Xavier Ouellet is a 24-year-old left-handed defenceman, who was not qualified by the Detroit Red Wings after this season. He’s only had two seasons where he’s played more than 40 games at the NHL level, and despite decent underlying numbers, the cap strapped Red Wings chose to let him hit the free agent market for this upcoming weekend. While he wouldn’t alleviate the jam the Canadiens have on their left side, a reunion with his old QMJHL coaches might just be the thing to get Ouellet’s career back on the right track.
Let’s get right down to brass tacks, the Canadiens very much have a logjam on their left side of the defence, and it ranges from young, but unproven, to mediocre at best. Below are their advanced metrics, with Ouellet’s being the first chart available.
It is worth noting in the case of a player like Karl Alzner, that he received the huge benefit of getting to play primarily with Jeff Petry and Shea Weber for most of the year, while David Schlemko and Jordie Benn bounced around the lineup.
Ouellet played almost entirely alongside Nick Jensen (117 minutes), Mike Green (172 minutes), and Niklas Kronwall (162 minutes) at five-on-five this past year. Ouellet was the least-used regular defencemen on the Red Wings roster (552 5v5 minutes), yet when placed in the lineup he was almost entirely used as a top four option. And in those minutes, Ouellet didn’t truly hurt any of his teammates in terms of shots for and against, a solid feat on a Detroit team that lacked any sort of bite in this past season.
He isn’t setting the world on fire when he’s on the ice, but it’s clear that Ouellet has a net positive impact with the majority of his teammates. With no disrespect meant to Green and Kronwall, Ouellet might still reach a more consistent level of play alongside a better defender in the form of Jeff Petry, or with another young, but responsible partner in Noah Juulsen.
Ouellet's ability to generate shots in the offensive zone should be appealing to Montreal as well, given that, outside Petry, Mete, and Weber, the defence lacked players who could consistently funnel pucks to the net. Factor in Mete and Weber missing a boatload of time and you have one defender in Petry shouldering a heavy load. Adding Ouellet to that mix could help create more balanced pairings on the ice, and diversify a Canadiens attack that was highly predictable for portions of last year.
As you’ll notice, those heavy areas of shot generation are coming from Ouellet’s side of the ice. That’s a promising sight that he’s generating offence when he’s on the ice, and it’s in a noticeable fashion. Relative to his teammates he’s coming out ahead in the possession metrics as well. The downside is that, in spite of the shots he’s taking, his expected goals for is rather low, meaning he might not be taking the shots from dangerous areas, or getting the puck into the right spots to create goals. You can see on the heat map above that this is partially true, as the area around the goal crease has little to no shot generation when Ouellet is on the ice.
What might be the most intriguing part of bringing Ouellet into Montreal, is that regardless of him being in the NHL or AHL, he’s familiar with coaches in either league. At one point with the Montreal Juniors of the QMJHL, his two assistant coaches were Joel Bouchard and Dominique Ducharme. In that season with both as his coach, he posted 43 points in 67 games, which isn’t mind-blowing but still made him a top producer on a team that lost just 12 games all year. When the Juniors became the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada in the 2011-12 season, and with Bouchard still as his coach Ouellet posted 60 points in 63 games, including an incredible 21 goals. Joining an organization that has ties to his developmental years in the QMJHL could help Ouellet flesh out his game, both Bouchard and Ducharme have seen just how well he can play when he’s at his best.
In terms of a contract, it’s going to cost next to nothing to bring Ouellet in, his last deal which paid 1.25 million a year was bought out by Detroit this off-season. For a player looking to prove himself it would be surprising to see him sign a deal for more than that amount during free agency. Furthering that, if he signs for around $1 million ($1.025 million to be exact) and doesn’t have it at the NHL level, the Canadiens can assign him to Laval and hide his entire cap hit in the AHL.
Much like Jordan Subban, there’s little downside to giving a soon-to-be 25-year-old a low-cost, low-risk contract. If Ouellet finds his game and shows he can stick in the NHL, then the Habs found a great value and take some pressure off other players. If he struggles, he can head to the AHL and be a veteran leader there, it’s low risk with moderate reward, and that might be the safest play for Marc Bergevin on Sunday.