The Montreal Canadiens’ defence corps had a rough start to the 2018-19 season. After Shea Weber missed much of the previous campaign with a foot injury, it was discovered in the off-season that his knee also required surgery, and that had his return slated for December.
Without the captain on the back end, Jeff Petry moved up to be the top-pairing defender on the right side, forming a duo with Victor Mete. The coaching staff wasn’t satisfied with how those two performed together, so it didn’t take long for Jordie Benn to take Mete’s place, getting promoted from the bottom pairing to play alongside Petry.
The duo handled itself decently well when looking at overall possession stats, but they saw negative differentials in both shots and, most significantly, goals when they were on the ice together, leading to a negative impact on the scoreboard.
Benn-Petry With or Without You (WoWY) stats
|Benn w/o Petry||901:39||54.4||55.3||53.2||54.8|
|Petry w/o Benn||1096:30||56.6||55.2||55.2||51.0|
Playing above their station and against the toughest players of the opposition proved a challenge the pairing wasn’t up to the task for, and they were split up at the time of Weber’s early return at the end of November.
Minus a couple of games back on the top pair with Weber while Victor Mete was rediscovering his game, and another brief experiment with Petry on the second pairing later in the season (which once again didn’t lead to the desired effect), Benn played the final four months as a third-pairing blue-liner.
The player he spent the most time with on the bottom duo (and his most common partner on the year) was Brett Kulak. In a season when defencemen were coming in and out of the lineup with injuries and demotions, they were a familiar presence on the ice in the middle part of the season.
Benn-Kulak WoWY stats
|Benn w/o Kulak*||610:33||53.1||52.6||50.2||57.8|
|Kulak w/o Benn||488:40||56.9||59.2||56.3||57.1|
The left-shooting Benn played his best hockey of the season on his preferred right side, with Kulak on his left. The pair was around 55% in all the metrics listed, with a slightly elevated PDO (1.018) leading to an even better goals-for percentage.
With that pair working well, Weber back in the mix playing big minutes as the number-one defenceman, and Carey Price back on form, Montreal went on a run from the start of December to early February, when they got in position to challenge for second place in the Atlantic Division.
Around that time, the Canadiens acquired Christian Folin from the Philadelphia Flyers to bolster the depth, giving the coaching staff a bit of work to experiment with the defence. Kulak was promoted up a rank to join Petry in the top four, and he thrived in that role for the remainder of the season.
The move came with a demotion for Mikey Reilly, who spent a brief amount of time with Benn on the third pair before Folin finally made his debut more than two weeks after being acquired. Folin and Benn finished the season together as the top four was locked in place, and Reilly became the seventh defender.
Benn-Folin WoWY stats
|Benn w/o Folin*||77:21||52.1||48.7||46.2||54.6|
|Folin w/o Benn||70:40||52.5||49.4||46.8||55.6|
It was a short partnership, but a nearly exclusive one for the two players over the final six weeks of the season. They did just enough in their minutes, staying afloat in terms of five-on-five goals as Montreal challenged for a wild-card position.
It wasn’t exactly a stellar pair, and far off the performance that Benn had seen with Kulak, and that could be partially explained by Benn’s shift over to the left side once again, where he’s not quite as comfortable. Folin’s minutes (as few as they were) away from Benn don’t suggest that he was near Kulak’s level, either.
In the end, Benn finished his year with strong numbers at five-on-five, boosted by his stint in the middle of the season with a player who was playing a level below his ability. He also set a new mark for five-on-five points with 20, besting the 15 he posted in his first full NHL season with Dallas Stars in 2013-14.
His season wasn’t only about his play at even strength, however. A significant portion of his year was spent defending on the power play. He led all Canadiens defencemen in short-handed ice time, and just about matched Weber’s average minutes per game played on the penalty kill — easily achieved since they formed one of the main defence duos while a man down.
In 2018-19, it became clear that Benn wasn’t a top-four defenceman, and the coaching staff was quickly reminded of that whenever they decided to test him there one more time. But he still played 81 games on the season, with the second-most minutes among Habs defencemen, because he performed well in his third-pairing role, has the rare ability to switch from the right to the left side when needed, and was a reliable option on the league’s 13th-ranked penalty kill.