The trade deadline has come on gone and while Marc Bergevin and the Montreal Canadiens never made a splash, they were active. The Canadiens used the trade deadline to focus on their biggest need which was on the back-end. And they did so, while not giving up much in terms of assets. They made their first move a day prior to the trade deadline, sending a fifth-round pick in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft to the Detroit Red Wings in exchange for Jonathon Merrill. Then on deadline day, they sent a seventh-round pick in the 2022 NHL Entry Draft to the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for Erik Gustafsson. While neither player is what you would call a game-changer, they shored up a defence group that hasn’t played overly well. They also bring a different dynamic to the defence group that was desperately needed.
Defence the Focus for the Montreal Canadiens at the Trade Deadline
Let’s start by looking at the Jon Merrill deal. Merrill was enjoying a successful season with the bottom-feeding Detroit Red Wings. Merrill was third amongst skaters on the Red Wings in ice time, averaging 19:41 per game. He was also the only defenceman on the Red Wings who had a positive goal differential. Normally, plus/minus is not a stat that anybody should use as a factor in determining how good a player is. However, when you’re on a team like the Red Wings, who were collectively a -43 at the time of the Merrill trade, that’s pretty outstanding. Especially considering that Merrill was not in a sheltered role whatsoever with the Red Wings, playing against the toughest competition night in and night out.
What the Canadiens are getting in Merrill is a defence-first type of defender. Merrill is excellent in his own end. He possesses a large frame at 6-foot-3, 195 lbs. He uses this to his advantage with a very active stick and outstanding positioning. Merrill’s ability to poke the puck away from the opposition coral it and quickly get it out with a crisp first pass is honestly probably his biggest strength. He excels at suppressing scoring chances, which is what the Canadiens value most from their defenceman.
Merrill is also a very effective penalty killer who excels in blocking shots. He has 58 blocks on the season, which is more than any player on the Canadiens. Of course, take that with a grain of salt considering he played for the Red Wings, however, it’s his positioning and large frame that really helps be such an efficient shot blocker. His ability to kill penalties is something that will greatly help the Canadiens, as it is an area they struggle in. It could also limit the number of minutes Shea Weber needs to log on the penalty kill, again, helping the Canadiens.
To get a player like Merrill for a fifth-round pick is an outstanding grab for the Canadiens.
Now we move to Gustafsson. Gustafsson is a completely different type of defender than Merrill. He is a pure offensive defenceman who is a powerplay specialist. Gustafsson doesn’t offer up a whole lot on the defensive side of things. However, he is an outstanding puck mover with a great shot. He has appeared in 24 games this season with the Philadelphia Flyers, recording one goal and 10 points. His only goal came on the powerplay and six of his 10 points were also with the man advantage. It’s something the Canadiens could certainly use, as their powerplay has struggled recently.
Fans really need to temper their expectations, however. While it’s nice to look up Gustafsson’s stats and see he had a 60 point season just two seasons ago, don’t expect that same sort of offence with the Canadiens. Truthfully, Gustafsson isn’t going to draw into the lineup every game, especially when Ben Chiarot returns from injury. Gustafsson will be someone who comes in and out of the lineup as needed. Someone who won’t eat a ton of minutes, but be utilized on the powerplay and get offensive zone starts. Much like what Habs fans can recall from Marc-Andre Bergeron during his time with the Habs.
All things considered, to get a player like this for a seventh-round pick is a no-brainer for Marc Bergevin.
Defence Outlook Moving Forward
So how will the defence look moving forward with the new additions? Well, expect to see Jon Merrill as an everyday player. Even when Ben Chiarot returns. His ability to suppress scoring chances, along with his penalty-killing ability and versatility to play both sides makes him a solid option to play in the top six. Merrill will most likely line up on the bottom pairing next to Alexander Romanov. This is good news for Romanov, as he can get comfortable playing his natural position. Merrill’s versatility and effectiveness on the penalty kill give him the upper hand on a player like Brett Kulak moving forward.
For Gustafsson, however, it will be interesting to see how Dominique Ducharme deploys him. Again, expect him to be a depth piece coming in and out of the lineup. We will most likely see him switch things up, lining up next to Shea Weber at times and other times next to Jon Merrill. He will also see a lot of powerplay time for the Canadiens. However, don’t expect Gustafsson to come in and be a top-pairing defenceman for the remainder of the season.
Road to the Playoffs Begins
Now that the trade deadline is over and the roster is set, the Montreal Canadiens can now focus on the task at hand. Making the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Bergevin did his job in helping the team in the position they had the greatest need and that was defence. While it wasn’t the big splash many fans had hoped for, they were necessary moves that do improve the Canadiens lineup.
With the addition of Eric Staal as well at the end of March, the Canadiens had already shored up their forward group, especially with the possibility of Cole Caufield getting the call up as well after a successful start to his professional career with the Laval Rocket. The Canadiens have a ton of depth at every position. Something that is a dire need come playoff time. Currently sitting in the fourth and final playoff position, the Canadiens chances at the Stanley Cup Playoffs are looking extremely strong. Now it’s time to buckle down and get the job done.