Habs Defense And The Whole Nine Yards

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The old Detroit Red Wings under Mike Babcock were always a solid team and their biggest quality, in spite of having guys like Sergei Fedorov, Steve Yzerman, Pavel Datsyuk or Henrik Zetterberg leading the way, they were always known for their solid defense, making an average goaltender like Chris Osgood look like a top one. Of course, you had a Nicklas Lidstrom leading the way but if you ever noticed at the trade deadline, they always added another defenseman or two. And this is the era when Canadiens’ GM Marc Bergevin played his NHL career and learned his craft in the Chicago Blackhawks’ organization. 

While it has proven true that defense will win you championships more often than not, the strength is in quality, not in quantity. And that’s where the Canadiens just aren’t quite there. In Shea Weber, they have one of the best all round defenseman in the entire NHL. Not only is he a threat at the point on the powerplay, but he will intimidate you physically as one of the toughest players to go against, as attested by anyone in the league. To round it up, he is one of the best shutdown defensemen out there and by playing over 26 minutes per game (6th most in the NHL), opponents have to work for their goals.

The problem in Montreal is that Bergevin was never able to find Weber a suitable partner and while 19 year-old Victor Mete did well at the start of the season, the game might be catching up to him a bit, and his ice time has reflected that. Further, it’s not guys like Jordie Benn, Karl Alzner, Brendan Davidson or Joe Morrow who can step in there and eat the minutes needed to be paired with Weber.

 

Log jam

The strength of a good hockey team does rely on depth at the blueline but in the Canadiens’ case, while they certainly have the quantity, it’s the quality that’s lacking. Here’s what the Habs’ defense looks like, injured players included:

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Jeff Petry is Jeff Petry, with his ups and downs and the odd brain cramp. Alzner and Benn had a slow start but both have been playing better for a few games now. Davidson and Morrow have filled the gaps when needed but they are depth players. It does look like the internal solution rests on two unknowns…

Due to Weber’s injury, the Canadiens have called up former KHL star Jakub Jerabek, who was having a good season with the Laval Rockets of the AHL, while adapting to the North American smaller ice surfaces and style of play. In his first NHL game against Nashville, Jerabek did quite well for himself as coach Claude Julien gave him over 18 minutes of ice time. Is he a solution? Possibly, but time with tell.

Then you have David Schlemko who has yet to suit up for his first game as a Habs due to injury. He has been skating and he even made the recent road trip with the team, but hasn’t been cleared to return. But even when he does, he has lost the first quarter of the season and will be jumping in without a training camp so while the negative Nancy’s in the fanbase will be quick to be on his (or Bergevin’s) case, he will need some time to get in top game shape.

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Victor Mete will likely be loaned to Team Canada Junior

As for Victor Mete, you can expect the Canadiens to make him available to Team Canada for the World Junior Championships over the Christmas Holidays. This will be great for his development as he will be playing key minutes in a very high-tempo and high quality tournament, with other kids his age. While he doesn’t seem phased by it (yet), this tournament should do wonders for his confidence as well.

But as it stands today, including Weber and Schlemko (injured), the Canadiens have nine defensemen on their roster. When they come back, expect for at least one player movement at the blueline. Jerabek is waiver free, which means that the team can send him down without the risk of losing him through waivers. Everyone else (but Mete) has to clear. Sure, losing one of them wouldn’t be a huge blow but it would affect the team’s depth at that position in the even of injuries. Unless Bergevin manages to pull a rabbit out of his hat, something we are told by reputable NHL insiders, he has been working hard at. Go Habs Go!

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Habs’ Plans: Now What?

Grit

When the Montreal Canadiens got up to a slow start this, while seeing Carey Price not being himself in net and the team being unable to score and to defend, many people like yours truly were preaching for patience. After all, when was the last time that the Stanley Cup was ever won in October or November? Thankfully for us, the team did manage to get back on track after their California trip by winning seven of their next 10 games, all without Price who suffered an undisclosed injury. Then came this past week… 

After a heartbreaking loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets who, let’s be honest here, had no business of winning as Sergei Bobrovsky literally stole the game for his team, Claude Julien‘s team looked absolutely brutal two games in a row, resulting in one single point in three games this week. While the offense was present against the Arizona Coyotes, the defensive play was worth Pee-wee aged players, as did the goaltending, and it didn’t get any better against Toronto on Saturday. And no folks, we’re not only talking about the defensemen here. The forwards had more turnovers than the Pillsbury Doughboy in the last two games!

This past week’s results saw the Canadiens slide all the way down to 14th out of 16 teams in the Eastern Conference standings, and only four teams in the NHL have a worse record that the Habs. Having allowed 23 more goals than they have scored, Julien’s team can thank the Coyotes’ dismal season to prevent them from being the worst in the NHL in that department. As a matter of fact, the last time that the Canadiens perform that badly, a guy by the name of Carey Price only played 12 games that season. Yet that year, those blaming the Shea Weber trade for this year’s misery tend to forget that they had a guy by the name of P.K. Subban in their line-up back then.

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Claude Julien is running out of options

Now what? 

Don’t go all ape-crap on Marc Bergevin here. The Jonathan Drouin for Sergachev was a good trade, for both teams. But no matter what the reasons, the Canadiens’ GM made two crucial mistakes this summer:

  1. He never addressed the centre position in spite of having plenty of cap space to do so.
  2. Losing Markov and Radulov and not replacing them simply could not happen.

So while Drouin has performed well while getting used to a new position at centre, that simply wasn’t enough to support and improve on a team already thin at that position and offensively challenged.

According to Capfriendly.com, Bergevin now has over $7 million in cap space available at the time of writing these lines. The problem that he’s facing is that the demand is higher than the supply, which means that finding an immediate solution will be extremely difficult through trades… and the price is going to be very high.

The reality of the situation is that Bergevin has painted himself into a corner with no way out, unless the players he put together start performing as they were expected to perform, allowing the paint to dry. If they can stay in the race until trade deadline, then Bergevin might be able to make a big move with the cap space available. But will it be too late?

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Jason Spezza

Jason Spezza 

Please stop with the Spezza rumours in Montreal as that train has passed last year already. This season, he’s having a horrible season and has been moved to the wing on a team struggling to meet expectations. With one more year at $7.8 million cap hit after this season, it would be shocking to see Bergevin tie his own hands when this summer’s free agency looks very promising, including a guy by the name of John Tavares. But then, why would Tavares pick the Habs… unless the players in place turn things around?

Do you see a pattern here? Go Habs Go!