Xavier Ouellet was one of Marc Bergevin’s typical July 1 signings. Low risk, a decent upside if things clicked, and a stable veteran defenceman for his AHL club if they didn’t. In the past, these players have been Mark Barberio and Zach Redmond. Both were solid at the NHL level, but made their biggest impact with the St. John’s IceCaps during their time there.
Ouellet finds himself in a similar limbo now. He had three points in 19 games for the Canadiens this year, but soon found himself frozen out before being put on waivers where he joined the Laval Rocket. Since joining the Rocket, Ouellet has played at just below a point-per-game pace with 15 points in 19 games, and above all else, he’s become a spark for their power play.
Rocket play-by-play man Anthony Marcotte noted during a recent stretch of games that the Rocket power play is operating at 38% efficiency (12 for 32), and of those 12 goals, Ouellet was on the ice for 10 of them. This is helped by the emergence of Daniel Audette and Jake Evans on the man advantage, but also by having a steady offensive presence like Ouellet available to run the power play on the point every night.
The question is, who does Montreal send down to create a spot for Ouellet?
Karl Alzner is out for the time being, even if he isn’t playing he’s been travelling and practicing with the team. Victor Mete, since finishing his AHL stint, has been a staple next to Shea Weber and playing exceedingly well in that role (lack of goals be damned). That leaves Brett Kulak and Mike Reilly as the likely options.
Kulak has played all over. From the first pair with Weber and Jeff Petry, to secondary minutes alongside Petry, before settling into a role on the third pair with Jordie Benn. Reilly has been more or less attached to Petry recently. While not the be all end all, we can look at a comparison of their offensive and defensive metrics to see how both Kulak and Reilly have played.
One thing immediately jumps out, and that is the fact that Kulak is miles better at limiting shots and goals against than Reilly. By the same notion, Reilly’s skating ability has allowed him to be a useful offensive piece, but even there Kulak is keeping pace with him. So with that in mind, and the noted fact that a Petry/Kulak pairing was a solid second unit for the Canadiens, let’s see what the lineup would look like if Reilly were sent down and Ouellet was called up.
For context, Ouellet has played less than half (19) the games of Reilly (44), but again one thing jumps out, and that’s Ouellet’s stellar on-ice metrics. In those 19 games, Ouellet played almost exclusively with Mete or Benn in a third-pairing role for the Canadiens, a similar spot for what he would be coming into.
With Benn it’s especially noteworthy because at 5v5 (94 minutes total) their pairing managed a 60.75% Corsi For, and did that with a substandard PDO (0.974), which is a fantastic advantage for your third defensive pair.
Many will point to Reilly’s skating ability as an asset in moving the puck, and that’s a valid point as Reilly is a dynamic skater and allows more creativity in the Canadiens offence.
Reilly is the better puck-mover, but at the same time, defensively he allows a lot more clean entries into the defensive zone. Something that hampers his less than stellar defensive game. Ouellet’s game overall has improved with steady playing time in the AHL, and he’s doing so alongside rookie Cale Fleury to form a tandem that is capable at both ends of the ice.
Reilly has had a respectable season — as has Kulak — but as is the case with many Canadiens this year, Ouellet has made a strong case for NHL minutes due to his play in Laval. Playing at a near point-per-game pace and keeping a positive attitude goes a long way towards creating another opportunity for yourself. For Mete and Ouellet, a stint in the AHL has rejuvenated much of their game. While Reilly’s skating ability will never diminish, playing big minutes for Laval could help him rediscover the offensive prowess he once had at the University of Minnesota.
For Ouellet, there’s no risk to giving him another look at the NHL level this year. He’s playing with confidence at both ends of the ice, and has some solid underlying numbers from earlier in the season in a similar role. If he struggles, the team can send him back down, but not seeing if his AHL time has helped his NHL game could very well be doing him, and the Canadiens, a disservice.