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The Montreal Canadiens’ biggest need is not at centre

A top centreman would be nice, but it’s not the most pressing concern.

Montreal Canadiens v New York Islanders Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The Montreal Canadiens have needed a top centre since Saku Koivu left the team (and yes, I am considering Koivu a top centre, but that’s an article for another day).

People around the Canadiens have already been screaming out names. John Tavares. Ryan O’Reilly. Paul Stastny. Some have the Canadiens going after Jesperi Kotkaniemi in the draft mainly because of that need at centre.

And it definitely is a need. It’s just not the most important one.

The Canadiens have gone to two Eastern Conference Finals with Tomas Plekanec and Scott Gomez or David Desharnais as their top centres. The team has shown they can win — even in the playoffs — with centres who are not players you would say are at the top at their position.

But the defence? That’s a new issue.

I want to take you back to May 12, 2014. That was the day of Game Six of the Eastern Conference Semifinal between the Canadiens and the Boston Bruins. Michel Therrien decided to replace Douglas Murray with Nathan Beaulieu, then a rookie.

Beaulieu instantly made an impact with an assist on the team’s second goal on a pass to Max Pacioretty.

It was a sign of the transition from where the NHL had been to where it was going. Murray was a defenceman who was of the stay-at-home variety, and it was one of the first signs that the Canadiens were adapting.

Beaulieu is no longer with the team after being traded last summer. On its own, it is not a massive blow to the team, but when you add his name to the long list of puck-moving defencemen who have been traded or otherwise let go by Marc Bergevin, you suddenly have the exodus of enough defenceman to field an entire NHL team, with healthy scratches, just among those currently on other NHL rosters. Then there’s also Andrei Markov, who went to, and performed well in, the KHL.

There were signs that this was already going to affect the team. In the 2017 post-season, they struggled to generate any type of offence against the New York Rangers in their playoff series, especially when they had to break out of their own zone, and that falls on the defence. They played Alexei Emelin days before he had surgery on his right knee. In the final game of the series, he managed to score a goal but played in stead of a healthy group of Nikita Nesterov, Brandon Davidson, and Beaulieu. None of those four are still with the team. Plus they lost one of the best puck movers in recent history in Markov.

In their places, the team added David Schlemko, who had a rough season plagued with injuries. They had Jordie Benn play major minutes along with Joe Morrow and Karl Alzner. They basically fielded their opening-night defensive lineup by default, and that included rookie Victor Mete.

It seemed like the team was going down the wrong path again when they traded Jakub Jerabek, one of the few defencemen who was able to move the puck up the ice, before the trade deadline. But then they used the pick they acquired to trade for Mike Reilly, which seems to be a move back onto the right course.

Bergevin recently signed two Czech defencemen in Michal Moravčík and David Sklenička who look to be in the mould of a more modern NHL blue-liner. The Canadiens’ defence next season could likely include a more experienced Mete, Noah Juulsen, and Reilly, which would be an improvement over the start of the 2017-18 season.

The defence still isn’t perfect. In a perfect world, they would have a true partner for Shea Weber, allowing for guys to slot into better spots more suited to them and have more depth at the position.

A lot of people will say to forget about defence. That the Canadiens need help scoring goals. But that’s the kicker: building the defence with the right kind of defencemen will help the offence. We’ve seen it in the past, and now the Canadiens have the best forward depth they have had in years.

The wingers are good enough to get by without a truly elite centre. In a perfect world you have both, and the Canadiens might yet do just that. But if they can only address one, improving the defence is the way to go.

Montreal has shown they can win without a top centreman. They have not proven they can win without a strong defence.

Most importantly, this group needs someone to get the puck to the forwards, and force defenders in the neutral zone to repect a defenceman as a potential puck-carrying option. Last year, after injuries to Mete and Weber, it fell to Petry and eventually Juulsen and Reilly. That’s fine, but there need to be more options there.

Bergevin has admitted being a little overzealous in calling his defence better than the previous year’s before the start of the season. When he meets the media at the golf tournament in a few months, he needs to be able to say it again and have it be true.

Because if the defence doesn’t improve, it will not matter who the Canadiens have at centre.