if he were a member of the Penguins organization. To be honest, I don’t think he belongs in the Canadiens top six either.
The Canadiens, like every team in the league, are carrying an expanded roster right now. Normally NHL teams are only allowed to have 23 players on their roster at a given time, but during this postseason they can have 30. So, there are a handful of extra skaters around.
The Habs brought ten defencemen with them to Toronto, where all of their games against the Penguins will take place. Shea Weber, Jeff Petry, Ben Chiarot and Brett Kulak look to be the team’s top four while Victor Mete will be on the bottom pairing. Ouellet, Cale Fleury, Noah Juulsen, Gustav Olofsson and Christian Folin are eligible to take the final defensive spot in the lineup.
It was Ouellet who played that role in the team’s lone exhibition game, and Cale Fleury was listed as their seventh defenceman.
However, it is Noah Juulsen who should be getting into game action this August, not Ouellet or Fleury.
Juulsen was the Habs first round pick in 2015. The sold, smart, steady two-way right-defenceman worked his way up the Canadiens depth chart until he was given his first taste of NHL action in the 2017-18 campaign. He looked poised and reliable in 23 games for the Canadiens that season. The following year he made the team out of camp. He played 21 games in the NHL, spring five points and bringing a physical, defensive presence.
However, Juulsen was hit in the face with two different shots in a game against the Washington Capitals in late November. He missed pretty much the rest of the 2018-19 season. The Surrey, British Columba native had shown he had the skills to be at least a third pairing defender, if not a future top four mainstay for the organization.
Injuries took their toll and carried into this season. Juulsen started the year with the Laval Rocket of the AHL, but after playing just 12 games, recurring migraines forced him to take some time away from the rink.
The 23 year old has been through a lot in the past 20 months, but worked his way back into the Rocket lineup in March. He returned to action on March 11 against the high scoring Belleville Senators and looked great at both ends of the ice. His intelligence is his biggest asset as he knows where to be positioned defensively and just makes the smart, easy play with consistency.
Juulsen is never going to challenge John Carlson or Quinn Hughes in the scoring race among defenders, but he is the type of player that is so hard to play against because he doesn’t make mistakes.
He is exactly the type of reliable, steady presence the Canadiens could use on the blue line right now. Sure, he has only played one pro game since late November, but no one has played a single game since March. His biggest problem in March when he was finally healthy would have been trying to get his timing back into game action when everyone else was in midseason from.
Who is in midseason form right now? Absolutely no one on the planet. It might seem a bit odd after missing so much time, but this is actually the best time to get Juulsen back into the lineup. He is very similar to Cale Fleury defensively, as he plays well positionally and also isn’t afraid to throw a thundering body check from time to time. He has been fully healthy for almost five months now, so why bother waiting even longer? That will quickly lead to a stretch of a full year where he only played one pro game.
Xavier Ouellet has been a great pro for the Laval Rocket, serving as the team’s captain and playing in all situations. He had two points in 12 games with the Canadiens this season and has his limits in the defensive zone.
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Noah Juulsen provides a far higher ceiling for the team and could use the game action so he doesn’t go from one November to the next while playing one AHL game. There is no question Juulsen should be higher on the Habs depth chart than Ouellet. Let’s hope head coach Calude Julien trusts the younger player on the blue line.