Sat. Jun 22nd, 2024

The Montreal Canadiens are facing significant, long-term injuries to their top players already this season. Kirby Dach is out for the entire season, and now Kaiden Guhle is out day-to-day, however, his defensive partner Jonathan Kovacevic says he hopes he is back in a couple weeks.  

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With Guhle’s injury, the door opens for his 2021 World Junior Championship defence partner to get into the Canadiens lineup. Now, Justin Barron will make his regular-season debut in Montreal’s fourth game of the season as they face off against the Washington Capitals.

A Notoriously Slow Starter 

Justin Barron said his goal was to make the team out of camp. He made it but as the seventh defenceman. It shouldn’t come as a surprise as he is a notoriously slow starter. He struggled at the 2022-23 season training camp before being assigned to the American Hockey League (AHL) Laval Rocket. He had trouble getting his game on track after the demotion but became comfortable in his situation and started to produce for the Rocket, scoring seven goals and 16 points in 25 games.  

Justin Barron, Montreal Canadiens (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Barron not only overcame his disappointment in the demotion, but he also excelled, becoming Laval’s best defenceman before being recalled in December 2022. Once he arrived in Montreal, he never looked back. He was plugged into the lineup and played in the top four. The 6-foot-2 defender looked like a veteran at times and finished the season having scored five goals and 17 points in 46 games played. 

Canadiens Provide Opportunity 

By the end of last season, Barron had demonstrated that he could be a reliable defenceman, and his offence began to stand out as he became more comfortable in the NHL and confident in his abilities. Heading into the offseason, fans, media and the coaching staff all saw a player who had taken a step ahead in his development and seemed ready to become an NHL regular. 

However, Barron seemed to play a hesitant style, not taking initiative or trying to take control of a game or even a play, instead he was reactionary, allowing his opponent to dictate the play. This lack of confidence in the defensive end was also seen in his offensive game. The 21-year-old defender was unable to convince management that he could unseat others such as Kovacevic for a regular role. Had Logan Mailloux not been too raw to take an NHL role, or Gustav Lindstrom playing a quiet, uninspired style, Barron may not have stayed in Montreal as he did. 

Now Guhle’s injury forces head coach Martin St. Louis to juggle his defence pairings. Jordan Harris returns to the left side, leaving the opening on the right side for Barron to fill. And the coach minced no words when talking about this opportunity. 

“Are you going in because the performance of guys in front of you aren’t up to par? Are you going in because guys in front of you got hurt? Are you going in because we can’t keep you sitting down? There’s different things. Whatever the reason, it doesn’t matter. He’s got to be ready.”

– Martin St. Louis 

For Barron, it was a matter of patience, waiting for an opportunity, and now it’s here. As St. Louis said, he needs to be ready, and regardless of the reason he is in the lineup, he needs to perform. The key for Barron to earn a permanent role this season is to play to his strengths. He possesses good size, is an excellent skater and has a great first pass. His main strength is offence, he has an excellent shot, but he pairs it well with his mobility. He can move around the offensive zone with possession while waiting for his opponent to make an error and provide a lane for a pass, or an accurate shot. 

It’s well known that defencemen notoriously take longer to develop, and at only 21, Barron is no exception. While patience will be needed in dealing with him, by the fans as well, it falls on the player to identify and take the opportunities they are provided. Barron will need to find consistency in his defensive game. He will need to play a more physical style as he will need to box out opponents in front of his net or take a hit to make a play deep in his zone. Also, he will need to use that mobility to close the gaps, taking away time and space from rushing forwards, even if he doesn’t do so to lay a hit, but to force them to the outside where he can use his reach to generate a dump in or a giveaway. 

More importantly, he will need to make decisions at a faster rate, it’s not all about skating speed, but speed in decisions. But not any decision, the safe one, the one that allows him a path to clear the zone or to gain possession and start a controlled breakout. Something the Canadiens forwards rely on from their blue line to help generate offence. 

The former 25th overall selection in the 2020 NHL Draft by the Colorado Avalanche is entering the final year of his entry-level contract (ELC), meaning he will be a restricted free agent (RFA) at the conclusion of the 2023-24 season. There is a lot invested in this young player, having been acquired via the Artturi Lehkonen trade at the 2022 NHL Trade Deadline and the time spent in developing him to this point. He will be given the opportunity to prove himself, and if he adds consistent and sound defensive play to his offensive skill, he will likely remain in the starting lineup even after Guhle returns.

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