Montréal Canadiens’ blueliner Xavier Ouellet played his first game of the season on Monday against the Winnipeg Jets, sliding into the lineup in place of Ben Chiarot, who may be out the rest of the regular season after fracturing his hand in the Habs’ 5-1 win over the Vancouver Canucks last week. Head coach Dominque Ducharme’s decision to go with Ouellet over Victor Mete may end up costing the Canadiens down the line — if not in performance, in roster turmoil.
Mete Scratched Again
Chiarot’s injury and timeline for recovery may have seemed like a godsend to Mete, who has only appeared in seven games this season and has gone on record saying he wants out of Montréal. It could’ve been the perfect opportunity for him to get regular ice time and prove he still belongs in a Canadiens sweater. Instead, Ducharme chose to make him a healthy scratch again, which sends a mixed message, especially after general manager Marc Bergevin told the media he wanted to keep Mete for defensive depth.
Given Ouellet’s debut, Bergevin’s comments now seem like a backhanded compliment. While the general manager maintains that Mete is an integral part of the team’s plan, in reality, he ranks very low on the Habs’ list of priorities. It’s entirely possible that with the Habs’ offseason additions, Mete doesn’t have a place among a defence that went for size and strength over speed and skill (at least for the most part). After Chiarot’s injury, Mete slotted into the lineup for one game before being replaced by Ouellet. It’s really hard to pinpoint what exactly it is about Mete’s play (when he does get a chance — he’s played only seven games this season) that would make him a perennial benchwarmer, but maybe it’s just that he seems to be the type of player who requires a very specific defence partner in order to play to his full potential.
Ouellet Moves In
In his season debut, Ouellet played a remarkably average game. In 13:12 of ice time, he recorded three hits, two blocked shots, and two penalty minutes (PIM). He failed to register a shot on goal or tally any points. It’s difficult to try and compare him to Mete, given how little we’ve seen of both of them this season. However, in his second appearance with the big club on Wednesday, Ouellet allowed the Jets to build a two-goal lead after he collided with Carey Price.
However, since his call-up, the Canadiens’ lineup has largely remained unchanged, meaning that he’ll be sticking around for the foreseeable future.
A New Angle(t)
One reason Ducharme seems to favour Ouellet over Mete could be a personal connection. Jean-François Chaumont of Le Journal de Montréal described a fast friendship that developed between Ducharme and Xavier’s father, Robert Ouellet, while they were both playing in France for Anglet in the 1990s. Ducharme and the elder Ouellet took charge of the team after the coach fell ill, and Xavier was a constant presence in the room.
Ducharme has previously expressed admiration and sympathy for Xavier, saying:
I’ve known Xavier since he was eight years old. I watched him grow up. I was really close friends with his father – we coached together for four years – Xavier would always come watch us play and watch the practices.– Canadiens’ head coach Dominque Ducharme on his relationship with defenceman Xavier Ouellet (from “Ouellet et Ducharme: un lien spécial,” Jean-François Chaumont, Le Journal de Montréal, 17/03/2021).
Their relationship could spell trouble for Mete, given that management seems to prefer every player above him.
Although Bergevin has repeatedly doused the fire of Mete trade rumours and tried to quash any dysfunction by playing Mete at his request, both he and the Canadiens’ coaches have demonstrated their preference for other players, now particularly Ouellet. This may lead to some difficult roster questions down the line that the Habs will have to answer.
Covering the Montréal Canadiens and other topics for The Hockey Writers. Also a big fan of the Chicago Cubs and progressive rock music.