With one year left on his contract, Jordan Weal is the perfect depth-role player for the Montreal Canadiens heading into the 2020-2021 season, whenever that may be.
After a prolific junior career with the Western Hockey League’s Regina Pats and an equally strong tenure in the American Hockey League, Weal was selected by the L.A. Kings in the third round of the 2010 Draft. He made his NHL debut in the 2015-16 season but, since then, he has struggled to maintain consistency with relatively short stints with the Kings, Philadelphia Flyers and Arizona Coyotes.
Weal arrived in Montreal late in the 2018-19 season, as general manager Marc Bergevin hoped a depth acquisition could help push the bubble Canadiens into a playoff position. After scoring 10 points in 16 games, Weal seemed a perfect fit and helped revitalize – albeit briefly- a horrendous power play.
Weal’s performance, admirable as it was, did not push Montreal into the playoffs. It did, however, suggest that the team’s depth would be more formidable in the 2019-20 season and that Weal added clear value to the lineup.
However, he was unable to continue his strong offensive pace in 2019-20. He scored 15 points in 49 games and frequently found himself out of the lineup when the team was healthy. This carried into their play-in series against the Pittsburgh Penguins when he was scarcely used in two games before he was relegated to the press box full time.
Considering his diminished role as younger forwards like Jake Evans and Ryan Poehling push to become full-time members, is Weal still valuable to the lineup? Arguably, he is, if only as a fail-safe if younger players falter over a long season or when injuries occur. What makes him the best candidate for this role?
Internal Fail-Safe Options
The Canadiens have many prospects with NHL potential, but players like Jesse Ylonen, Lukas Vejdemo and Cole Caufield are not ready to make the full-time jump or haven’t proven that they can. Vejdemo is the only player with any NHL action under his belt, and that is only seven games.
Alex Belzile is an option for a depth role. He has experience in the ECHL and AHL but was unable to crack an NHL roster. That changed during the Canadiens’ recent playoff run when Belzile moved ahead of Weal on the depth chart and landed himself in six playoff games. Still, such a small sample size is not enough to indicate that this was a permanent move for Belzile.
Unless Belzile can impress during training camp, it’s likely that a more experienced player like Weal will earn his position back.
The Experience Factor
Speaking of experience, and with the veteran Dale Weise on the way out, Weal has more NHL experience than any other Black Ace in the running for a roster spot. His 218 NHL games are more than Evans, Poehling, Vejdemo and Belzile combined, making him a reliable option to be inserted into a lineup when young players are struggling or hurt.
By “reliable”, I am referring to head coach Claude Julien’s tendency to play more experienced players, who he apparently considers more trustworthy than up-and-comers. The most recent example was Weise who played in the team’s first five playoff games over inexperienced players like Poehling or Charles Hudon.
Weise stayed in the lineup until Kirk Muller took over as interim coach in Game 2 against the Philadelphia Flyers and did not return. If Weise is out of the picture, Weal would make a favorable option that Julien can trust.
He still has one year remaining on his contract worth $1.4 million AAV. Keeping him would allow Bergevin and Julien to bide their time with Evans and Poehling, who can develop and learn the NHL game, and in a year, if they are ready for full-time deployment, Bergevin can let Weal walk when his contract expires. There is zero risk in keeping him.
Weal’s favourable contract puts him in a better position as a lineup fail-safe than a player like Hudon who is an RFA this offseason. As of now, there does not appear to be any negotiations with Hudon’s camp on reaching an extension.
Hudon has played 125 NHL games and has more skill than Weal, but he has struggled with the defensive side of the game, which has often forced him out of the lineup and onto the AHL.
Weal’s ability to play either center or on the wing highlights another attribute that would benefit the Habs, who have several young centermen. Julien could place him in different spots in the lineup, depending on where he needs help. According to Puck Base, Weal’s faceoff win percentage was 49.7 percent, which is average but gives Julien another option in the faceoff circle.
Weal still has enough of the speed and skill that brought him to Montreal in the first place. He should be given an opportunity next season even if he fell out of favor in the playoffs. In a contract year, playing for his future, he may have something to prove. Look for him to be a solid and reliable player in a depth role for the Canadiens this season.