With three straight defeats, the loss of defenseman Shea Weber may finally be catching up to the suprising Montreal Canadiens. Now 11-7-5, the Canadiens are still holding down an Eastern Conference playoff spot, albeit having technically lost more games than they’ve won.
Thankfully, Weber’s return is imminent, with next Tuesday’s date with the Carolina Hurricanes being the potential game to watch (from ‘Canadiens target Hurricanes for return of captain Shea Weber’. the Montreal Gazette – 11/22/2018). Coincidentally, the Hurricanes are the team breathing the hardest down the Habs’ necks, just two points out of their claim on the final Eastern Conference berth with one game in hand.
Weber won’t solve their defensive issues on his own, but it’s a step in the right direction (from ‘Analyze This: Cracks in Habs’ D run deeper than Weber alone can fix’, the Montreal Gazette – 11/22/2018). At this point, getting him back is the easy part. Once he and the now-injured Noah Juulsen find their way back into the lineup, deciding who gets to go will be a relatively hard decision for general manager Marc Bergevin.
Excluding the recently called-up Brett Kulak from consideration and assuming the Habs won’t keep nine healthy defensemen on the team, who will be the odd man out? Here are all of their options, ranked in order of decreasing likelihood:
7. Jeff Petry
The Canadiens’ No. 1 defenseman by default these days, Jeff Petry isn’t going anywhere. After posting a career-high 42 points under similar circumstances last season, Petry has 17 so far and is poised to eclipse that total in 2018-19. He’s undeniably been exposed defensively on some plays, but he’s also been forced to play above his head going on an entire calendar year. He is still the steadiest option on the back-end… until Weber returns.
6. Mike Reilly
Yes, Mike Reilly has been a healthy scratch recently, but the Habs need his speed and puck-movement, on the left side specifically. Having played in 20 of the team’s 23 games, Reilly still places second in scoring among the team’s defensemen with five points (tied with Juulsen). In many ways, Reilly is probably the best bet to play with Weber when he comes back.
5. Victor Mete
The one thing Victor Mete and Noah Juulsen have in common is their waiver-exempt status. While Juulsen isn’t going anywhere once he’s healthy because he plays the right side, where the Habs are less deep, Mete is a left-handed defenseman. Granted, injuries have forced the Habs’ to play Mete on the right too (where he’s played before in junior).
Mete’s still likeli-er to be sent down to the minors, because he’s one year younger than Juulsen and, unlike last year, eligible to play in the American Hockey League. The Habs may not have felt having him dominate in the Ontario Hockey League instead was best for his development in 2017-18, so he stayed. Now they have other options to consider. Likeli-er, but still unlikely in the grand scheme of things.
4. Karl Alzner
Sportsnet’s Eric Engels recently speculated Karl Alzner would be waived to make room for Weber. It’s a nice proposition and the fact that Alzner’s been a frequent healthy scratch does make it at least quasi-realistic the Habs will bury his contract (safely assuming a trade partner can’t be found).
The cap relief would be minimal, with Alzner’s hit staying on the books to the tune of $3.6 million, but then again the Canadiens have so much space that it doesn’t really matter. The real dilemma that would prevent the Habs from exercising this option is Alzner’s $6 million salary that they’ll still have to pay him, even if he gets sent down.
It may seem preferable to paying him that much to do nothing but watch from the press box in the NHL, but if Bergevin factors in the embarrassment, who knows? After all, Alzner was his big free-agent acquisition just two summers ago. Most analysts suggested the signing would backfire even before it happened. Is Bergevin prepared to put the team above his own best interests?
To his credit, he’s done it before, but this situation is a bit different than the Andreas Martinsen saga. He won’t be able to point to Sven Andrighetto’s regressed development to soften the blow of what was still a bone-headed decision to trade for an enforcer to play in this modern NHL. Signing a slow-footed defenseman and paying him bucks to fill a top-four role, after he proved incapable of doing it for an actual contender in the Washington Capitals, was even dumber.
3. Xavier Ouellet
In contrast, signing Xavier Ouellet was one of Bergevin’s better moves from last offseason. He’s not a world-beater by any stretch, but he is a serviceable depth defenseman on an affordable contract, after which he will only be a restricted free agent.
