Canadiens’ New Management Will Give Their Defence a New Look

When Marc Bergevin was general manager (GM) of the Montreal Canadiens, he had difficulty finding a good offensive defenseman to play in the top four. He preferred to sign big rugged, stay-at-home type defensemen because they were better suited for the playoffs, but the problem is that you need to get to the playoffs. New GM Kent Hughes seems to have a different vision of what type of team he wants, and the stay-at-home defensemen aren’t the type of guy he wants. With Jeff Petry and Ben Chiarot on the trade block, the defence could look different after this season’s trade deadline.

Canadiens’ Bergevin Built a Defense Modeled After Himself

When Bergevin played in the NHL, he himself was a rugged stay-at-home defenseman who wasn’t very skilled offensively. He was good in his end, and could play against top lines, but mainly was a third-pair guy. When he became the GM of the Canadiens, he had a relatively good offensive on the backend, with players like Andrei Markov and PK Subban. Bergevin did not re-sign Markov, and Subban was traded to the Nashville Predators for Shea Weber. Since the Canadiens lost both Markov and Subban, they haven’t been able to get an offensively gifted defenseman in the top two pairings. Bergevin didn’t try to have all stay-at-home defencemen on the blueline – he did acquire Petry, and Weber could score goals – but he couldn’t or wouldn’t acquire a puck-moving defenceman that could help start the offence.

Marc Bergevin
Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz)

Beginning in 2017, Bergevin signed fringe offensive defencemen like Mark Streit, Jakob Jerabek, Victor Mete, Christian Folin, Otto Leskinen and Eric Gustafsson who, at best, are or were third pairing defensemen. Streit, Jerabek, Folin and Leskinen are not even in the NHL anymore. However, Bergevin continued to acquire more of the same in players like Karl Alzner, David Schlemko, Ben Chiarot, and Joel Edmundson. Chiarot and Edmundson are great stay-at-home defencemen, but are not great puck movers. Bergevin’s philosophy was that the more rugged and complex nose of the defensemen, the better they would be in the playoffs, and he was right – that defence style helped them reach the Stanley Cup final last season. The problem was they had a hard time getting to the playoffs due to the lack of offence from the blueline.

Canadiens’ Hughes and Gorton Want a Fast and Offensive Team

When the Canadiens hired Jeff Gorton as Vice President of Hockey Operations, he stated he wanted the team to become faster and more offensive in his very first presser. Hughes echoed that sentiment during his press tour after he was hired, solidifying that they want to move the team in a new direction. If the Canadiens’ management wants a fast offensive team, they will have to change the personnel on the defence and bring in some top-end puck-moving defencemen.

Kent Hughes, Montreal Canadiens GM
Kent Hughes, Montreal Canadiens general manager (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

A good offensive team in the NHL has defencemen that can kickstart a team’s offence, and they can control the flow of the game and ensure that the whole team is engaged offensively. The way the Habs’ defence is currently structured, they don’t have top puck-moving defencemen that can initiate the offence. Petry can provide good offence, but isn’t notably fast or a great puck-mover. Joining him in the top four are Chiarot, Edmundson and Alexander Romanov. Romanov is probably the best puck-mover in the current top four, but is still learning the game in his second year in the NHL, and that doesn’t bode well for the Canadiens’ offence. This isn’t a knock on Romanov, but he is more of a solid two-way defender and not an offensive force.

Canadiens Will Overhaul Their Defence

This should be no surprise, but the Canadiens will have a vastly different blueline next season. Chiarot is a free agent (FA) and Petry has already discussed his desire to play elsewhere with management. These are two of the four players in the top two pairings that likely will not be in the Canadiens lineup next season. Brett Kulak, who plays most of his time on the bottom pairing, is also a FA at the end of the season and will undoubtedly not be returning to the Canadiens.

Related: Canadiens’ Trade Destinations for Jeff Petry

With half of the Canadiens’ top six defencemen not returning next season, the Habs will need to fill these holes. Gorton grabbed Kale Clague off waivers from the Los Angeles Kings earlier this season, and he is a young offensive-minded defenseman with top-four potential. The team also has offensive-minded prospects that could help fill holes next season, like Mattias Norlinder, Jordan Harris and Logan Mailloux. Mailloux is still a couple of seasons away from making the roster, but Norlinder and Harris have the potential to be with the Canadiens next season. Norlinder has some work to do with the defensive side of things, and Harris is still playing hockey in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA)

The Canadiens could also make trades to acquire some defensemen, but if they are looking to rebuild, it’s doubtful they will receive anyone significant unless they are taking on a contract from a cash-strapped team.

Next season the Canadiens defence will be almost brand new only Romanov, Edmundson, and David Savard will be left. With three spots remaining to be filled, they can start putting in the type of players they want in their system and use Edmundson and Savard as defensive mentors and penalty kill players. I think the Canadiens will acquire someone in the offseason and fill the other holes with prospects, especially if the team is in a rebuild.

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