Who should be Shea Weber’s partner? This is the big question that the Habs have to answer following the acquisition of the defenseman.
The bright side of the World Cup is that it gave Carey Price some much needed game experience prior to the season, but unfortunately it also made Weber unavailable for the team during preseason, which is the ideal time to test defensive pairings.
The Canadiens don't really have an obvious answer in the mold of Ryan Suter or Roman Josi, Weber’s previous partners. The ideal defenseman would have the following characteristics:
- He’d be left-handed, since Weber is right-handed;
- He’d be mobile and dynamic, as Weber is a more static defenseman
- He’d have strong puck transition skills, as this is an area where Weber prefers to defer to his partner
- He’d be a strong passer, so as to feed Weber’s infamous point shot
- And last but not least, he would have the capacity to play a large workload of minutes, and to regularly face top pairing opposition, as this is the role that Weber is likely to fill.
Let’s take a look at the candidates.
PK Subban's former partner, Andrei Markov, has the passing and transition skills, but at his age lacks the mobility to be an ideal match for Weber.
Alexei Emelin is another physical defenseman and lacks the passing and transition skills; while clearly the lesser player, he is too similar to Weber to be a good match.
Perhaps the most suitable defenseman stylistically is Nathan Beaulieu, as the young defenseman is left-handed, skilled with the puck, and highly mobile. However he has never played such a heavy workload at the NHL level, and he does not yet have the full confidence of the coaching staff to the point where has yet to fully establish himself as a regular (he was a healthy scratch at times last season).
The Habs' remaining left-handed defenseman, Mark Barberio, is a stylistic match but is likewise considered a depth option and it would be a leap to see him assigned to the first pairing seeing as he was placed on waivers.
The coach has suggested he might move Jeff Petry to the left of Weber, and of all the Habs' defenseman he certainly is the best match in terms of style and ability level. Unfortunately he is also right-handed. This approach thus causes the dual problem of playing the nominal #2 defenseman on the wrong side, and leaving no obvious composition for the second pair. Markov and Emelin have been tried together before but the results were not impressive.
This leaves one intriguing option: the Habs' 2016 first-round pick, Mikhaïl Sergachev. The big 18-year-old has impressed everyone, including the coaching staff, with his combination of physical ability, mobility and puck skills; he is the right type of defenseman for the job. But at such a young age, is he ready for not just the NHL, but the heavy and difficult minutes that come from being on the first pairing, when the coaches already hesitate to use the more experienced Beaulieu?
The fact of the matter is that Weber is a very different player than Subban, with very different strengths, and for all that he is extolled as a good match for the Canadiens’ needs and Therrien’s system, fitting him inside the existing roster is no easy task. This opens the question of whether Weber’s partner should be acquired via transaction, but scroll up and look at that list of conditions again: how many defensemen are available who are left-handed, skilled and mobile, and capable of playing first-pairing minutes? The rarity of such defensemen is precisely why the Habs do not already have a strong match.
In the end the Habs are going to have to take a risk with someone who is not a perfect match. And as proposed by Jack Han, the Habs may need to consider doing so while splitting the minutes between two "#1.5" pairings, one centered around Weber and another around Petry. Therefore, among the available candidates, we must reject Petry as a potential partner simply because the Habs need him to play at full ability and to shore up the rest of the defense.
Of all the possibilities, Beaulieu is the one who is most likely to be the best fit overall. Despite the organization’s tendency to heavily favor veterans, the young left-hander has been ready for more responsibility for a while, and he has the best stylistic match for Weber. His play during preseason action has been nothing short of incredibly encouraging.
It certainly is gambling on the strength of a relatively inexperienced player, however, which is why giving significant minutes to a strong second pairing led by Petry will be crucial to the teams’ fortunes at five-on-five.