Has Brandon Davidson played himself out of the Montreal Canadiens’ lineup?
An underrated option last year, Davidson’s pre-season performance has been disastrous.
Brandon Davidson came to the Montreal Canadiens late last year in a deal that sent David Desharnais to the Edmonton Oilers at the trade deadline. That move, along with the acquisition of Jordie Benn, shored up a defensive unit that was arguably playing its best hockey under new head coach Claude Julien.
Despite playing in only 10 regular-season games, Davidson was paired primarily with former teammate Jeff Petry in Montreal, taking a role on the second pairing when Nathan Beaulieu struggled. While not overly flashy, the pairing played well in their limited time together, and allowed Julien to keep the pair of Andrei Markov and Shea Weber together down the stretch.
Fast forward to this summer when it was widely thought that Davidson could be a solid — and cheap — option in Montreal’s top four. Even with Karl Alzner signing a lengthy deal to play for the Habs, and David Schlemko coming over from Vegas, the opportunity was there to for Davidson. A spot in the top four seems to now be out of the question, leaving him to battle for a place on the bottom duo.
His primary competition for one of those spots include the relatively unknown Jakub Jerabek; the aging Mark Streit, who is on a league minimum deal and couldn’t get regular time on a Pittsburgh Penguins team that was decimated by injuries last year; and the rather unheralded Joe Morrow, who spent most of last season in the AHL and has yet to see regular NHL ice time in his career. The sudden emergence of 19-year-old Victor Mete has also compounded things, as the rookie defender has seemed perfectly at ease playing alongside Weber.
If we assume Jordie Benn is keeping a spot locked up for himself, which seems highly likely, and that Alzner, Petry, Schlemko, and Weber have their spots solidified, then there are likely just a few spots left to be determined.
In three pre-season contests, Davidson has done little to separate himself from a pack of defenders that has been mediocre at best. With a chance to solidify a place on the opening night roster, Davidson hasn’t stood out in a good way despite arguably being the best defender, on paper, of the bunch.
In fairness, it’s not entirely on him. Outside of Jonathan Drouin, Charles Hudon, and Mete, the Canadiens have sleepwalked to an 0-6 record in the pre-season. Unfortunately for Davidson his run of bad luck has been the most noticeable, whether being out of position or getting beaten to the net by an opponent.
Greening to Johnsson on the PP and it’s four straight goals for the Leafs. pic.twitter.com/qW6vzfRXCy— Jared Book (@jaredbook) September 28, 2017
From the Habs’ most recent game, the above clip shows Davidson in the right spot, covering his area on the penalty kill, but he doesn’t react to Andreas Johnsson sliding into a scoring area. He’s staring directly at him, but makes no real effort to take away the shot, and it led to a goal against.
That has more or less been the tale of his pre-season so far: when a goal is scored against him, he always seems to be noticeable, and in a bad way. It’s not all on him, as his partners have sometimes turned the puck over and left him in no man’s land, or he has the rotten luck of tipping a puck into his own net.
He’s more than capable of being an NHL-quality defender, but playing on shattered confidence with heavy competition for a spot appears to be causing him to overthink, and leading to defensive lapses.
Looking at his most common partners makes things a bit more clear, as he has been predominantly used with Matt Taormina and Jerabek in the pre-season. Taormina is an AHL player, already having cleared waivers to join the Laval Rocket, while Jerabek is adjusting to the North American game after spending his past few years playing in the KHL. In his most recent game against Toronto he was paired with tryout Eric Gelinas.
It’s asking a lot to have these pairings be carried by Davidson, who despite being a solid shot suppressor isn’t necessarily able to float a pairing on his own.
What may be the saving grace for Davidson right now is that his coach has previously seen his ability to step up and be a solid contributor. While it’s highly unlikely that he’ll be playing alongside Petry like last year, the steadying presence of Benn may help him simplify his game and get back to what makes him effective.
Digging into his advanced stats shows that, despite his current struggles, he does better at driving play and keeping pucks away from his goaltenders than the Habs’ big off-season acquisition.
Now obviously this doesn’t tell the whole story, especially not before the regular season has started, but it’s most certainly worth giving Davidson a bit more rope before sending him to the press box.
Looking at the other third-pairing options on defence, Davidson is likely the hardest to try to sneak through waivers as well. This isn’t necessarily the best reason to keep a player around, but as we saw last year, it’s very possible to lose a useful defensive asset in this fashion.
It’s extremely easy to be frustrated with the play of the team, and certain players overall, especially when there is plenty expected of them after a disappointing end to last season. Perspective has to be maintained when we consider the overhaul Claude Julien is bringing to the Canadiens systems, and that playing with a new defensive partner in each game likely isn’t easy on a player.
As it stands, Davidson could very well be on the outside looking in, at least in terms of regular NHL ice time, especially once Schlemko returns. When considering the performance of his main roster competition, however, it would be wise to keep in mind more than just this small sample of poor play. He’s still a fairly young player in the NHL, and Montreal would be best served to keep him around even if his pre-season hasn’t been fully up to snuff.
He would be far from the last player to have a poor showing before any meaningful games, but then turn it around during the regular season.