Much like the roads of their home city, the Montreal Canadiens’ defensive corps is in dire need of reconstructive surgery. Having allowed 3.08 goals per game, the Habs consistently find themselves at the mercy of other teams and the goaltending of Carey Price, which has been far from stellar this season.
Assuming general manager Marc Bergevin has his eyes on next season, which defensemen should he shop at this year’s trade deadline? Clearly none are untouchable, but logically some are worth keeping, right? Taking overall play, salary, and handedness into account, who should stay?
Karl Alzner (L)
There’s a philosophy in hockey that states you shouldn’t give insane money to skaters who can’t put up offensive totals. It’s logical in the sense that you need to score to win. Nevertheless, Bergevin went the other way when he inked Karl Alzner to a 5-year, $23.125 million deal.
Eight points (and 48 games later) it’s become apparent that Alzner has become reliant on Jeff Petry and puck-moving defensemen in general just to keep his head above water defensively too.
He’s not having a bad season, all things considered. All things considered, he’s not having one worth a cap hit of $4.625 million either. At 29 years of age, will he ever be from here on out?
Verdict: “Go,” but good luck unloading his contract.
Jordie Benn (L/R)
While Alzner and Petry make up the Habs’ most common defensive pairing, Jordie Benn and Shea Weber are second on the list. Considering Weber has been out for over a month, that’s shocking… and alarming. Benn is no team’s idea of a top-pairing defenseman. He just doesn’t have the skill, puck-moving or otherwise, to be.
What he does have is good size and a decent contract that pays him just $1.1 million per year. That’s fair money for what he brings to the table: experience and depth… emphasis on the depth.
Considering he’s a left-handed defenseman who can also play the right side on a team lacking right-handed shots, he’s all the more valuable, but, again, only when that advantage is being leveraged with him playing that right side… not the left alongside Weber.
Verdict: “Stay,” but only as a depth defenseman.
Jakub Jerabek (L)
All the fancy stats say Jakub Jerabek has been a worthwhile addition. He ranks right up there in terms of scoring chances for (%), high-danger Corsi for (%), and expected goals for (%), despite an essentially even split between his offensive and defensive-zone starts.
In other words, Jerabek is contributing at both ends of the ice and is not sheltered in the least. The only drawback is the four points he’s scored up to now. However, he’s only been averaging eight seconds of power-play ice time per game, which could partially explain his offensive totals. Another reason? His top defensive partners have been Benn, David Schlemko, Joe Morrow and Karl Alzner.
Jerabek’s value lies in his puck-movement and mobility. If the team could better utilize his skills, say on a pairing with Weber, it might be worth exploring into the long term. They had better experiment quick though, as his one-year contract is set to expire.
Verdict: “Stay,” assuming the Habs can get a bargain, long-term deal.
Victor Mete (L)
Like Jerabek, Victor Mete has been putting up great advanced statistics… only after having started the vast majority of his shifts in the offensive zone. He’s second among all defensemen in that one category. It’s important not to split hairs here, though. Mete is a talented, young defenseman, whom the Habs need.
Thankfully, the Habs have acknowledged as much and Mete shouldn’t be going anywhere. His five points (all assists) leave something to be desired, but it’s nothing more experience shouldn’t cure. The Habs are positioned to give him all he can handle from here on out.
Verdict: “Stay,” unless it’s an offer
Bergevin any rational person can’t pass up.
Joe Morrow (L)
Like Mete, Morrow has been incredibly sheltered by the coaching staff. In fact, he’s No. 1 in terms of highest percentage of starts in the offensive zone. Unlike Mete, he doesn’t have the advanced stats to back it up, placing last in all the categories Jerabek performed admirably.
While Morrow has a reasonable 7 points in 26 games, the 25-year-old former first-round pick was clearly available for a reason this past summer. The Habs did well to try him out and see if there was a fit on a one-year deal. They’d do better not to retain his services moving forward.
Verdict: “Go,” unless it’s strictly to keep him as an American Hockey League defenseman.
Jeff Petry (R)
It’s important to note that Petry is not Weber. He’s still held down the fort reasonably well as the team’s top offensive option on the blue line since the latter went down with a lower-body injury. In the 15 games since, Petry has scored 8 points (1 goal). That’s not bad, especially for a top-four defenseman.
Petry may be playing over his head right now and it may show from time to time, but, as the only healthy right-handed shot, he’s doing the best he can. The best he can places him right about where he should be on the team’s depth chart.
Verdict: “Stay;” No qualification needed. The Habs need him, even when Weber is healthy.
David Schlemko (L)
It’s fair to say Shlemko has been a disappointment, which is odd, because it’s not like he’s ever been a world-beater by any stretch.
At the peak of his NHL career, arguably last season with the San Jose Sharks, he was an above-average third-pairing defenseman. The hope was he could step into that role with the Habs and replace the offense lost by the departure of Nathan Beaulieu. It obviously didn’t work out that way, with only 2 assists so far (despite scoring 28 points last season, Beaulieu only has 4 so far this season, for the record).
When Schlemko started off the season injured and the team went 10-12-3 in his absence, it only added to the expectations that his puck-movement from the back-end is what would turn the team around. Unfortunately, even from an advanced standpoint, he’s pretty much been a dud, with the Habs controlling only 47.6% of the shot attempts with him on the ice. Only Morrow has a lower success rate.
Needless to say, if Bergevin can get even a low draft pick for him at the deadline from a team seeking a depth defenseman, he should take it and run. Hopefully that mystery team won’t have gotten the memo that what you see with Schlemko is what you get.
Verdict: “Go;” for whatever the Habs can get for him.
Shea Weber (R)
On a team lacking a legitimate all-star, Weber undeniably would have been just that if healthy. At the time he got shut down to deal with his nagging injury, he had scored 16 points in 26 games. Only Petry has since been able to pass him with his 19 (in nearly twice as many games, with 48 total).
Say what you want about Weber, namely that he’s starting to show his age and the P.K. Subban deal is looking worse by the day. That still doesn’t change the fact that he’s a legitimate No. 1 defenseman, one salivated over by almost every other team.
It’s a matter of balancing how much value the Habs can get in exchange vs. how much value they can get out of him before his contract starts to do serious damage to the Habs’ long-term championship hopes.
The fact that “untradeable” is a common adjective used to describe that contract is both an indication that it’s out of the Habs’ hands… and they should entertain whatever offers come their way for the admitted stud of a defenseman.
It’s meanwhile unlikely that they do, regardless of the return considering the optics of such a hypothetical deal. To give up the one player they acquired for Subban, who’s finding immense success with the Nashville Predators, would look only like an admission that a mistake was made. No one in upper management can have that, especially the way the season has been going.
Verdict: “Go,” but only if the return makes up for the loss of Subban; Don’t hold your breath on that happening or the Habs even going through with it if it does.
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.