It’s been an extremely trying season for a Montreal Canadiens defensive unit that moved out three regulars during the off-season in favour of a more defence-oriented group. Despite this, Jeff Petry has been one of the key holdovers, playing an ever-increasing role with the prolonged absence of Shea Weber.
In terms of points, Petry has four goals and 12 assists in 42 games this year, which puts him on pace to match the career high of 28 points that he recorded last year. While Petry doesn’t have the power-play cannon of Shea Weber, nor does he glide through defenders like Victor Mete, he’s still the best defender the Habs have with Weber on the sidelines.
In the absence of the Man Mountain, we’ve seen Petry evolve his game into something more diverse. He now carries the puck out of his own zone, even all the way into the high-danger areas in the offensive zone.
He has always been a very good puck-moving defender, something he demonstrated last year alongside Andrei Markov on a dynamite second pair. There, he had the freedom to roam against lesser competition. With Weber out and Mete joining Team Canada for the World Juniors, Petry had no choice but to go back to his old playing style.
Jeff Petry with the great moves and Nicolas Deslauriers finishes off a pass by Byron Froese pic.twitter.com/4k1YqU74EZ— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) December 20, 2017
Look at the above goal to see just what he’s capable of. Petry starts deep in his defensive zone, carries the puck in deep, and almost single-handledly sets up the tally. When he’s playing like this, the Canadiens defence is at its best, even without the aforementioned Weber and Mete.
Petry will never be the major point-producer that Erik Karlsson or P.K. Subban are, yet he provides value beyond point totals. Petry continues to be a major possession driver on a defence that has very little offensive firepower. At five-versus-five this year, and with at least 50 minutes played together, only two Canadiens players have a negative shot-attempt differential while playing with Petry: Joe Morrow and Alex Galchenyuk.
Looking at the WoWY (With or Without You) chart above, almost every single player on the team is worse in terms of possession when playing without Petry, with the only two major exceptions being the aforementioned Galchenyuk and Morrow.
Even more substantial is the above chart which approximates how the Canadiens defencemen would fare if Petry were absent from the lineup, versus how Petry would fare if each defencemen were respectively removed.
Here, only Brandon Davidson and Weber did not see significant drop-offs in their possession numbers. Davidson’s metrics in his short stint with the Habs this year are close to Petry’s, while Weber has seen more shots allowed and taken this year with him on-ice; a by-product of sheltering Mete.
Perhaps the biggest flaw for Montreal this year has been their penalty kill, and part of that comes from Montreal’s inability to slow down any players carrying the puck into the zone. When opposing teams enter and set up in the zone, there are two very different penalty killing units they can face: one with Jeff Petry on the ice, and one without him.
These two units are massively different. When Petry is off the ice, the number of high-danger shots from the slot and “home plate” area in the Habs defensive zone skyrockets. When Petry is on the ice, the majority of opposition shots are coming from the blue line and the sideboards; lower-percentage areas for scoring chances. Perhaps most impressive is that he’s posted these results while primarily playing alongside Karl Alzner, who has struggled mightily while down a man this season.
Therein lies the most important part of this season for Petry. He has transitioned from Markov and Mark Barberio to Alexei Emelin and now Alzner as his standard defence partner. In fact, out of all the defensive pairings this season, Petry and Alzner have been nearly untouched by Claude Julien, playing a total of 536 minutes together and being easily the most used duo on the team this year. For perspective, only one other Habs defenceman has played more total minutes on defence this year for the Habs than the Petry-Alzner duo have played together, with that individual being Jordie Benn.
The Petry/Alzner duo has had some major hiccups at 5v5. While the slot has been protected by the pairing on the penalty kill, the inverse is true for even-strength play, with the tandem giving up a major swath of ice to opposing teams.
That said, based on the “without Petry” heat map above, yielding the high-danger area appears to be, at least somewhat, a systemic issue with the entire Montreal team rather than a specific weakness of Petry. Much like his -21 overall rating, things can be highly misleading when you consider how badly this season started for Montreal.
Petry has had some rough stretches when the team has struggled, and it’s shown in his game. In recent weeks though, the Canadiens have leaned heavily on the Michigan native to be their de facto number-one defender. With the increased responsibility, he has begun to thrive, showing his good puck-moving instincts and quarterbacking the power play.
In the second half, it might be in Julien’s best interests to try out Mete or Jakub Jerabek next to Petry on the top pair. If Weber is going to be out long term, adding another puck-mover who can handle tougher assignments is going to be key in keeping the team afloat.
Fans have harped on how Petry has played this year, which is understandable since he’s getting paid a sizable chunk of money and didn’t have the best start to the season. By the halfway point, the underlying numbers are starting to show that Petry is once again a crucial cog in the Canadiens defence, and based on previous seasons, he’ll continue to be that guy for the foreseeable future.