Last night’s game was another demonstration that the biggest need of the Montreal Canadiens is another top-pairing defenceman.
When Montreal faces the best lines in the NHL, going up against the crisp execution and the strong pressure of extremely talent players, the current blue-line cast is insufficient. It doesn’t come as a surprise to anybody who has watched the team since the start of the season. Some nights they can get by, but others they truly lack a poised defender who can anticipate opposing plays, break the cycle, and find controlled exits for the team.
Jordie Benn is not the answer. At least, not against the Sidney Crosbys of the world.
Since being acquired at the 2017 trade deadline, it has been a tale of two Jordies. There is the one who is confident and looks very effective on the ice. He moves the puck well enough, and even contributes to the attack with timely pinches and shots on net. This Benn sparks confidence in the coaching staff, so much that they sometimes get the desire to move him up in the depth chart.
This is where the other face of the defenceman reveals itself. His poise evaporates. He becomes much more prone to turnovers, or at least to rimming the puck around to covered wingers or chipping it off the glass. He doesn’t seem to make as much of a positive impact on the offence, and his defensive game — the main reason why he was brought up to the top-four — suffers.
The explanation is quite simple: Benn is what he is, a defenceman you can count on, but on your bottom-pair. The best lines in hockey don’t give you the kind of space or time the defenceman needs to operate.
The ability to play an extra half-second quicker makes all the difference in the world in this incredibly fast sport. It separates not only Junior players from professionals, and minor-leagues from NHLers, but also creates a division between players who can play in the top of your lineup and those who struggle there, at least in extended stretches.
Against the best players, mistakes are magnified. You have to be able to know that and play your game anyway; otherwise, the additional pressure further handicaps you.
Benn’s first shift of the game against the Pittsburgh Penguins’ top line was a good example of how the defenceman’s game deteriorates due to some of the above elements. It was a flurry of mistakes that led to an early lead for the Penguins in a very important game for the Canadiens.
It’s hard to blame the coaching staff for placing him there as the Habs don’t have a lot of options on the back end this season. The lack of another high-end defenceman is fine for where they are at right now. But even considering that, it might be best for them to leave Benn on the third pair, where he is the most comfortable. There will be more benefits in him anchoring the bottom of the Habs’ lineup rather than having him play a diminished game at the top of it.