Ouellet places as high on this list as he does, because the Habs can afford to lose him. However, he doesn’t take the top spot for several reasons. For starters, he’s only 25 and may still develop into a better defenseman. Secondly, unlike Mete, he would have to be exposed to waivers were he to be demoted. The implication is the Habs wouldn’t want to risk losing him, which leads into the third and final point: He’s a local product.
It shouldn’t matter in theory, but it does. How else does one explain the Jonathan Drouin trade, which sent Mikhail Sergachev to the Tampa Bay Lightning? Drouin’s showing some offensive pop these days, which is good news, but Sergachev remains a blue-chip, potential top-pairing defenseman, who would have been the perfect fit to play with Weber.
Truth be told, if last names didn’t matter, not only might the defense not be in as many shambles as it is now, but Ouellet may not even have been signed by Bergevin in the first place. It’s not like his body of work with the Red Wings was so fantastic (that he ended up getting bought out).
2. Jordie Benn
Jordie Benn has surfaced in rumors as potentially being the odd man out, and that may very well be the case. He’s upped his play this season, at least when he’s been put in a depth role, which was always his ceiling and likely why Bergevin acquired him in the first place. So, he shouldn’t be considered a disappointment the same way Antti Niemi is just doing his job, as the Habs’ backup, having earned a 4-2-1 record, in spite of his unimpressive stats.
The comparison may be especially apt in Benn’s case, as he’s got one year left remaining on his contract too. So, he might be the logical guy with whom the Habs will cut ties. However, if the Habs are looking to make the playoffs, wouldn’t they want to hold onto a player who’s been proven to have earned the trust of the coaching staff, who can play on either side?
Admittedly, the Habs risk losing Benn for nothing if they don’t trade him, but again he’s a depth defenseman and a decent one, all things considered. Instead of trying to lose a (relatively) valuable asset in the midst of a playoff hunt, maybe the Habs should focus their energy on trading away someone who hasn’t exactly impressed in the role they were brought on board to play?
1. David Schlemko
There’s a case to be made that the Habs have more to gain by simply giving David Schlemko and his $2.1 million cap hit this year and next away instead of trying to acquire another asset in exchange for Benn ($1.1 million).
I mean, if Bergevin can get a late draft pick for Schlemko, power to him. Ultimately though, Benn seems to have ingratiated himself with Bergevin and head coach Claude Julien. Why would they be in a rush to get him out the door in the middle of a playoff race when Schlemko:
- Has played in less than half of the Habs’ games in each of the last two seasons,
- Hasn’t come as advertised as a depth defenseman who can put up the occasional point when he is healthy
- And has shown little sign of reversing the trend as this year turns into next, when he will be 32 years old.
If Schlemko could reverse the aging process and become more durable over time, chances are good he’d be in another line of work. That’s not to say he’s bad at what he does, just that whatever he’d be bottling would sell like hot cakes. As it stands now, he’s simply okay as a depth, puck-moving defensemen. If that’s indeed the case, trade him. If not, demote him like you would Alzner instead. His $2.1 million salary has to be more palatable as an AHL paycheck to owner Geoff Molson than Alzner’s $4.625 million, right?
There’s no debating who belongs in the minors and out of this lineup most, but sometimes the best option isn’t the most logical one. Obviously Alzner should go, but Bergevin made his bed when he signed him to that idiotic deal. If demoting Alzner were an option (because trading him isn’t), it probably would have happened by now.
Getting Weber back may make Alzner more expendable, but the sad truth is most of the parts on this list are. Just like Weber won’t magically fix everything, neither will a single move to get the Habs down to eight defensemen when the time comes. If the point is to determine which defenseman you would like to most lose in order to improve your team and there are multiple options to choose from, chances are good you’ve made a few miscalculations along the way. The way back is long, but with Weber returning, at least the road starts soon.
After 10 years of writing hockey, Ryan decided it was as good a time as any to actually join The Hockey Writers for the 2014-15 season. Having appeared as a guest on such programs as CBC Radio One’s Daybreak, Ryan has also written for the Montreal Gazette and Bleacher Report and worked for the NHL itself and his hometown Montreal Canadiens. He currently writes about all things Habs for THW, with it being a career highlight for him to have covered the 2021 Stanley Cup Final as a credentialed member of the press.