When it was announced that the Montreal Canadiens would be part of the NHL’s Return to Play and meet the Pittsburgh Penguins in the play-in round, many expected the defense corps to be their downfall, especially given that Marco Scandella was moved at the trade deadline. Ultimately the defense held up well as the Habs upset the Penguins and pushed the Philadelphia Flyers to six games in the opening round of the playoffs.
Still, there are holes to be filled and depth needed on the backend for the 2020-21 season if management hopes to take the next step with their roster reset.
Extending Jeff Petry Needs to be a Priority
Jeff Petry proved his value to the Canadiens in the regular season and his performance in the postseason left no doubt that general manager Marc Bergevin should make extending the 32-year-old defender, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of next season, a top priority.
Petry put up 40 points and 11 goals in 71 regular-season games this year, adding a pair of game-winning tallies in the postseason. With three straight seasons of 40 points or more, Petry’s productivity has increased with age. He is the perfect second-pair defenseman to slot in behind Shea Weber on the right side because he’s more than capable of picking up the slack when Weber is out of the lineup or if the captain eventually loses a step in the latter stages of his career.
Petry is the mobile defensemen that the Habs need to play their up-tempo style and as he prepares to enter his sixth full season with the team in 2020-21, it certainly seems like Petry wants to stay in Montreal a little while longer.
“From the day I got here five years ago, it’s been great. The city was very welcoming to me and my family, and to experience my first playoffs that first year was a big reason why I re-signed with the team. My wife and I have made it home over the last five years,” Petry said during his end-of-season media availability.
High on Marc Bergevin’s To-Do List: Adding Depth on the Left Side
In the four years since Weber arrived with the Canadiens, it has been a revolving door of defensemen next to him on the top pair. Ben Chiarot, who was signed as a free agent last summer, filled the role more than admirably this season but is better suited on the second pair with Petry.
While it’s unlikely that Bergevin will be able to lure pending free agent Torey Krug to Montreal, there may be several trade avenues he can explore during the offseason to finally get a puck-moving defenseman in the same mold as Petry who can play with Weber in both the short-term and for the longer term as well. A player who can also help solve the Canadiens’ ongoing power play woes. One possibility is Jonas Brodin of the Minnesota Wild, who the Habs have coveted in the past.
“The Minnesota Wild seem like a natural partner. They are dying for a centre and might be willing to part with a defenceman to get one. Jonas Brodin, who will be UFA after next season, would probably look pretty good to the left of Shea Weber and the trickle-down effect would slide Ben Chiarot to a more appropriate spot on the second pair,” (from ‘Time to pounce: How the Canadiens can capitalize on an unprecedented offseason, The AthleticNHL – 08/25/20).
Pending restricted free agent Vince Dunn of the St. Louis Blues is another potential offer sheet or trade candidate for Bergevin. His vision and mobility make him the ideal modern-day defenseman and a perfect fit on the Habs’ top pair. Not to mention that Dunn is only 23 years old with his prime years ahead of him.
Adding a top-4 defenseman to the roster would move Brett Kulak, who had a strong postseason, down to the third pair which would give the Canadiens the necessary depth on the left side to move closer to becoming a playoff team.
Shoring up the Bottom Pair Is a Must
The third pairing on defense is a glaring weakness in Montreal’s lineup that needs to be addressed in the offseason. They can’t have Victor Mete and Xavier Ouellet as their fifth and sixth defensemen if they expect to contend for a playoff spot.
The good news is that help is on its way in the form of Alexander Romanov, who signed his entry-level contract in July. If Kulak does indeed move down the depth chart next season, he’ll battle for the third pairing spot on the right side with Romanov, leaving Mete as the odd man out and a possible trade chip for Bergevin. It will also be interesting to see if youngsters Cale Fleury and Noah Juulsen can make an impression in training camp.
Meanwhile, the left side of the bottom pairing could use some grit and experience, which Bergevin could try and acquire via free agency or bring in a player on an expiring contract.
A reliable backup goaltender to play behind Carey Price may be the biggest hole that has to be filled during the offseason, but the Canadiens’ defense corps continues to be a work in progress and there is much room for improvement. The good news is that Romanov is on his way, plus Bergevin has the cap space and the assets to make the backend better now and for the future.