MONTREAL— Think big picture, not just big defenceman.
Because there’s no protracted analysis required to explain what the Montreal Canadiens got in Joel Edmundson when they sent a fifth-round pick to the Carolina Hurricanes Saturday. The 27-year-old is a 6-foot-4, 215-pound defenceman who scored seven goals and 20 points in 68 games this past season. Even taking into account his advanced statistics, which don’t paint his scoring chance suppression or puck-moving abilities in the most favourable light, he brings value to their blue line with Stanley Cup-winning experience and some toughness to go along with the size he possesses. And Edmundson is coming off a one-year, $3.1-million contract and isn’t likely to break the bank with his next one.
But this is less about him and more about what he’s now a part of—a Canadiens team that went into the off-season with pressing needs for depth on the blue line and in nets and addressed them with his acquisition (provided they sign him) and with that of his former St. Louis Blues teammate, Jake Allen. They’re also a team desperate for some size and scoring punch up front, one that can now suddenly afford to move a piece from the back end as part of a package to acquire some.
Enter Brett Kulak.
Or, is it exit Brett Kulak?
If you figured the Canadiens might have a decision to make between him and Victor Mete when Alexander Romanov signed his entry-level contract and burned the first year of it in July, you probably think they have to make one now. Montreal GM Marc Bergevin told La Presse back in February he sees Romanov immediately jumping onto the team’s third pair next season and topping out as a No. 2 within a few years and, though he hasn’t publicly commented on it, we don’t think he acquired Edmundson ahead of free agency just to park him on the bench. And with Ben Chiarot signed for two more seasons, the left side of the team’s defence is suddenly overpopulated, making one of Kulak or Mete expendable.
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So, why Kulak? Simple: he has more value on the market than he does to the Canadiens. The 26-year-old is signed for two more seasons at $1.85 million per and is coming off an outstanding playoff performance that all but mitigated an inconsistent regular season. At his best, the 6-foot-2 Edmonton native is an effective No. 4—the kind of player teams would line up to acquire—and any rival watching him in August has that as a fresh impression versus the one he left as a depth option from October to March. Contrast his worth in a trade to that of Mete and you’re comparing diamonds to cubic zirconia.
Which is not to say Mete has no value to the Canadiens. He’s only 22 and he’s already played 181 games in the NHL (including the 10 he just played in the playoffs), and he’s proven himself a capable third-pairing option. That he still has room to improve makes him worth retaining, especially on what is likely to be a team-friendly contract that must be signed before he plays his next game.
Because Mete is an undersized player who generates less offence than his skating stride should enable him to, his marginal value on the trade market in relation to his value to the Canadiens makes it an even easier decision. Because marginal-value players aren’t going to help the Canadiens acquire what they need before the puck drops on next season.
Which brings us to what Edmundson’s acquisition really did—on top of adding some unheralded offence and some size, grit and depth to Montreal’s blue line. It opened up Bergevin’s options.
The Canadiens are hurting for a scoring forward and their best opportunity to acquire one is through trade, and he now has roster players he can part with (in addition to 11 picks in the upcoming draft and one of the deepest prospect pools in hockey) without creating a hole to make it happen.
But Bergevin isn’t forced to go that route. Not yet, at least. He can first attempt to sign a scoring forward in free agency and, with an already-improved roster from the one that pulled off a shocking upset over the Pittsburgh Penguins and gave the top-seeded Philadelphia Flyers all it could handle in a six-game loss this summer, he might even have an easier time attracting one. And if he’s able to do it that way, it could open even more possibilities for him on the trade market.
Either way, Edmundson’s arrival has several implications beyond what he personally brings to the team. With just a couple of weeks remaining in the playoffs, and the draft and free agency in the offing, we won’t have to wait much longer for those implications to be more clearly defined.