The 2019-20 NHL season has just gotten underway, and teams are still feeling and figuring out new teammates, systems, and schemes. Many clubs have a plethora of new key players, including the Florida Panthers, Ottawa Senators, and New Jersey Devils, and understandably, they have all struggled out of the gate. Then there are teams like the Boston Bruins who didn’t really change at all over the summer, except for the loss of grinder Noel Acciari, who became one of the Panthers’ many new faces.
The Montreal Canadiens fall somewhere in the middle, with most of their key players who made up their core from last season still in the fold. This all begins of course with Carey Price in goal, plus Shea Weber and Jeff Petry on the blue line. The Habs also boast a very balanced forward lineup, able to roll all four lines with ease. While they don’t possess a game-breaker type of forward, they have a group of about six or seven players that drive the offense by committee, including Max Domi, Brendan Gallagher, Tomas Tatar and Jonathan Drouin. So far this season, the offense has not been an issue, averaging 4.2 goals.
The defense, however, has been quite a different story. It has been quite shaky so far this season, with players constantly coming in and out of the lineup. Weber and Victor Mete are the consensus number one pairing, and then Petry anchors the second pair on the right side. From there, the waters are murky when trying to construct the rest of the blue line. So how does the rest of the blue line shake out? And will coach Claude Julien continue to sub players in and out based on game-to-game play?
Since arriving in Montreal via trade with the Calgary Flames, Kulak has exceeded expectation thus far. Last season, his steady play alongside Petry got him a three-year, $1.85 million average annual value contract with the Canadiens this past offseason. This season, Kulak has jumped around the lineup, playing mostly on a third pair with rookie standout Cale Fleury. The belief was that Kulak could drive enough play and anchor a pair on his own while making life easier on Fleury. Yet, just four games in, Julien has moved Kulak back to his original spot on the left side of Petry on the second pair.
His possession numbers have always been good, with a Corsi for percentage of 55.1 last season, and he’s already at 57.4 so far this season. If Montreal’s last game against the St. Louis Blues is any indication, he should remain in the top four and play with Petry. Kulak seems like the player that plays better when given a bigger role, and he was very steady at both ends of the ice against the reigning Stanley Cup champs. He’s still just 25 years old, which is young enough that he could develop even further. If he can replicate his steady, 16 points in 57 games performance with the Canadiens from last season, that would suit them just fine. While he played a few games alongside Weber, Kulak is better suited on a second pairing where he can face a little bit less of the other teams’ top lines.
The Canadiens’ prized unrestricted free agent addition this offseason, Chiarot had a very good season last year with the Winnipeg Jets, setting career highs for goals (5), assists (15), and points (20). He accomplished this while also garnering the most ice time in his career, averaging 18:37 per game. So far in Montreal, Chiarot has been asked to take a further step forward, playing alongside second-pair anchor Petry for the first four games of the season. Like in Winnipeg, he’s also a key fixture on the penalty kill, playing on the first unit with Weber. But also like in Winnipeg, his role should be limited to those minutes based on his skillset.
Through his first four games playing with Petry, Chiarot averaged just over 22 minutes, which is far too much for him. His contract may state otherwise (three years at $3.5 million per year), but based on the sample size of four games, Chiarot has shown to be a third-pairing defenceman. Therefore, many think he is the perfect candidate to show rookie Fleury the ropes on a sheltered third pair. And while he played with Christian Folin in their last victory against the Blues, Chiarot could see a younger face to his right as soon as Tuesday night versus the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The “boy wonder” of this season’s training camp on defense, Fleury seems poised to build on his very impressive first professional season. Coming off an impressive final season of junior hockey which saw him put up 41 points in 51 contests with the Western Hockey League’s Regina Pats, he took big strides with the American Hockey League’s Laval Rocket last season, becoming one of coach Joel Bouchard’s go-to guys on the back end. He posted 23 points in 60 games in his first pro year, and given his versatility, he played in all situations.
While he is not a flashy player, his steadiness and all-around game are what has made him successful so far in his young career, and one of the reasons general manager Marc Bergevin kept him up with the big club to start this season. Yet when paired with Kulak on the third pair, Fleury struggled to settle into a role, averaging just 12:40 in his two games played thus far. He has since been relegated to the press box, but with Kulak moving up, Chiarot moves down to the third pair and could serve as a good mentor for the young Fleury. No disrespect to Kulak, but at 25, he isn’t quite ready to take on the role of mentor quite yet.
The Canadiens are now at a crossroads with Fleury, as he’s been a healthy scratch the last three games. You never want to see a young player stuck in the press box, and so Bergevin may be inclined to send him down to Laval where he can play big minutes and further develop as a player. But do not be surprised if he draws back into the lineup to play alongside Chiarot on a third pairing, at least for the time being. Though it may not happen this season, Fleury promises to be a mainstay on the Montreal blue line for years to come.
In a perfect world, the three players listed above would be the answer for the Canadiens to fill out the second pair and to complete the third pair. However, with Mike Reilly and Folin still with the team on one-way deals, the Habs have those players as bottom pair options as well. Then there’s the curious case of Noah Juulsen, who finally looks to be getting back to full health after experiencing headaches and blurred vision through training camp. He has 44 games of NHL experience under his belt, and if all goes well in Laval early on, he could be called up as another right-shot option. Simply put, the Canadiens need to iron out their blue line, and quickly, if they want to compete for a playoff spot this season.