Montreal Canadiens: Why Claiming Kale Clague Off Waivers Should Excite Fans

Swaths of Montreal Canadiens fans had been campaigning for Jeff Gorton to claim 23-year-old left-defenseman Kale Clague off of waivers in the day leading up to it actually happening. Gorton’s first player move as Executive VP of Hockey Operations was immediately a popular one, and the excitement fans demonstrated when it was confirmed is most certainly warranted, but it isn’t entirely due to Clague’s actual quality as a player.

I, for one, was quite shocked when Clague passed through waivers unclaimed earlier this season because of his track record of point-production at every level he’s played at (including the NHL) and his modern puck-moving playstyle which is facilitated by his significant skill and tremendous skating ability.

Clague dominated the Western Hockey League in major junior putting up 40 or more points in each of his three full seasons. In his final year, he put up 10 goals and 47 points in 28 games with the Brandon Wheat Kings before being traded to Moose Jaw (where he played with Josh Brook) where he racked up 24 points in 26 regular-season games and 14 points in as many playoff appearances. Since then, Clague has put up 16 goals and 70 points in 129 AHL games and has notched 11 assists in 33 NHL games.

The Saskatchewan native has a really strong set of tools, which on their own should excite fans. He is a dangerous playmaker, especially while quarterbacking a powerplay, something the Canadiens need, he is also an actual puck-mover who can show off dynamism in offensive transition. The defensive side isn’t quite as glowing, but in my viewings, it has seemed like he is far less of a Rambo-type defenseman than he’s been portrayed as in the media; he’s more solid defensively than Sami Niku, for example.

His addition does create somewhat of a logjam of third-pairing defensemen on the Canadiens roster, but I see this as a good thing. Mattias Norlinder will be sent back to Frolunda, where he can begin to dominate a professional league and will be given powerplay time and more than 10 minutes of nightly ice time, which can only benefit his development. I am also hoping that Jeff Petry is given a solid few weeks of rest, he has so clearly not been his regular self this year, and Clague’s arrival should help facilitate such a decision. Lastly, it also opens up the possibility of trading players like Kulak or Wideman for draft picks ahead of the trade deadline, which would be good asset management on Gorton’s part.

But what is most exciting about this move isn’t the fact that we might see a young and dynamic defenseman quarterbacking the powerplay; rather, it’s that Jeff Gorton demonstrated that he values youth, skill, and (I cannot stress this last point enough) puck-moving defensemen. This demonstrates a change of management ideology that bodes very well for the future, as it fits the modern game for better than Bergevin’s philosophy. Bergevin didn’t claim Clague earlier this season, likely for the very reasons Gorton did.

Gorton also stated in his press conference that he believes in analytics (and he didn’t add any caveat) and that he is going to build up an analytics department. Another example of the modern philosophy that Bergevin lacked. Clague isn’t an analytical darling, his metrics in the NHL have been mediocre at best. But with a player as young as him, and with his track record of production, this claim is about his potential and his strong set of tools. His NHL sample is also still quite small at 33 games, so in a new environment, his analytics could very quickly turn around.

While this year’s iteration of the Canadiens is not going to be good, the changes in management have given me an excitement for the future of this team that I haven’t had in a long time (2016, maybe?). This year’s run was incredible, but it never seemed sustainable beyond the summer. Marc Bergevin lacked a vision and a cohesive plan, and he ignored the direction in which the game is going. Jeff Gorton is going to bring in a GM who can complement him, and his first week at the helm has indicated that fans should expect a team brimming with youth and talent in a few years time.