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Is Shea Weber or Jeff Petry the Canadiens’ true number-one defender?

Heading into the qualifying round, which defender should Claude Julien rely on more?

Carolina Hurricanes v Montreal Canadiens Photo by Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images

As the Montreal Canadiens slowly work their way back into game readiness with a looming showdown against the Pittsburgh Penguins, there’s a debate to be had on defence. While we talked about the prospects vying for a spot on the blue line, another battle should be taking some of the spotlight in its own right:

When it comes to the true top defender on the team, is it Shea Weber or is it Jeff Petry?

Before taking any offence to the suggestion that Shea Weber isn’t a top-pairing defender, there are very clear arguments for each being the top option in this regard. My goal is to try and sift through the data to highlight each player’s strengths and weaknesses, then find out how the Canadiens could use both to pull off the upset of Pittsburgh.

Offensive Impact

It’s immediately clear that things are very similar between Weber and Petry in the offensive zone, with both helping to generate an attack from their positions along the blue line. Petry’s attack creeps up into the faceoff dots, while Weber drives more shots through the centre of the offensive zone. Given their respective offensive talents, that makes sense; Weber is content to plant himself and uncork 100-mph slapshots from the point, whereas Petry uses his skating to open up space to fire in wrist shots.

To add further context, Petry is often paired up with the more mobile and offensively inclined Brett Kulak, while Weber and Ben Chiarot combine for a physical and less agile duo. Weber also plays nearly exclusively with the top line of Brendan Gallagher, Phillip Danault, and Tomas Tatar, who are renowned for creating traffic and shots around the front of opposing nets. Perhaps the more impressive part of Weber’s deployment is that he is almost exclusively getting matched up against the opposing team’s top lines and top defensive pairings. While doing that, Weber ranked second among Habs defenders in defensive-zone starts per 60, trailing just behind Victor Mete in that regard.

So Weber is managing to generate offensive push despite starting in the defensive end more often, and doing so against the harshest of competition. For someone coming back from a major injury and then another serious ankle injury during the season, it’s impressive to see Weber put up that kind of offensive attack.

Petry is valuable in his own way. His 40 points place him sixth on the team in scoring, with seven of his 11 goals coming at even strength this year. Unlike Weber, his forward mates were far more varied, as was the competition he saw on the ice. While the main trio he lined up behind was some combination of Max Domi, Nick Suzuki and Artturi Lehkonen, Petry also had plenty of shifts alongside the bottom six, and a few with the top line as well. Both he and Weber had roughly the same amount of offensive zone starts and defensive zone starts per 60, with Petry getting slightly less in each category with lower ice time.

In short, both are great offensive contributors, with Weber doing so under much harsher circumstances every single night.

Defensive Impact

While offensively both players shone, the play in the defensive zone paints a bit of a different picture. Weber goes game in and game out against opposing top lines and pairings almost exclusively, so if his numbers looked like Petry’s he’d be sauntering back to British Columbia with a Norris Trophy in his back pocket. Even so, riding that break-even line in terms of expected goals against (xG) is far from the the worst outcome for his season.

Looking at Petry’s chart, even with lesser competition (“lesser” being stretched a bit given Petry’s time against opposing top sixes), his defensive performance far surpasses Weber’s over the course of this season.

Weber spent 681 minutes at five-on-five with Ben Chiarot, the most common partnership among Canadiens defenders. Second for the team was the duo of Jeff Petry and Brett Kulak, which played 543 five-on-five minutes together. These two were the only pairings to see more than 300 total minutes, so we’re looking at them specifically.

When looking at how these two pairings performed this season, there isn’t even a competition between the two defensively. Petry and Kulak were leaps and bounds ahead of the Chiarot and Weber pairing in almost every single defensive category.

Habs Defensive Pairing Performance

Pairing 5v5 Time On Ice Corsi Against/60 Shots Against/60 Goals Against/60 Expected Goals Against/60 Scoring Chances Against/60 HD Chances Against/60
Pairing 5v5 Time On Ice Corsi Against/60 Shots Against/60 Goals Against/60 Expected Goals Against/60 Scoring Chances Against/60 HD Chances Against/60
Weber/Chiarot 681 57.39 31.16 3.17 2.42 27.37 11.71
Petry/Kulak 543 44.31 24.2 2.21 1.75 19.89 7.85
Stats via Natural Stat Trick

Weber continues to be a very good NHL defender, but his pairing with Chiarot against heavy opposition isn’t doing much more than treading water in their own end at best. While Petry and Kulak do make errors, their underlying numbers paint the picture that they’re far more suited for that role than Weber and Chiarot. So that leaves Claude Julien with quite the quandary.

Weber, and by proxy Chiarot, are deployed heavily against the top opposition, performing admirably in the offensive zone, but struggling a bit in the defensive zone. Petry and Kulak generated fewer offensive chances, but thrived in the defensive zone. If you’re Julien, is it time to potentially use Weber as a more exploitative player, with fewer starts against a line that will feature Sidney Crosby, and more against the middle six of the Penguins?

There isn’t an easy answer, but there is one very clear point to take away from all of this, and it’s that the Canadiens are lucky to be able to decide between two top-level defenders to lead their defence, as opposed to just hoping to be carried by one main blue-liner.