While the Montreal Canadiens have been searching for a number-one centre for what now feels like eons, a hole equally as glaring exists in their defence corps.
Though Shea Weber and Jeff Petry are terrific options on the right side, the Canadiens are rail-thin when it comes to left-handed defencemen. It’s a position they haven’t been able to adequately address since walking away from Andrei Markov this time last year.
The organization took steps to correct that issue in the long term at the NHL Entry Draft this past Saturday, selecting Alexander Romanov and Jordan Harris in the second and third round, respectively, and this after adding young Czech defenders David Sklenička and Michal Moravčíc one month ago. The defencemen line up on the left side of the ice, joining Victor Mete as promising young talents in that position.
Still, there is a severe lack of immediate contributors within the Canadiens’ system, and for as much potential as the club’s new prospects have, we can’t know how far away they are from reaching the NHL, or if they will at all.
Free agency is always a tricky way to solve problems like this, as it can often lead to bad gambles and worse contracts. There will be few high-end defencemen available when the signing period opens on July 1, but there is at least one left-hander Marc Bergevin’s team should be taking a long, hard look at.
Calvin de Haan is coming off what was looking like a career year until it was derailed by a shoulder injury. His 12 points in 33 games put him on pace for about 30 points had he been able to appear in all 82 contests.
The New York Islanders were thought to be moving on from de Haan after agreeing to just a single-year contract back in August, although the new regime under Lou Lamoriello may be more interested in bringing him back if they can afford to do so.
Hitting the open market, he is likely in for a raise on his $3,300,000 salary from last season, injury-shortened or not. With that in mind, is de Haan a player the Canadiens should open their pocket book for?
The short answer is: yes.
De Haan checks all the boxes the Canadiens should be looking for in a left-handed defenceman. As a partner for Shea Weber, there are probably no better options, at least none immediately available through free agency or within the Habs’ current lineup.
Now, that is not to say that de Haan is a bona fide number-one or -two defenceman. He is, however, a steady top-four option who brings many of the qualities the Canadiens should be adding to their blue line.
A strong skater, de Haan fits in with the organization’s supposed desire to bring in players who can keep up with the game at a high pace. This quality will be especially important in the player they slot alongside Weber, who, for all his strengths, doesn’t have the best footspeed. This is clearly something the Habs are aware of, as they had started rookie Mete in that position last October.
As we can see from the chart above, de Haan excels when it comes to setting up his teammates and creating goals. He ranks in the 89th percentile of the league when it comes to primary assists, and performs well with secondary helpers as well.
In fact, no defenceman on either the Canadiens’ or Islanders’ roster recorded more primary assists per 60 minutes than de Haan in 2017-18.
This has been a quality missing from the Canadiens’ defence since the departure of Markov last summer. To put a number on what the Habs have been missing from the back end since then, consider the following. In 2016-17, Markov generated 0.64 primary assists per 60, and even more than that the year before. No Canadiens defender has produced more than 0.39 since, with the exception of Mike Reilly in a very small sample size.
Let’s be clear: de Haan is not Markov. They aren’t the same type of player, and their offensive output is not comparable. However, de Haan, used properly in a top-four role, brings strengths of his own and would help improve a Canadiens defence that struggles at the best of times to create offensive opportunities for its forwards.
He may end up getting priced off of of the team, but negotiating with him is smart on [the Islanders’] part. He’s a solid middle-pairing defender who is more valuable than he seems. His injury last season (coupled with Snow’s inability to adequately replace him) pretty much killed the Islanders’ season. He’s just a good all-around defenceman. Had injury issues as a prospect and seemed to get over them until last season, so that might be a red flag.
It certainly seems as though de Haan would be a fit, at least as far as the lineup goes.
As much hope as we have for Mete, de Haan is a more complete player, and his presence would allow Mete the chance to develop without trying to keep up with Weber’s minutes. He is an improvement in all aspects over Karl Alzner, and while David Schlemko has a positive impact on possession, de Haan has simply produced at a much better rate.
The Canadiens are also in a pretty good position when it comes to negotiations. The team has plenty of cap space, and from most reports seem to be out of the John Tavares sweepstakes. Even if someone like Paul Stastny becomes a target for the club, there should be cash left over to pursue a much-needed top-four defenceman.
Interest in the player is high, however. The Athletic’s Arthur Staple has suggested that no fewer than 10 teams have reached out to the de Haan camp, and that will certainly drive up the price.
This is a risk, especially given de Haan’s history of injuries. It would make sense that he’ll be looking for term on this contract, though teams may be hesitant to give it for that reason. As for the Canadiens, they may be looking to use up more cap space on a shorter term, if that’s something de Haan would be interested in.
We can expect Bergevin and the Canadiens’ front office to be busy come July 1, as the team has room to bring in sizable contracts. It remains to be seen whether there are major acquisitions to be made, or if the team will make lower-profile additions instead.
If the team is serious about improving next year, though, a prime-aged Calvin de Haan seems to make a world of sense.