Canadiens Still Need Another Top-Four Defenceman

With the new season fast approaching, the Montreal Canadiens still have a hole on the left side of their defence. Since Andrei Markov left the team, Canadiens general manager (GM) Marc Bergevin has failed to acquire anyone to replace him. Steady stay-at-home defencemen are great for the playoffs, but if you don’t make the playoffs, then they have no purpose. In their top four, Canadiens need to have at least one more puck-moving defenseman to move the needle towards being a contending team.

Petry Needs Help in the Top Four

Jeff Petry is the Canadiens’ best two-way and puck-moving defenseman. The problem with Petry is he is the only two-way, puck-moving defenceman in the top four and maybe the only one on the team. In past seasons, the Canadiens had the delusion that Shea Weber was also a two-way puck mover, but in actuality, he wasn’t. Weber was a solid top defensive defenceman with a great first pass and hard shot, but he wasn’t a puck mover; after Markov left the team, it was clear Weber needed a solid puck-mover beside him.

Jeff Petry Montreal Canadiens
Jeff Petry, Montreal Canadiens (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Petry played on the same side as Weber, so the pair never played together, and the Canadiens’ coaching staff and management tried to fill the spot next to Weber with cheap replacements such as Mark Streit or Victor Mete – neither would work out. Now that Weber is gone for the season, the Canadiens really need to fill out the top four with another player like Petry, who can help create offence and play solidly defensively. If paired with a solid defensive partner, the defence part doesn’t have to be great, just good.

Romanov Could Step up and Take On Much Bigger Role

Alexander Romanov burst onto the scene last season to play an effective role with the Canadiens. He was a second-round pick in the 2018 Draft and seemingly came out of nowhere. He was named top defenceman at the World Junior Championships in 2019 and made the Canadiens roster in 2020-21. Although Romanov primarily played on the third pairing on the right side instead of his natural left side, he showed signs of being a solid top-four player. Romanov scored only six points in his rookie NHL season, but he skated well and proved he could transition well with the puck.

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

If Romanov could step his game up this season and move into the top four on the second pairing with the likes of David Savard, the Canadiens could have that two-way defenceman they are looking for to complement Petry and give the Canadiens two puck-movers in the top four. The problem with this is Romanov still has a lot to learn and loves to play that big defensive role, laying the big hit. He would be better than pairing Savard and Ben Chiarot together, but only if he takes a more offensive role than he currently does.

Bergevin Doesn’t Have Many Options Left

With the whole Jeperi Kotkaniemi fiasco over, Bergevin doesn’t have many options to acquire a top defender; even with Weber going on long-term injured reserve (LTIR), the Canadiens will only have about $1.1 million in cap relief available. If they also place Paul Byron on LTIR, that will give them some more relief but only until December unless Byron misses the rest of the season because of hip surgery, which is unlikely. There isn’t a true top puck-moving defenceman available on the free-agent market unless, of course, they want to bring Erik Gustafsson back. Gustafsson can move the puck, plays the left side, and provides offence, but is terrible at actually defending and is more of a liability on the ice than a help.

Marc Bergevin Montreal Canadiens
Marc Bergevin, Montreal Canadiens, 2019 NHL Draft (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The only thing Bergevin could do right now to improve his top four defensive pairings is a trade. He would have to target a team that wants to either move salary or needs a player the Canadiens have. Both of those scenarios seem unlikely unless the Canadiens want to give up a significant player. They don’t have the cap room to get a player with a big cap hit, and they don’t really have a player to give up – or want to give up – to get the quality of defenseman they need. This has been a need for the Canadiens for over four seasons now, and Bergevin has failed to get the defensemen that they need, preferring to sign stay-at-home types like Chiarot and Joel Edmundson. These players are great in the playoffs and solid when paired with a good two-way defenseman but not so much when paired with each other, especially playing top-four minutes.

Canadiens Have Some Promising Prospects

The Canadiens have some promising prospects coming through their system that should be ready for the NHL in the next few seasons. One of those is the talented Mattias Norlinder, who currently plays for Frolunda HC in the Swedish Hockey League (SHL). Last season as a rookie, he scored 10 points in 37 games as a 20-year-old in Sweden’s top league. Norlinder still has some work to do on the defensive side of his game, but his offensive skills look very promising, and he could be a member of the Canadiens in the near future.

The Canadiens also have Josh Brook playing for the Laval Rocket; he was an offensive player in junior, scoring 75 points in his final year with the Moosejaw Warriors, but has struggled to find his game since turning pro. He did, however, score 15 points last season and is the closest to making the Canadiens out of all their prospects. Jayden Struble is a top-four defender for Northeastern University, scoring 12 points in 18 games, but a defensive defenseman project. He will play another season with Northeastern, and then the Canadians can better evaluate what type of defenseman he will be. Jordan Harris is a teammate of Struble’s with Northeastern. He was a point-per-game player, scoring 19 points in 19 games. He also will play another season at Northeastern before turning pro.

Recent draft picks Logan Mailloux and Dmitri Kostenko could also provide the Canadiens with top-end defensemen. Mailloux has personal issues he needs to deal with first, but he scored 15 points in 19 games with SK Lejon in the Swedish minor leagues and was an offensive defenceman with the London nationals in the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League. Hopefully he can grow as a person as well as a player. Kostenko has three points in two games with Khimik Voskresensk of the VHL, equivalent to the American Hockey League (AHL) in Russia and is slated to play with Spartak Moskva of the KHL this season. He scored nine points in 10 games for the Ladia Togliatti of the MHL, Russia’s junior league, in 2020-21.

Wideman Is Another Cheap Replacement

The Canadiens did sign Chris Wideman in the offseason, but like Streit and Gustafsson, he will be another bottom-pairing cheap replacement for a puck-moving defender. Wideman had an excellent season in the KHL for the Nizhny Novgorod Torpedo, scoring 41 points in 59 games. As we all know, however, success in the KHL does always translate to NHL success, and in Wideman’s best NHL season, he had 17 points in 76 games with the Ottawa Senators in 2016-17.

Chris Wideman now of the Montreal Canadiens (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Bergevin seems to like signing these cheap one-year, low-risk, high-reward type players hoping to catch lightning in a bottle. While there is nothing wrong with doing that, it still doesn’t solve the issue or fill a need. It’s not easy trying to acquire top players, and you have to give to get; the Canadiens right now are not in a position to give, so the odds of them getting are very slim. If Bergevin wants to turn this team into a clear contender and not just a hopeful playoff team, he needs to bolster his top four defensive pairings with another puck-mover.

The best guess as to why the Canadiens haven’t filled that puck-moving role in the top four is probably because Bergevin is waiting for one of his young guys to step up and take it. Romanov has the best chance to do that this season, but if he doesn’t, the Habs will have to wait one or two more seasons before someone like Norlinder or Harris can try to do it themselves. Until then, the Canadiens will continue to have problems creating offence from the blue line.

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