As the preseason schedule has come to an end for the Montreal Canadiens, head coach Claude Julien and his coaching staff still have some final decisions to make when it comes to the defence core.
With Shea Weber out until December following off-season knee surgery, and David Schlemko missing the first six weeks of the season with a knee injury as well, the Habs have to deal with some significant losses to an already weak blue line.
Here are some options that Claude Julien has at his disposal to begin the 2018-19 season.
Besides the emergence and excitement surrounding Jesperi Kotkaniemi making the Canadiens opening night roster, the biggest surprise of training camp has been the defence duo of Victor Mete and Noah Juulsen.
The belief before the start of training camp was that in order for both Mete and Juulsen to be in the lineup together, they would likely be paired with a veteran defenceman. Fast forward one month later, it’s hard to imagine both of them being separated to start the season versus the Toronto Maple Leafs on Oct. 3.
They both complement each other perfectly when they’re on the ice together. Mete has the flair for the offensive; he can a make a great first pass out of his zone, he has blistering speed that can help him carry the puck up the ice, and he has a strong hockey IQ that allows him to read the play quickly and join the attack. Juulsen for his part can cover Mete when he joins the attack, he can make a solid first pass out of his zone, and his bigger frame can help in the defensive zone to cover the front of the net and in-zone battles in the corners.
In order for this duo to be effective throughout the season, it’s imperative that new defence coach Luke Richardson manages their minutes efficiently, and matches the other team’s lines effectively, in order for them to play against the other team’s lower lines.
Left-Side of Petry
The biggest question for the past two seasons has been: Who will play on the left side of the top pairing with Weber? With Weber injured to start the season, and no significant additions made in the off-season to bolster the defence, Jeff Petry will be thrust into a position he is all too familiar with; being heavily relied on to carry the load until Weber returns to the lineup, while being paired with a player not capable of playing top-pairing minutes.
If the trend continues since the beginning of the preseason, it looks like Jordie Benn will be tasked with carrying that burden alongside Petry.
This is an important season for Benn who becomes an unrestricted free agent next summer. At the age of 31, he has to prove to everyone around the league that he’s not just a one-dimensional defenceman, but one that is able to adapt to a faster, quick transitional style of play. It might be a tall order to ask of him, however, if he’s able to keep up with the pace of the game, defend well in his own zone, and be physical, he can still be useful to the Habs defence moving forward.
Another option the Habs have at their disposal is Mike Reilly. Reilly fits the mould of a new age defenceman the league is trending towards. He has great mobility, he can make a good transitional pass out of his zone, and can bring an offensive element that can help bolster the second power-play unit.
Reilly had a strong training camp, and played a few preseason games alongside Petry which doesn’t hurt his case. It will be interesting to see which option Julien decides to go with moving forward.
Despite having a poor 2017-18 season, it seems as though Karl Alzner will be a staple on the third defensive pairing for the Habs this season. Entering the second year of a five-year contract, fans were disappointed to say the least about his poor performance and contract situation.
Alzner knows that he needs to be better heading into this season, lamenting that he needs to play a faster game, and push the pace more so than he did a year ago.
The Habs have a bevy of options to play on the third pairing with Alzner. Xavier Ouellet, who signed as a free agent in the offseason, is an intriguing candidate to take on the responsibility as the sixth defenceman.
The former second-round pick of the Detroit Red Wings back in 2011, hasn’t made his mark yet in the NHL as a top-end defenceman, which forced the Wings to buy-out the last year of his contract. Ouellet has proven during the preseason that he has the capabilities necessary to play in this league.
At the age of 25, Ouellet still has time to grow and can end up being a top-four defenceman eventually, however, he’ll have the opportunity here to show that he can be a regular in the lineup, which wasn’t the case in Detroit.
Depending on which direction the coaching staff goes with the top-pairing, expect either Benn or Reilly to get a look on the bottom-pairing, as they both have played sparingly on the right side.
Even though the loss of Weber is massive for the Habs, it was already difficult to imagine how this team would improve on the back end with practically the same cast of characters from the previous season.
Regardless of who the group of six defenceman that will play opening night against Toronto, one thing is certain, the coaching staff will be making many changes throughout the season, and they have to hope that Carey Price is back to form in order to improve on the 27th worst defence in the league last season.