The Montreal Canadiens had a difficult season in 2017-18, and go into the off-season looking to address weaknesses and improve for next year. The Habs obviously have a huge hole at the centre position that they need to fill. However, this is not the only area that needs to be addressed. If you look at the Habs defence, there is talent in the system, but this talent is disproportionality distributed. The Habs top two defenceman play on the right side. Looking at their top prospects, even if we include the 19-year-old who made the team out of training camp, only one of their top five defence prospects is a left-handed shot. This position also desperately needs to be filled during the off-season for the Habs to bounce back next season.
The Canadiens Blue Line: Just as Important as Finding A Centre
The Habs were terrible on the defensive side of the game this year and a down year from Carey Price was not the only problem. The Habs gave up 264 goals this year which was fifth worst in the NHL. This is because the Habs have given up scoring chances all year long. The Habs expected goals against went from 141.65 last year to 151.76 this year at even strength. Compounding the problem, they also had one of the worst penalty kill units in the NHL.
What Do The Habs have Right Now?
On the left side, the only young defenseman that is NHL ready is Victor Mete. Mete made the Habs out of training camp. However, he played in the World Juniors and also suffered a hand injury during the season. These two events limited him to only 49 games in his rookie year. While Mete continues to improve, at this point he is not ready to play top pair minutes. He may need to be further down the lineup for a year or two, gaining experience. Mete only averaged about 15 minutes of ice-time per game in his rookie year. He is clearly the best skater on the left side of the blue-line.
The Habs acquired Mike Reilly from the Minnesota Wild who is only 24. In 19 games with the Habs, he recorded eight assists. The Habs gave up a fifth-round pick in next year’s draft to acquire Reilly. Reilly definitely has a role in Montreal as a left-handed shot on the point. Reilly is also mobile, but not as mobile as Mete. He can certainly develop into a solid defenseman but not to the extent of being on the first pairing. Reilly has some issues in his own end. Possession wise, he put up a 44.6 Corsi-For percentage and -2.0 relative Corsi last season. The numbers in Montreal were better than they were in Minnesota as he had a 47.4 Corsi-For percentage and -0.3 relative Corsi in Montreal
Alzner was brought in last summer on a five-year, $23.125 million contract with an AAV of $4.625 million per year. He has averaged 20 minutes with the Habs and is clearly in the top six at the moment. Alzner is not known for his offence or puck moving ability but was expected to provide shut down defence. His season was a disappointment, as he never seemed to settle in with the Habs, and he was poor at both end of the ice. Given the investment the Habs made, it is obvious that Alzner will get a second chance this coming season. If he continues to play as poorly as he did last year, he should be benched. There are a number of defencemen who could play better than he did last year.
Benn was used as a top-four defenseman. He averaged close to 19 minutes of ice-time per game, and his physicality is something Montreal needs more of in the future. While Benn has a future in Montreal, it is not on the first-pairing with Weber. Montreal desperately needed size as they have been known to be lacking in physicality in past years. Benn showed this by registering a career-high 115 hits this past year. His possession numbers were a Corsi-For percentage of 49.8 and a relative Corsi of -0.7. Given his usage against top lines, as well as his heavy defensive zone starts, these numbers are more than respectable.
Schlemko is at best at third-pairing defenseman. Marc-Bergevin acquired him from the Vegas Golden Knights after the expansion draft. He suffered a hand injury in training camp, required surgery, and his season never seemed to really get starts. Schlemko managed just one goal and four assists in 37 games. While he was brought in to be a puck mover, and to help the second unit on the power play, those things just never seemed to happen. It would not be a surprise if Schlemko is traded this off-season.
On the right side, the Habs have an all-star calibre defenseman in Shea Weber. While he missed time last season due to injury, Jeff Petry stepped up. He had a career year. The right-handed shooting Petry was one of the bright spots of the season, scoring 12 goals and 30 assists for 42 in 82 games last year. He is definitely going to be a top four D man next year and should anchor the second defensive pairing. His numbers could even improve as he won’t have to play against other team’s top line.
In the System
The Habs have a prospect in Noah Juulsen who is NHL ready. They also have Brett Lernout, who is knocking on the door. Further down the system, the Canadiens drafted Cale Fleury and Josh Brook. They both had solid post-draft seasons in the WHL and are amongst the Habs top prospects. The issue is that all four of these defencemen are also right-handed shots.
Things are much shallower on the left side. The Habs acquired Rinat Valiev at the NHL Trade Deadline as part of the package they received for Tomas Plekanec. However, there are rumours that Valiev may be headed back to the KHL. His agent has indicated that this is not a done deal and that he will negotiate with the Habs in June. As things stand, the logjam of depth defencemen on the left side means that Valiev wouldn’t fit in Montreal. However, if they were to move a defender, or if Jordie Benn is used on the right side again, there could be a spot for him. While the Habs drafted Scott Walford and Jarret Tyszka last summer, both are projects who are not close to NHL ready.
Why No-One is suited to Compliment Weber
Weber is a defenseman who loves to set up and take slapshots from the point. Weber has been known to have one of the hardest shots in the league and is a power-play specialist. He needs someone who can set him up not only on the powerplay but also five on five. Weber is very strong and physical in his own zone. He keeps attackers to the outside and clears the front of the net. In addition to his goal-scoring ability, he is also one of the best defensive defenders in the league. However, skating and puck handling are not Weber’s strong suits. The Habs need a young left-handed defenceman who can handle the puck well. They also need someone who can start the transition game and move the puck through the neutral zone. A quick-skating, puck-moving defenseman would be the ideal complement for Weber on the Habs top pair.
The defencemen that the Habs currently have either don’t have the speed to play with Weber or aren’t quite ready for such a big role. The Habs need to find someone to fill this role until Mete develops. Current Habs defencemen like Benn and Alzner are veterans who aren’t going to be looked upon for their speed. What Weber needs is someone like Roman Josi who was his partner when he was with the Nashville Predators. This would allow Weber to continue to do what he does best, and bring a new dimension to the Habs. Such a player would help the team give up fewer goals by clearing the zone quickly and kick-start the offence in the transition game.
Finding such a player? Of course, that is not easy, but it needs to be at the top of Marc Bergevin‘s priority list. This position is as important to the Habs success as finding the elusive number one centre.