Montreal Canadiens: Competition Will Breed Success for Habs Blue Line

Chicago Blackhawks v Montreal Canadiens
Chicago Blackhawks v Montreal Canadiens / Minas Panagiotakis/GettyImages

While it was certainly not a surprise to see the Montreal Canadiens recall Arber Xhekaj from the AHL this week, it may have caught a few people off guard that Justin Barron was getting sent back down to Laval. Welcome to the world of having depth.

It’s a good problem to have and one that is fueling a healthy competition among the slew of up and coming Habs defensemen, trying to establish themselves as regulars in the National Hockey League.

The process began at the start of last season when Xhekaj and Barron were part of a quintet of first time contributors on the blue line that also included Johnathan Kovacevic, Kaiden Guhle and Jordan Harris.

Their inexperience mixed in well with established veterans Mike Matheson and David Savard. The results were promising and those reps were expected to be a springboard for the group going forward.

However, things change fast in the NHL and the ahead of schedule arrival of another promising young defender quickly reminded everybody that tomorrow is not promised and you can never rest on your laurels.

With the newly acquired Gustav Lindstrom penciled in as the 7th d-man, it was supposed to be a developmental year for first year pro Jayden Struble. The strapping 2019 second rounder from Rhode Island was expected to spend the year riding the buses in the American Hockey League and gaining valuable experience.

However, with Xhekaj out due to injury and Lindstrom struggling, Struble took full advantage of his unexpected November call-up to earn himself a spot in the top six that he has not since relinquished.

Xhekaj, who had not played his best hockey prior to being sidelined with a bum shoulder, found himself on the outside looking in when he returned from IR in December and was surprisingly sent down to the Rocket for the first time in his career.

However, much like Barron did in a similar stint last season, Xhekaj responded well to the demotion and put up 11 points in his 17 games down on the farm. While surely disappointed, Xhekaj’s attitude was upbeat and there was no moaning or groaning.

The situation likely also served as a wake-up call to the likes of Guhle and Harris that they too are not above being sent back to the kitchen for more seasoning.

Now the odd man out wheel has taken another turn and once again it has landed on Barron. I suspect he too will come back stronger as head coach Martin St. Louis continues to successfully build his program through meritocracy and positive reinforcement.

The Canadiens are creating a culture of competition that keeps everyone on their toes and the roster spot battles will continue to be fierce. This is not the last time the deck will be shuffled, nor should it be.

These are the lessons that a team must be taught, lessons that will one day serve as the foundation of a championship roster. Nobody is entitled to a seat at the table, your place must be earned every day.