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Call of the Wilde: Tampa Bay Lightning take easy 4-1 win over the Montreal Canadiens

The Montreal Canadiens are on their longest road trip of the season of seven games. Stop four found Montreal dropping under .500 for the road trip with a loss in Tampa Bay.

At the end, the Lightning claimed a workmanlike 4-1 win.

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General Manager Kent Hughes indicated in the summer before the 2022-23 season that he did not want to go with three rookies on his blue line. He already had David Savard and Joel Edmundson. He knew he was going to trade Jeff Petry, and wanted to get a veteran in return.

He also felt he needed to get Chris Wideman to help with the youth. He didn’t think he could rely on more than two rookie defenders.

Fast forward six months and Hughes has on his blue line five rookies. It’s remarkable. Kaiden Guhle, Arber Xhekaj, Jordan Harris, Jonathan Kovacevic, and for the first time this season Justin Barron all on the blue line in Tampa Bay.

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It’s the first time in franchise history that Montreal has had five rookies on the blue line in one game. The Montreal Canadiens have been a hockey team for 113 seasons, yet this is the first time it has happened. What an amazing story this season.

The best aspect of this isn’t trying five rookie defenders. It is that five rookie defenders are succeeding. Guhle is the best of the group. It is becoming clear that Guhle has top pair potential. It was Guhle who got the only goal for the Canadiens in this one on a slap shot from the point.

The rest, so far, and it is early in their careers, seem to be all third pair defenders, but they could easily develop into more. In fact, it is smarter to guess that one of them will elevate to second pair as they all continue to mature.

Barron got his first chance in Tampa Bay to man the blue line for Montreal this season after a strong campaign in Laval. He had a poor training camp, but recovered very nicely.

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Barron is a terrific skater, but needs to show more physicality as the NHL level. He needs to battle harder, or learn how to separate himself from the battle is alternately a good solution for his game as well.

There will be long nights when a team is trying to break in five defenders in the NHL, but this is a fantastic start for a young team with five rookies already and Lane Hutson, Logan Mailloux and Jayden Struble all in the pipeline trying to earn a chance as well.

If Hughes wants to trade away some veterans like Joel Edmundson or David Savard, it looks like these kids can handle Mike Matheson as their only experienced support.

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The Canadiens were overmatched by an extremely good and experienced hockey team, so there’s not much to pile on about when fans already know the story of what is lacking. What is lacking is goals as the opposition is focusing even harder on stopping Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield, and no one else has the ability to step up to fill that void.

The only thing that comes to mind to complain about is a wish that corresponds more to the other game every Canadian hockey fan was focused on while the Canadiens were playing.

While the Habs were providing little to get excited about, Connor Bedard, the consensus number one pick in this NHL entry draft, was putting on a three-hour masterpiece in Halifax.

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Bedard scored three goals and added four assists in an 11-2 win over Germany at the World Juniors, and it was difficult to not wish the Canadiens were lower in the standings to improve their chances to draft this generational talent.

Fans salivate over the thought of Bedard in a Montreal uniform, and it would only be natural for General Manager Kent Hughes to be watching such an obvious superstar in the making to be salivating right along with all of us.

No doubt Hughes is contemplating how he can improve his chances in the draft, because Bedard is the player that could change everything.

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Hughes has shown an ability to think creatively to acquire top talent. The acquisition of Kirby Dach for what amounted to the 13th pick overall in sending Alexander Romanov to Long Island was a stroke of brilliance. Hughes and executive vice-president Jeff Gorton recognized that Romanov was topping out as a 3-4 defender, and managed to acquire a top-six centre for him.

This season, it should be thrilling again to see what the partnership can achieve as the trading deadline approaches. The word is that the offers are strong for a couple of players who may be too old for the rebuild: Joel Edmundson and Josh Anderson.

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Though the fan base does not appreciate these two players all that much, teams around the league are looking for stable defencemen and big power forwards — especially for the playoffs.  For Montreal, they would be outstanding trades for what might be first-round draft picks.

Another intriguing idea is Alexis Lafreniere in a Montreal uniform. The former first pick overall is, once again, struggling in his third NHL season. Lafreniere has only five goals in 36 games. However, this is also about a lack of opportunity where Lafreniere is still on the third line with gusts to fourth line duty.

The Canadiens have two first-round draft picks and both are in position, at the moment, to be involved in the lottery. As impossible as it sounds, mathematically, the Canadiens can win both lottery drops to draft number one and number two. The Canadiens actually have the fourth best chance of winning the lottery when one adds the odds of both Montreal and Florida.

Fans responded on Twitter when proposed the ‘Lafreniere for Florida’s first’ offer that they would like to take the deal after learning if Montreal drafts 11 or one, but that’s the teaser of hope that makes New York trade Lafreniere in the first place — the hope that they can get a number one back, especially when that number one is Connor Bedard.

It’s an intriguing idea because no doubt Lafreniere in a Montreal uniform would excite the fan base. Whatever happens this early March at the trading deadline or at the draft in the summer, Hughes and Gorton have shown a creativity and intelligence to improve the club.

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It should be exciting. There are so many pieces falling into place for the Canadiens. There are no guarantees among the prospects.

As an example, Filip Mesar could be a second-line player, or he may not even be an NHL regular. It is impossible to know who progresses and who does not, but there are so many high-quality players that just the math alone favours the Canadiens. With this many top-quality prospects, some will land, and one or two could find greatness.

Right now, Montreal has two first-round draft choices. That could be as high as five if all goes beautifully acquiring a first for Anderson, Edmundson, and Sean Monahan, but teams may love the 18-year-old players in this excellent draft so much that they don’t want to part with any of their first-rounders.

The drama will be scintillating. The winners will be fans of the Montreal Canadiens starting in two or three years when they get to enjoy watching the continuing progress of all of this young talent.

Brian Wilde, a Montreal-based sports writer, brings you Call of the Wilde on globalnews.caafter each Canadiens game

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