Canadiens Mailbag: Weber, Trades, Rivalries & More

The Montreal Canadiens have begun their main training camp. There are several new faces who have arrived and more than a few who have left. Fans are concerned about the loss of team captain Shea Weber, others, excited to see the return of Jonathan Drouin. Yet, all fans are looking ahead to the start of the season.

Shea Weber, Montreal Canadiens
Shea Weber, Montreal Canadiens (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Depth Battle

With camp now started, the battle for depth roles is on, Demone asks:

Hi, Demone. Thanks for the question.

There is a lot to untangle in this question. The Canadiens have a distinct lack of puck-moving defensemen to fill in the top four. It is expected that added responsibilities will be given to Alexander Romanov to play in a top-four role, and Mathias Norlinder is at camp trying to earn a spot in the lineup. For Norlinder, the likeliest outcome is he gets a long look at camp and then returns to Europe for another season.

This leaves a couple roster spots open, and none of the group you mention of Brett Kulak, Chris Wideman or Cody Goloubef are expected to fit any more than a third pairing or depth role. They are all good veteran depth who can sit for long periods of time and be inserted to the lineup to play 15 minutes a night without hurting the team, or move up in case of injuries, but only in the short term.

Montreal Canadiens Brett Kulak Toronto Maple Leafs John Tavares
Montreal Canadiens defenceman Brett Kulak and Toronto Maple Leafs centre John Tavares (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov)

While it is almost assured Kulak and Wideman make the roster, the one wildcard is Goloubef, and he could also make the cut, if head coach Dominique Ducharme decides to go with eight defensemen to start the season.

Canadiens Defense

Hello, JD. Thanks for this question.

The Habs’ blue line has definitely taken on a different look this season due to the loss of Weber. While he wasn’t as productive as in previous years, you are right in that he did take on a heavy shutdown role that helped to ease the burden on the Canadiens’ top defensive pair of Joel Edmundson and Jeff Petry.

I’ll say it outright—it will be impossible to replace everything Weber provided. It’s clear that Mike Hoffman’s addition was to add a shooter to bolster the power play, which lost Weber’s big shot. On the blue line, David Savard will need to take over the defensive role left behind.

Savard provides the team a very similar style, he is big, and mobile enough to keep pace with most NHL forwards, can play heavy minutes and has good shutdown abilities. His first pass won’t be as accurate and sometimes he does make a bad decision when trying to clear the zone—something that Weber rarely did. The key here will be who he is paired with. If paired with Romanov, who is a very mobile defender with an excellent first pass, then the second pairing should be adequate at doing the job required to defend, but also launch the transition game the Canadiens rely on to score.

Alexander Romanov Montreal Canadiens
Alexander Romanov, Montreal Canadiens (Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)

If Ben Chiarot is paired with Savard, then I would expect to see the same issues as when he was paired with Weber. There will end up being far too much defensive zone time, too many shots on net, several from the high slot as they both will have difficulties coving that area as they tend to play deep and behind the net to battle the cycle game teams will generate.

The Canadiens will need to find better balance in their pairings as the regular season style of hockey is built around the new style defenseman who plays as more of a fourth forward as opposed to the current construct on the blue line using the old-school-style defender—a big, heavy, defense-first player.

Leadership Void?

Hi, Sebastien:

The team has already announced they will not choose a captain this season, but instead will go with multiple alternate captains. We know that Brendan Gallagher, Jeff Petry and Paul Byron wore the “A” last season. Now, we have been informed on THW affiliate Habs Unfiltered (Episode 188) that Tyler Toffoli and Nick Suzuki were seen wearing the “A” in the team photo shoots to open camp.

Brendan Gallagher, Montreal Canadiens
Brendan Gallagher, Montreal Canadiens (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

So, this season looks as though they will have a rotating group of on ice leaders. Off-ice and in the room, the massive shoes will need to be filled and it will also have to be done by committee. However, if I were to choose a captain for the team if Weber were to be forced to retire, I would choose Gallagher. He plays the same every shift—that consistent, high-level effort—along with his natural ability to endear himself to those around him make him a natural leader, and one that could be a valuable captain.

More Trades?

Thank you for that question, LePetitViking,

I don’t expect a trade to happen any time soon. The camp just opened and they have young defensemen they want to test out. Romanov and Norlinder will be given every opportunity to prove where they can fit on this roster. If, by December, Romanov falters and none of the depth defensemen can step up, then it is possible they could start looking for a trade. If they do, the depth on the wings is exactly what general manager Marc Bergevin will look to use to add on the back end.

The reasons are fairly self-evident, nearly all of the Habs wingers hold some value, especially in any package involving picks and prospects, but also salary will need to move out before any is brought in. That being said, barring a complete failure by the team to compete for a Wild Card playoff berth, this season looks to be one where Bergevin will rely on what is in the system to play the season out.

Rivalry Renewed

Tyler Liverpool_13 @13liverpool asks:

“What Habs rivalry are you looking forward to this year with the division going back to normal?” – Tyler via locked Twitter account

I love this question!

We got to see a renewed rivalry with the Toronto Maple Leafs thanks to 17 games played last season, including a hard-fought seven-game playoff series that provided the Maple Leafs their traditional first-round loss after they gave up a 3-1 lead—a fact that every Canadiens fans will enjoy using for many years.

Montreal Canadiens’ Tomas Plekanec, celebrates a goal past Boston Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas by teammate Andrei Kostitsyn, during second period of Game 7 first round NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs on Monday, April 21, 2008 in Montreal. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Paul Chiasson)

However, having the league return to the normal scheduling, the one rivalry I look forward to seeing is the one true rival for the Canadiens, the Boston Bruins. Rivalries are built in the playoffs and these two teams have faced each other in the playoffs more times than any other two teams in NHL history. So many story lines have happened to create villains between the two teams that even preseason games held in Halifax, NS, end up as sellouts with fans of both sides yelling obscenities at each other, but end with fans from both sides sharing a pint and friendly banter.