Montreal appears to have found at least a partial solution for their gap on the left side of the defence in free agency when they landed Ben Chiarot on a three-year deal. Now comes the difficult part of trying to sort out where each piece fits in the opening-night roster.
Outside of Chiarot, there are the established members, Victor Mete and Brett Kulak, the inconsistent Mikey Reilly, the struggling Karl Alzner, and last year’s off-season signee, Xavier Ouellet. There is also a trio in the AHL who might try to crack the roster this year: David Sklenicka, Gustav Olofsson, and the newly signed Otto Leskinen.
That’s a lot of bodies for a few spots, so we can likely eliminate the AHL trio to start, though Leskinen showed everyone he shouldn’t be disregarded with his development camp performance. Karl Alzner will almost certainly be waived again to start the year in Laval. Ouellet was also the captain of the Rocket, and chances are he’ll reprise that role again, leaving Chiarot, Mete, Kulak and Reilly as the four — as things currently stand — battling for three spots.
So what is the ideal order for the left side of the Montreal Canadiens defence? Let’s break it down just a little bit.
Perhaps the most intriguing is Mete, who has spent the last two seasons floating around the Canadiens’ top four, mainly alongside Shea Weber. There’s great reasoning behind this as Weber does not carry the puck regularly, and this is an area where Mete thrives. His game is about attacking with speed to both enter and exit the zone, and that allows Weber to focus on his work in the end zones rather than being involved in the transition game.
Mete and Weber form a solid, albeit league-average, pairing based on their shot maps; they do well for the most part at keeping shots away from Carey Price. It’s something the team will be interested in sticking with, because it’s hard to see Chiarot thriving in heavy minutes on a pairing where neither player likes to carry the puck at all.
Until last year, it seemed like this was the given spot for Mete (almost entirely out of necessity) but Kulak’s arrival changed things mightily after a short stay in the AHL.
Upon his call-up, Kulak was instantly slotted in alongside Weber on the top pairing. In 164 five-on-five minutes, the duo posted positives across the board in their advanced metrics. However, that pairing also started two-thirds of its shifts in the offensive zone, making it a lot easier to generate chances on a consistent basis. Comparatively speaking, Mete and Weber started only 44% of their shifts in the offensive zone in their much larger sample together last year, and were still a net positive in terms of possession.
It seems that the Canadiens have two options to rotate in on their top pairing, but that leaves a spot next to Petry on the second. Based on the analysis done by Marc Dumont of The Athletic, putting Chiarot in that role may not be the best idea given his on-ice limitations, which means he could be destined for third-pairing duty.
Kulak and Petry meshed very well last season on a team that needed a way to fix their top four and give Jordie Benn a role he fit into. Alongside Petry, Kulak helped dominate the offensive side of the puck at even strength.
Both players were capable of carrying the puck in and out of the zone, both skated well to make plays happen, and did it while Weber and Mete ate up the harder minutes. It might be wise for Claude Julien to shift some of those harder minutes to the Kulak-Petry tandem this year. That could allow Mete to finally find his first NHL goal, and more importantly take some of the strain off of Shea Weber who looked like he was battling through a number of issues to end last season despite a later start.
That all leaves a top four looking the way it did for much of last season:
Victor Mete - Shea Weber
Brett Kulak - Jeff Petry
Julien can rotate which is the top pairing night in and night out based on the situation, and it shouldn’t make much difference overall. Both pairings are capable of playing 20-plus minutes per night.
That leaves just a final pairing to figure out, and since this article is about the left side we’ll focus there.
It’s really down to two options right now, and they may be polar opposites of one another. Reilly is a quick skating puck-mover who plays best while roaming in the offensive zone, while Chiarot is a stay-at-home defensive type who prefers to play the physical game.
Looking at their offensive zone charts one thing is immediately clear: Chiarot is not there to create offence when he’s on the ice.
Reilly is clearly the more gifted offensive type, but at the same time he has a bad habit of trying to do too much with the puck and can put himself in poor shooting spots. He also spent the majority of his minutes with Petry, so his numbers are bolstered from that partnership.
Defensively is where there’s a bit of split, and it’s how Chiarot is going to earn his keep in Montreal.
While Reilly grades as average, there’s still a heavy dose of shots coming from the slot against him — a feature of the Canadiens in general last year. Chiarot performed well at not only keeping the slot clear, but also at helping to keep chances to the low-danger areas as well.
Given Claude Julien’s lack of patience for defensive miscues from his defence in 2018-19, it seems safe to say that Ben Chiarot will likely be penciled in on the opening-night roster. His partner, however, is a story for another day.