The Montreal Canadiens have been dipping into the Russian talent pool in the off-season for a few years now, adding a player to their roster from one of the top league’s in the world. There’s little risk to such a move, as no future assets need to be parted with to acquire a potential impact player as they would be when making transactions within the NHL itself.
With Jiri Sekac and Alexander Radulov being signed out of the KHL in recent years, this time the team decided to take on a defenceman, as Jakub Jerabek was signed to a one-year contract in May.
Since then, the Canadiens’ defence has seen a major shakeup, first seeing Nathan Beaulieu traded away before the organization’s top prospect, Mikhail Sergachev, was exchanged for Jonathan Drouin. The team also declined to present a qualifying offer to Nikita Nesterov, who has since returned to Russia to continue his professional career, and lost Alexei Emelin to the Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft.
All of those moves involved defenders who play the left side, turning what was a fairly deep area of the club into one filled with holes. The Canadiens have since filled those roster spots back up, making a trade with the Golden Knights to obtain David Schlemko and signing Karl Alzner to a five-year contract shortly after free agency officially began.
One move that had been anticipated but has yet to materialize is a new contract for long-time Hab Andrei Markov. After yet another productive season, it seemed likely that the 38-year-old would be re-upped. However, the team is offering a one-year term, Markov is adamant about signing for two, and the sides remain locked in a stalemate. A recent report of a contract offer to Mark Streit may signal that a resolution will not be found.
Whatever the new-look defence ends up being, the biggest change is the shift to defenders whose main transition ability is passing the puck out of the zone rather than carrying it themselves.
Confidence with the puck was one of the top reasons why Sergachev was regarded as the best prospect in the system, and why many were patient with Beaulieu as he often had difficulty putting it into practice. Even if Markov or Streit do sign on for the upcoming season, neither has the footspeed anymore to transition the puck up ice on his own.
The end result is that Jerabek, who was a depth addition to a strong defence group at the time of his signing, is now the most dynamic blue-liner on the left side.
Known more for his offensive skills than his defending, Jerabek has a complementary skill set to every other defender on the team, save perhaps Jeff Petry on the right who plays a similar style. He’s a puck-handler who prefers to be in the mix when his team is transitioning from defence to offence.
Those skills helped him have a production professional career in his his native Czech Republic, ending the 2015-16 season with the most points of any defenceman in the Extraliga, and earning Defenceman of the Year honours for the effort. A quest for a greater challenge landed him Podolsk, Russia to play his first season in the KHL. His game not only survived the increase in competition quality, but he ended the year with another accolade, named to the First All-Star Team as one of the top players.
He’s now taken the ultimate step and joined a team in the world’s top league. The pieces have fallen into (or out of) place to give him a prime opportunity to make an impact with a new team, potentially in a significant role. He has defensive partners to back him up when he does decide to get assertive with the puck, and a system that should have his teammates in good position to give him outlet options as he does so.
Whether those aspirations will come to fruition is yet to be determined, but he’s probably just as eager to find out as we all are.