I followed Victor Mete's pre-season games closely with the Catching The Torch series, but the more he plays, the less he looks like a prospect. He's slowly establishing himself as a regular with the Habs and an essential part of their defence corps.
Thursday night was no exception. He once again showed that keeping him for the start of the season was the right choice. If the coaching staff had any doubts left regarding their decision to have him stay, those are now gone. He can play in the NHL, and play well.
There were some reports that he was nervous before the game, excited to take the ice as a true member of the Habs, a dream come true for any young junior player. That didn't really show in his play. With the way Mete has handled himself until now, that's not unexpected. Every time Julien was asked about him in interviews, he always came back to the same thing: confidence.
He has the ability to play his game every night despite the pressure. That means being able to handle the puck in some difficult defensive situations, acting as a support to his teammates all over the ice, but also not being afraid to jump in the play like he has done successfully in the past. On Thursday, Mete wasn't as flashy as he has been in the past few weeks, but he did more than what could reasonably be expected from a rookie playing in his first regular-season game.
Mete didn't get as much time on the power play as he did in the pre-season, with Julien preferring to have his first unit on the ice longer. Still, the second unit with the young defenceman had some good showings when they were given a chance to settle in within the offensive zone.
With Streit acting as the pivot at the blue line, Mete had the opportunity to drive the net. Unseen by the defenders, he can often sneak right to the front of the crease as a passing option.
If he keeps picking the right moments to skate up, and his teammates start to recognize this tendency better, it could net him a few goals down the road.
That being said, he wasn't very involved offensively through the game. This facet of his play will emerge with more experience and once the Habs learn to control the play better.
There were too many times when Montreal was stuck in the defensive zone not being able to find a clean enough exit to involve defencemen in the offensive rush. When you are dumping the puck out repeatedly and battling to get possession back, it's hard to construct an offence that has the support of multiple players.
However, when he had space available to him, Mete remained a treat to watch. At the midway point of the third period, with a scrum for the puck at the Montreal blue line, the quick defenceman stayed in a support position until he saw the puck fully in possession of Jonathan Drouin. Then, instead of backing in his zone to receive a pass that would precede a traditional breakout, like most defencemen would do in that situation, Mete displayed why he's a great addition to the Canadiens’ defence.
He makes it clear to his centreman that he wants to rush the puck the other way. But he doesn't immediately curve to the boards skating towards the opposing blue line, forcing Drouin into what would be a risky play. He angles his body in a way that creates an easier target for his pass, and receives the puck while having already accelerated laterally with crossovers. By doing so, he outskated the Buffalo forwards before they could even think about adjusting their positioning and pressuring him off the puck.
A traditional breakout would have had Montreal struggle through a fully formed neutral-zone defense. Mete's mobility meant he could easily turn a puck recovery into a rush and a potential scoring chance.
For the same reasons, he should be one of Julien's first choice of defencemen in overtime. With the amount of space on the ice in those situations, having a player consistently first on loose pucks, able to protect them against pressure while carrying them up the ice to make a play, while also capable of rushing back to defend, is very valuable. With more experience, I could see him having multiple shifts in overtime, paired with some of the top players on the Habs.
Mete had his moments in the game versus Buffalo, but he also didn't stand out for the wrong reasons. He bobbled the puck a couple of times, but that's to be expected in a first professional game. Overall, he was an efficient support for Shea Weber in all facets of the play, managing some good engagements on Buffalo forwards while Weber took care of the front of the net.
Despite being used with the best defenceman on the Habs, Mete didn't face Jack Eichel's line as much as you would expect, as the forwards matched up most often versus the Karl Alzner-Jeff Petry pairing. Julien didn't have the last change, but the coach's confidence in the rookie doesn't necessarily mean he's ready to throw him to the wolves just yet, easing his transition to the next level might be part of the plan.
Still, for a first career game in the NHL, Mete did everything he was asked and a bit more. There are fewer and fewer reasons to doubt him. And with the Habs facing teams with a lot of offensive talent in the next week, he will be called upon to play a large role in Montreal's defence; another opportunity for him to show that he belongs.