This season and last, Victor Mete played in the Montreal Canadiens’ top four for long stretches. Paired with Shea Weber or Jeff Petry, he faced some of the opposition’s best elements, thereby acting as one of the top defencemen of the team. He never really solidified his spot at the top of Montreal’s rear guard, part of a rotating cast of aspirants who were moved away from the front line when the heavy assignment proved too much.
Many players can perform above their respective level for a dozen games or so, but ones who can excel in a top role for a full season are rarer. The organization is still searching for the defenceman capable of holding the spots next to Petry and Weber, which would push everyone else down to a more comfortable position.
Management could look for a solution outside the organization by making a trade or signing one of the few available free agents over the summer. But internally, is it possible Mete can still develop into the role?
Since the current season is already his third in the NHL, we sometimes forget the age of the defenceman. His situation remains quite unusual. Normally, a 21-year-old in his third season in the league is well on track to establishing himself as a top player. He has surpassed his Junior and minor-league competition and proven that he can perform against top competition. The coaching staff is at a point where they ease the youngster into his rightful role at the top of lineup.
Mete arrived in the NHL under special circumstances. His talent forced the coaching staff to take a long look at him in training camp. However, the biggest factor that led to him winning an NHL spot was the emptied left side of the Habs’ defence.
He didn’t make the jump because he had outgrown his Junior competition or beaten fellow AHLers competing for a spot — none were really in consideration. Mete’s particular skill set allowed him to hang in the NHL at a time when the team really needed a left-handed puck-mover. He proved himself the best available option.
Fast forward three years, and instead of following the typical curve of an early NHLer and being on the verge of a promotion, Mete’s development curve looks to have flattened. While some prospects can go from hanging with the best in Junior hockey to performing immediately after an NHL leap — Nick Suzuki comes to mind — the defenceman hasn’t evolved at the same pace.
Time remains on Mete’s side — again, he is just 21 years old. He stands at the start of what will be a long NHL career. But if he wants to really establish himself into a top role, one that has been offered to him multiple times, he will need to work on his weaknesses and use his strengths to his advantage. The last three seasons have taught him who he is at the NHL level: a defensively inclined puck-mover. Now, Mete has to become a better version of that; more assertive, more aware, and more active in transitions.
Right now, the biggest problem for Mete in the defensive zone is passivity. Top lines can cycle the puck around him without much trouble. The defenceman protects the slot by containing opponents and maintaining positioning, but doesn’t take his chances to attack and double-team opponents when they turn their back to the play. He arrives half a second too late to intervene after the puck moves.
Mete stands at 5’9” and won’t ever match the presence of a Shea Weber, but he can dart around the ice, moving ahead of the play to preemptively win inside positioning on the next opponent about to receive a pass to break the offensive movement. This way he can limit the amount of time his team spends in the zone, and in turn, the potential for breakdowns.
For Mete, it’s all about using his skating to be first on the puck before he has to enter a contest for it.
Jared Spurgeon has mastered this way of playing. The Minnesota Wild defenceman is built in a similar way to Mete, but that has not stopped him from becoming one of the better defensive presences in the NHL. He breaks plays as early as possible, and when he does have to battle, the defenceman quickly gets the inside track on the retrieval and neutralizes opponents’ sticks to make sure that they can’t make a play on the puck. It’s these kinds of details that sometimes escape Mete.
Next for the Habs’ undersized defenceman is his awareness in transitions. As he can leave one or two opponents behind him with his acceleration, Mete has been tasked with moving the puck up the ice since his arrival on the team.
The defenceman carried many transition plays for the Habs this season. When fueled by confidence, he attacks with the puck as far as the defence will let him, only passing when he meets a defensive wall and has to change the point of the attack to allow his team to break in the zone. But he has to do that consistently to become the back-end force he can be.
In the NHL, the lack of space means defencemen have to work extra hard to create effective up-ice movement. If they don’t join the attack every time, or don’t do so in timely ways, the team can’t overwhelm the forecheck of the other team and gain the offensive zone with control of the puck. This season, Mete has passed on opportunities to gun toward the neutral zone with his forwards on breakouts.
He can be the motor of offensive rushes, but that requires reacting as soon as it starts, using the open ice created by the winger pushing back the defence to skate up and become a secondary pass option.
More than the grand rushes, Mete also needs to improve his short-passing game. He hesitates to fake forecheckers or make plays through them, and doesn’t always take the appropriate skating routes to support his teammates on breakouts. For example, he doesn’t distance enough from his partner on a D-to-D pass, and sometimes takes the puck back into traffic instead of away from it when he does get it. In other words, Mete seldom beats the first layers of the forecheck with his passes. He makes it harder on teammates by giving them the puck in pressured situations, asking them to find solutions to exit the zone.
By scanning the ice better, using more shoulder-checks, Mete would gain a clearer picture of his outlets, which would then give him an easier time hitting up-ice targets through or around the forecheck.
Taking risks is part of the deal as a puck-mover. Some passes will backfire — that is inevitable — but over time the offensive impact of attempting more passes to teammates past the first couple of layers of opponents will outweigh the occasional turnover.
Right now, Mete’s offensive game suffers heavily from his lack of awareness and desire to manipulate opponents. This season there have been plenty more occasions where his skating would have allowed him to make his shot more dangerous by improving its location, by either exploding laterally along the blue line to fire from the middle of the ice or by attacking the space in front of him. He can also use the threat of a release to create better plays; adding fakes, getting his head up to locate second and third options, and transforming his firing motion into passes to teammates in better position to diversify his offence.
At this point in his development, it’s really all about the details for him, those presented here and others he can probably better identify himself. The difference between a bottom-pairing defenceman and one capable of consistently playing in the top four comes down to just that — details.
The goal for a top player is to maintain a positive impact against better opposition, a positive share of the total of shots, scoring chances, and goals scored. Engaging more quickly on opponents, looking one more time for outlets on breakouts, activating as a fourth forward, trying more plays through layers of opponents, adding some offensive manipulation ... those are all elements that will help him land on the right side of most metrics and earn the trust of the coaching staff in a higher role.
Some players never grow past their limitations, but a lot of what Mete has to work on seems confidence driven, which is a case for optimism. The offensive side of his game — the ability to deceive opponents and create passing lanes — might never develop enough to make him a point-producer, but it is still likely that the defenceman bolsters the transition and defensive aspects of his game in the ways mentioned above, and leans on those to earn more minutes.
Will it be enough to make him a top-four defencemen down the road? Mete certainly has the profile of such a player, with the young age at which he made the NHL. But he will have to show significant growth in the next year to continue adhering to those projections, and not fall behind the curve. A few other defencemen from the 2016 NHL Draft class who spent more time in Junior and developed in the AHL are now catching up to him, reinforcing that, in the end, it’s not how fast you get there.