“Too small for the NHL.”
“Not an NHL defenceman.”
“In the league only because the organization has no depth.”
The howling from the online peanut gallery was immediate and cacophonous, starting as soon as Teddy Blueger jammed the puck by Carey Price for a then-seemingly insurmountable lead. The comments were directed at Victor Mete, who had just been beaten twice on the same play, first by Brandon Tanev to kick the sequence off, and then by Blueger to finish it.
However, while Mete was certainly far from blameless on the sequence, he was also far from the only culprit. While Mete’s engagement with Tanev created a focal point for the eye test, there were three other Montreal Canadiens players who could share in the blame for the goal.
We’ll begin with that focal point. An onrushing Tanev first catches, then brushes aside Mete to establish possession in the Canadiens’ zone. This is easy to fixate on because it speaks to Mete’s principle defining characteristics: his speed and his lack of size. On the surface, Tanev obliterates Mete’s only reason for being NHL-calibre and then starkly highlights why the diminutive defender shouldn’t be donning the CH.
However, on closer inspection, it was hardly a fair footrace. As the puck reaches Mete’s stick at the blue line, Tanev has already taken two strides as part of Pittsburgh’s game plan to aggressively pressure the puck-carrier. As the puck skips by, Tanev can alter his trajectory from man engagement to puck pursuit without losing any momentum, while Mete has to pivot to chase. As a result, we have a full-speed Tanev chasing a Mete starting from a dead stop.
Tanev is therefore able to time the precise moment that he catches Mete. When he does, the Pittsburgh Penguins winger shows his veteran savvy, attacking Mete’s blind shoulder like a sprint cyclist with a burst of acceleration and catching the defenceman out of position. Keeping in mind that Mete has to be wary of taking an interference penalty since the puck is still quite some distance away, the actual engagement between Mete and Tanev is not so much a contest of physicality as it is a contest of momentum. Mete cannot lean into Tanev’s path for fear of taking a penalty, and he doesn’t have enough pace built up to maintain body position until the pair catches up to the puck.
Tanev seizes the puck, but he’s still in a low-danger area, cut off from the front of the net by a good read from Xavier Ouellet. However, Zach Aston-Reese recognizes that Ouellet is no longer monitoring the rest of the play and jumps into the action as the trailing man. Max Domi tries to respond, but is in no position to impede Aston-Reese as Tanev delivers the pass. Here, Mete is too slow to recognize that Ouellet is now covering Tanev and he needs to account for the responsibilities vacated by his defence partner.
Fortunately for the Canadiens, they have Carey Price, who makes a remarkable save with the blocker on a point-blank one-timer from Aston-Reese. Price is still human though, and is in no position to react to Blueger steaming in as the third man. As Blueger attacks the puck, Mete is still watching Aston-Reese, Domi has overskated the play, Ouellet is still getting to his feet, and Jake Evans and Dale Weise have failed to read the play and aren’t in the picture. Not only Blueger, but a pinching Brian Dumoulin jumped up to take advantage of the Canadiens’ defensive breakdown.
Ultimately, Mete could have played the sequence better at various points, but most of them were after the initial engagement with Tanev. Moreover, Mete’s problems lay with following the play and identifying an ever-changing danger man, issues that he shared with every other unmasked player wearing bleu, blanc, et rouge on the ice during that play. If Mete’s future in the NHL is jeopardized, it will be due to an inability to develop his mental game in the coming years, not a deficiency in his physical attributes.