In the first couple of seasons following Jeff Petry’s trade to the Montreal Canadiens, before I started analyzing and breaking down the game, I remember watching Montreal and developing a certain discomfort every time the defenceman would step on the ice, especially when he would go near the puck. In important outings, my fists would clench and I would just be half-looking at the TV, bracing myself for what was about to come. You knew that Petry was going to push the attack, launch himself up ice with the Max Paciorettys and Alex Galchenyuks, and score the odd point. He flashed skill and promise even back then.
But at some point, inevitably, there would the big mistake, an error you couldn’t possibly ignore or chalk up to team-wide breakdowns and one that would often determine the outcome of the game. Petry, carried by his momentum and enthusiastic energy, would try one move too many, mishandle the puck, lose it, and create an odd-man rush the other way, or he would leave his post and jump to double-pressure an opponent, leaving an opponent alone in the slot with all the time in the world to adjust his shot.
Last night, the game against the Senators was a bit of a throwback to that young Petry, a return of the overaggressive decisions, late reads, and mishandles that regularly featured in his game in his first few years in the league. The goals against weren’t all primarily his fault, but he could have prevented them by respecting the opposition a bit more and by playing a more engaged and aware style of defence.
Thankfully, we have seen the blundering version of the defenceman less and less over the years, a testament to his incredible development. Rarely do players continue to steadily improve as they age in the league. Usually, you about know their strengths and weaknesses by the time they hit the latter half of their 20s. But Petry has just continued to push his name up Norris ballots with every passing season. He started by solidifying his play away from the puck, which earned more minutes, and now he is finding new ways to pierce through the opposing defence to use his shot. Now, at 33 years old, the nights where the game escapes the defenceman are the exception and not the norm.
It will have to stay that way, however, if the Habs are going to catch any of the teams ahead of them in the standings.
Number-one defenceman all have their off nights (just look at Charlie McAvoy three nights ago against the Penguins), but their performance can’t dip for long, otherwise the team also suffers a slide — and it is especially the case right now for Montreal.
There is an uncomfortable amount of pressure right now on the shoulders of Petry. Through his puck management, his mobility, and stick work, he has become the team’s best shutdown defenceman and also its main offensive motor. At the top of his game, he and his partner — whoever it is — prop up those around him like no other player on the team; forwards seem to be skating downhill when he steps on the ice due to his breakout abilities instead of working for every zone exit.
By comparison, the Shea Weber and Joël Edmundson pairing can break the opposing cycle, but don’t possess the same agility and puck-moving abilities, and the Victor Mete and Alexander Romanov duo has the opposite problem.
With the condensed schedule and the demands placed on him, Petry will be tested more than ever before. Until the end of the season, unless Marc Bergevin pulls off a creative, cap-solving trade, the team will only fare as well as the top defenceman does.