It was not an easy road for the Canadiens last year. Injuries and horrid luck decimated their season before they ever had a chance to settle into any sort of rhythm. No one knows this better than the Habs top defencemen Shea Weber, who battled a serious foot injury for most of last year before being shut down for the second half of the season.
Weber originally suffered a foot injury when he blocked a Jack Eichel shot on the opening night of the season against the Buffalo Sabres. He played through the nagging injury for another 26 games before heading to the injured list. After returning for another six games, he was officially shut down in February and underwent tendon surgery in March. That was all well and good. The six-month recovery would give him time to train in September and be with the team through their training camp in some capacity. It would also likely mean he’d be ready for the start of the regular season.
Unfortunately, for the Canadiens and Weber, he had another serious injury that had to be handled with major surgery this offseason. Following the draft and free-agent frenzy, it was announced that Weber would undergo arthroscopic knee surgery for a meniscal tear is his right knee. With the procedure taking place in June, and the recovery projected at around six months, the cornerstone of the Montreal blue line is now likely to return sometime in late November or early December.
To say this is a devastating blow to the Canadiens defence corps is a massive understatement. Weber is a crucial piece for a team that’s looking to wash the failures of last season away. He’ll still be back in the lineup before the season is over, but it’s a toss up on how the team will fare without him and how he’ll fare on his own when he takes the ice once again.
At first look, Weber may more or less be the same player he was when he was fully healthy in Montreal. It’s worth noting that while playing injured, he played top-pairing minutes night in and night out and performed at a fantastic level. This is because a lot of Weber’s game doesn’t come from mobility, but smart positioning on the ice and an active stick in the defensive zone.
This isn’t to say that Weber is immobile, but he’s not made in the same vein as a player like Erik Karlsson or his defensive partner Victor Mete. His return from injury may more than likely be made a lot easier when considering how he uses good positioning and physicality to keep plays to the outside and limit scoring chances.
In fact, this isn’t the first time the Canadiens have watched their star defender go down with a major knee injury. Most Canadiens fans remember Andrei Markov missing multiple years of his career with a host of debilitating knee and ankle injuries. For Markov, his speed — much like Weber’s — was not his biggest asset, but his on-ice IQ and knowing where to be served him extremely well. Markov missed a number of years due to major surgeries, and upon returning (at an older age than Weber) he continued to be a reliable player at both ends of the ice. With Weber’s ability to hammer pucks, there’s no reason to think he can’t utilize the same positioning-first style when he’s ready to suit up once more.
Weber is not a speed demon on the ice, nor is he a glacier out there, but he’s more than capable of being beaten with flat-out speed. Having both a surgically repaired foot tendon and knee will not help that situation this upcoming season. While he will more than likely be a continuing, steady presence for the Canadiens, there could very well be an adjustment period for him as he puts his knee and ankle to the test against NHL competition. Hiccups are to be expected when you miss as much time as Weber will this year. It’s the adjustment afterwards that’s the crucial point and Weber is experienced enough as a player to make those changes.
In his absence though, it will be up to the rest of the Canadiens defensive core to pick up the slack once more. First and foremost, this burden is going to fall heavily on the shoulders of Jeff Petry who became a star last year when Weber headed to the injured list.
While Petry is outstanding in his own right players like Karl Alzner, who’s in the second year of his massive deal, and David Schlemko will have to prove their worth as acquisitions during a divisive offseason just over a year ago. Some pressure will also shift to second-year rearguards, Mete and Noah Juulsen, who both had flashes of talent but need to harness that same skill on a consistent basis. That may also come with a stable lineup that isn’t injury riddled and the support of a new structured defensive system under a new coaching staff.
To start the year without Weber is a massive blow for the Canadiens, but it doesn’t have to be a crippling one as the team has talent to be a surprise this upcoming year. If Montreal can hold the fort while Weber recovers, and he returns to his usual form, then the Habs could very well shock plenty of people. It all rides on how well a soon-to-be 33 year old can recover from massive knee and ankle surgery. As with any injury though, only time will tell.