In late October, Victor Mete got the news that everyone saw coming.
The 19-year old defenceman got the news that he'd be playing his 10th National Hockey League game of the season for the Montreal Canadiens against the Los Angeles Kings at the Bell Centre, partnering with All-Star Shea Weber. His poise and relatively mistake-free game, along with a lack of other capable puck-moving defencemen on the roster, was enough to keep him around.
You've certainly read up on this rule from the NHL's Collective Bargaining Agreement: a player on his entry-level deal can play up to nine games at the start of the season before being sent back to his junior hockey club without his contract kicking in. Had the Canadiens sent him back to the London Knights before the 10th game, this season wouldn't have counted as the first year of his entry-level deal.
Habs general manager Marc Bergevin even gave the youngster a vote of confidence, saying that if he kept playing the way he was playing, he'd stay in Montreal.
#Habs Bergevin (in French) said if Mete keeps playing the way he has been, he will stay in Montreal.— John Lu (@JohnLuTSNMtl) October 25, 2017
Fast forward to November 30. Mete played 12 minutes in the Canadiens' 6-3 win over the Detroit Red Wings; their fourth straight victory. The defenceman filled in for Joe Morrow on the third pairing alongside Jordie Benn and was on the ice for two of the Habs’ goals on the night. He was originally awarded an assist on Charles Hudon's third goal of the season, but it was then given to Tomas Plekanec.
In 25 games this season, Mete has just three assists. His ice-time, once between 16 and 22 minutes a game for his first 12 games, has since dwindled. His season average is at 14:42, but he's played under 10 minutes three times in his last seven games.
Mete's place no longer seems to be on the top-pairing, as he had been moved down even before Weber was forced out of the lineup with an injury, and with David Schlemko and Jakub Jerabek returning to the lineup, Mete's days with the Canadiens seemed to be numbered.
Earlier this week, TSN insider Bob McKenzie reported that the Canadiens were considering loaning Mete to Team Canada for the World Junior Championship in Buffalo. If the Canadiens sent him back to London, he won't be able to return to the Habs for the remainder of the season.
Mete is 15 games away from the 40-game mark. If he plays that many games, he'll be one year closer to becoming an unrestricted free agent, as players can become UFAs after playing seven seasons or by the age of 27. If a player in his first year is on the active roster for 40 games, it counts as one of those seven seasons. Bergevin certainly has that rule on his mind.
Despite the reduced role he’s been given, it appears that the Canadiens are planning to keep Mete around. It came to light this week that the Canadiens were making Brandon Davidson available, and today he will be placed on waivers.
If the eventual plan was to send Mete to the junior ranks, that move would have been the most obvious one to make room on the roster for Weber’s impending return. The Canadiens instead exposed an NHL-calibre defenceman to a claim from any of the other 30 NHL teams.
Mete has been faring well. He hasn't set the world aflame, but he’s also not looking out of place in the lineup with whomever he plays with. By giving him less ice time, even sitting him out for the odd game from time to time, the Canadiens aren’t providing the most extensive development opportunity for a teenaged defender who could be getting top-pairing time in the junior ranks. The feeling seems to be that even limited playing time in the NHL is still the way to go.
Making a gradual adjustment to the speed and strength of players at the NHL level is the biggest area Mete needs to improve, so if the team can afford to give a young prospect that type of hands-on experience, even with just a few minutes of playing time a night, it may be helpful for him in the long run.