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Analyzing Victor Mete’s role as a top-pairing defenceman

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New players came and went this season, but Mete and Shea Weber found themselves back together once again.

NHL: Montreal Canadiens at Anaheim Ducks Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Victor Mete had a very good rookie season, starting the 2017-18 campaign alongside Shea Weber because ... well, there wasn’t really anyone else do it. His speed and steady defensive game complemented Weber’s abilities well, so it was a mutual relationship for the Montreal Canadiens’ top defenceman.

Mete played just 49 games in his first year, heading off to the World Juniors in December and missing NHL time after sustaining an injury while playing in the tournament. Weber dealt with more serious ailments, trying to play through a foot injury before it knocked him out of the lineup for the rest of the year.

The result was that, despite the discussion of those two players making up the top pairing, they shared less than 200 minutes of ice time that year The rookie actually saw more time alongside David Schlemko.

It was a fair season for Mete, with seven assists and a positive goal differential, but one that left most people thinking that the Canadiens needed to focus on adding a proper partner for the veteran blue-liner.

There were a few additions in the summer. David Sklenicka was one of two players signed out the Czech Extraliga. Xavier Ouellet was signed after being left unqualified by the Detroit Red Wings. Before the first game was played, Brett Kulak was acquired, but left to play in the AHL. After all that, Mete was still the best option to play on Weber’s flank.

Injuries kept the two apart once again. Weber was recovering from not just a foot issue, but a knee injury that was discovered later. He missed nearly two months of the season, returning on November 27.

The next game after the captain’s return. Mete was assigned to the AHL, with the hope that he could get back up to speed by first shifting down a gear. Seven games with the Laval Rocket — and his first professional goal — later, he was back in the mix with the Canadiens, just in time for a six-game road trip.

It wasn’t long into the excursion before Mete and Weber were paired together once again. Despite circumstances keeping them apart until the 38th game of the season, the two still shared 678 five-on-five minutes together; over four times as much as with any other partner for each of them.

With the toughest zone starts on the team (although even then they weren’t significantly skewed to defence on a very strong possession team), the two had respectable shot-attempt differentials. Being better than league average in terms of defensive coverage was a good result for Mete overall (graphic one in the gallery below) and that was seen in the Mete-Weber pairing as well (graphic two). There was a small blip on Mete’s side of the crease where forwards were getting more shots than average, which is the main concern with his place on a top pairing, though there were some getting through on Weber’s side as well.

Even with that factored in, the two players had the best high-danger-scoring-chances-for percentages of the defence corps. Both ranked in the top 33 of the NHL among defencemen to play 200 minutes in that stat.

The difference between the general attempt differential and the high-danger one can be explained by the types of shots they were getting. Pucks were coming in either from Weber’s right side of the blue line or right in the home plate area in front of the opposing net as the Canadiens’ top line of Tomas Tatar, Phillip Danault, and Brendan Gallagher went to work (graphic one below). Even in the pairing’s minutes without three of the best forwards from the 2018-19 season on the ice (graphic two), the strategy was unchanged.

Mete doesn’t directly contribute to the offence often. He’s still yet to register his first NHL goal, and had just 13 assists last year. He doesn’t get many shots, or even set teammates up to take them. What he does do is use his speed in transition, helping get the puck from the defensive zone to the attacking end by creating a zone entry and keeping the puck flowing to the low areas in the offensive zone.

Charting Hockey

The main question after his first year in the NHL and again now that he’s played his second is whether another player would be better in his spot on the top pairing. A left-side defenceman to play with Weber remains at the top of the wish list for many Canadiens fans, wanting someone more physical to keep pucks away from Carey Price and more offensive to add to the workload of the opposing netminder.

In any upgrade scenario, you have to weigh the cost of a new player at the position with the increase in quality of the team’s play. A more established blue-liner may get more directly involved in the offensive attack, and could potentially protect the left post better. Will his overall contributions be substantially greater than those — indirect as they are — of a player on an ELC whose game should lead to a fairly inexpensive second NHL contract? That topic is still up for debate.