The biggest question that has been facing the Montreal Canadiens since the day they acquired Shea Weber has been: “who exactly is going to be his defensive partner?”
For a season there was a combination of Nathan Beaulieu and Alexei Emelin, both of whom fell flat more often than not, and prompted the Canadiens’ coaches to make a change. That change came in the form of Andrei Markov, whose deft playmaking was a great complement to Weber’s blistering shot at the blue line. Of course there was the messy breakup of the long-time Markov and Montreal relationship heading into last season, which prompted that old question to be asked once more.
It was thought that David Schlemko or the newly signed Karl Alzner could find themselves nestled into that top pairing spot opposite of Weber. In a shocking twist, it ended up being the rookie dynamo Victor Mete who claimed that role, and not only held his own, but legitimately played well over the course of his time with Weber. Then injuries, a month away for World Juniors, and more injuries brought both players’ seasons to an end, and we only got a small sample of what Mete and Weber were capable of.
Once more, the same question is on everyone’s mind, and this off-season hasn’t done much to answer it. There are options for Weber when he returns, but they could vary from game to game, and even situation to situation within games themselves.
This is the most obvious answer going forward, and even with Weber on the shelf to start the season it’s more than likely that Mete will battle for the top spot on the left side. He’ll be in good hands there with Jeff Petry being the de facto top defender with Weber sidelined.
Despite just seven points in 49 games last year, Mete has shown he can still perform in the harsher minutes on the top pair, and with a year of experience, he is primed for an even better season.
Assuming his play takes a step forward, and he stays healthy, reuniting the duo of Weber and Mete should be a no-brainer for the Canadiens’ coaches. The only thing they have to do is start trusting the young Mete more, as last year Claude Julien tended to limit the rookie’s minutes in certain situations. The Canadiens will need to let him play through those rough patches to develop properly, and there’s no reason to try him in a tougher role.
The next option comes in the form of Marc Bergevin’s major off-season signing from last year, that of course is former Washington Capital Karl Alzner. The duo of Weber and Alzner didn’t spend much five-on-five time together last year (just 47 minutes in total), but in that time it was made rather clear it wasn’t going to be a good fit.
The dark green areas represent a higher total of shots against, and while Weber is getting buried in the low slot by the net, Alzner is bleeding chances from the high slot. Combined, it’s a nightmare for Canadiens goalies.
Also the idea of putting two “stay-at-home” defenders on the same pairing in 2018 is a poor one. The Canadiens struggled to break out of their own end last year, and this would further exacerbate that issue.
Mikey Reilly/David Schlemko
David Schlemko was acquired after last year’s expansion draft in Las Vegas, and it was widely regarded as a great move by Bergevin. He nabbed an analytics darling for next to nothing in a trade, and gave Montreal a solid piece in their defensive corps.
There were few positives for Schlemko in his first year in Montreal, highlighted mainly by a severe hand injury that caused him to miss a significant portion of time, followed by on-and-off playing time while recovering from additional ailments. He’s likely to rebound this season, but it’s unclear if he’ll be able to find the form needed to play heavy minutes alongside Weber. If he can, then Montreal is immediately a better team for it, and it allows the rest of the defence to settle in a bit more.
For Mikey Reilly, playing with Weber would mean one thing: carrying the puck. A lot. Reilly is an extremely fluid skater with great offensive instincts on the ice, and his ability to transport the puck out of the zone is something Weber struggles with.
In the offensive zone this tandem could be similar to the Weber/Mete one, in which Reilly is free to move with the puck while Weber patrols the blue line as a safety option. Should the Habs go this route, however, they would be wise to limit how they deploy it. Despite a decent showing last year, Reilly’s overall career numbers aren’t great on the defensive side of things.
What this could mean is that Reilly is used as a specialist of sorts. When the Canadiens have offensive-zone starts, or need offence late, they can slide him up to play with Weber, as opposed to using him as a full-time first-pairing option.
Rinat Valiev/David Sklenička/Michal Moravčík
Count these guys as wild cards. Valiev didn’t spend much time with Montreal or Laval last year due to injuries, but could find his way into the lineup with trades or injuries as the season wears on. He’s not going to blow people away with high-end skill, but he’s a steady defender at the back, and that stability alongside Weber might be useful once he returns from injury.
As for the two new Czech defenders, it’s anyone’s guess where they’ll end up before this season is over. Both had talent to play big minutes for the Czech Republic while being rather young. Despite their differing styles in play, either of Moravčík or Sklenička could become an option for Julien as well.
It’s not the ideal situation for a team looking to wipe the slate clean after their disastrous season last year, but the Canadiens aren’t without options on the defensive side of the puck, especially when it comes to finding Shea Weber’s partner. The biggest concern above all else is that many of these options are not fully proven yet, at least in the NHL.
Luckily, if the team is truly set to rebuild, then the bumps in the road will pay their dividends at the 2019 draft and beyond. If it turns out that some of their young defenders can handle the tougher roles they will be thrust into, then Montreal gains something at the NHL level as well.