Canadiens Must Play Merrill Above Gustafsson

Montreal Canadiens defenseman Brett Kulak seemingly did everything he could to keep from throwing captain Shea Weber under the bus following the team’s latest embarrassing loss to the Calgary Flames. Asked about Flames forward Josh Leivo’s insurance marker midway through the third period after the 4-1 loss, on which Weber gave the puck up in front of Canadiens goalie Jake Allen, Kulak didn’t get into specifics.

Brett Kulak Montreal Canadiens
Montreal Canadiens defenseman Brett Kulak – (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

“We were fighting to break the puck out tonight… I think it was another case of that,” he said in post-game comments to the media. “We weren’t all totally right in good positioning. [Leivo] gets an opportunity and good players in this league, they know how to find the back of the net.”

Weber Gives Puck Up to Leivo

Of course, other than embellishing Leivo’s goal-scoring prowess, Kulak was technically being honest. The goal against was a team effort in the sense that he didn’t look particularly good on it either, down on the ice, having effectively deferred to Weber on the play, who promptly gave it right up to Leivo in the slot (4:20 mark below).

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Whether Kulak was even in a position to acknowledge how bad Weber looked is irrelevant. The fact is Weber did and he hasn’t been looking good in all that many games recently, committing egregious offenses in the defensive zone that would have benched the likes of Victor Mete, for example, before the latter got put on and claimed off waivers by the Ottawa Senators anyway.

Ultimately, it’s easier to give up on a 22-year-old defenseman with four goals to his name in an NHL career spanning four seasons than your 35-year-old captain with 1,000-plus games in the league, whose reputation precedes him. That’s not even taking into account Weber’s contract, which makes it damn-near impossible to move him at this stage. For one reason or another, Weber’s not going anywhere, not even off the ice it would seem.

Making the Man Mountain More Mobile

The point is, it’s hard to believe the Canadiens would even want to move the Man Mountain if they could, considering the amount of ice time he’s been given (22:43 per game, two seconds short of Jeff Petry’s team-leading 22:45 heading into action Friday night). However, dating back to partner Ben Chiarot’s injury, even head coach Dominique Ducharme has recognized the need to replace him with someone more mobile.

Shea Weber Montreal Canadiens
Montreal Canadiens defenseman Shea Weber – (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Ducharme said as much before initially going with rookie Alexander Romanov for a few games in that spot. Ducharme then switched it up and moved Joel Edmundson beside Weber, as if to say Romanov was not ready for the responsibility. It soon became abundantly clear (if not immediately after the move was made) that putting two shutdown defensemen together wasn’t going to work, with the duo sporting some of the lowest efficiency metrics among pairings on the team, according to MoneyPuck.com.

So, eventually, with the game of Petry, Edmundson’s regular partner, suffering as well due to the switch, Ducharme moved on to Kulak. Up until a few days ago, Kulak might have been the last, best hope to add a dimension of mobility to the Habs’ group of five on-ice skaters that everyone keeps hearing about, whenever Weber is playing. Then general manager Marc Bergevin acquired depth defensemen Jon Merrill and Erik Gustafsson at the trade deadline, opening up new possibilities… at least once their respective quarantine periods have finished.

It’s admittedly a moot point, because Chiarot is almost back and Ducharme is likely going right back to him in that coveted spot beside Weber. However, he shouldn’t. Merrill, who can play both sides, is realistically going to slot in on the third pairing with Romanov. The experience and defensive stability he provides are seen as assets in that context. That’s something Chiarot can provide instead, albeit forcing Romanov to the right, though. However, Romanov has been playing there most of the season, beside Kulak, his most common partner. Six in one hand, half a dozen in the other.

Merrill vs. Gustafsson

Under the assumption you’d want to keep Edmundson and Petry together, it makes sense to play Merrill beside Weber, dropping Kulak to the role of a seventh defenseman. Even if only to ease Chiarot back into the lineup with less minutes, what have the Canadiens got to lose? Aside from more games just like they have been losing recently anyway?

While Merrill is seen primarily as a defensive defensemen, remember so is Chiarot. So, the Habs aren’t really losing anything from that perspective. What they’re potentially gaining is superior puck movement and a better first pass (out of the zone, preferably). True, Chiarot’s game has improved in that regard, but, ultimately, his foot speed or lack thereof simply doesn’t mix with Weber’s. It’s the perfect time to try out someone new in that position.

Jon Merrill #15, Vegas Golden Knights
Ex-Vegas Golden Knights defenseman Jon Merrill – (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

On paper, one might think the offensively inclined Gustafsson is the likelier option. He might even get a go to see if he can complement Weber’s game somewhat. However, as a regular healthy scratch with the Philadelphia Flyers due to defensive deficiencies, it’s likeliest he ends up benched much like Mete would be and on the outside looking in, with a jam-packed blue line consisting of eight regular NHL defensemen. Hence the need for a happy medium between mobility and defensive awareness that Merrill just might deliver in spades. Someone’s going to have to sit out. It might as well be Gustafsson, even if the Habs could probably use his offense from the back end.

Weber Needs the Right Partner

Sure, the Weber pairing might not produce all that much offense when all is said and done. However, seeing as Chiarot has just five points in 25 games this season and Weber has been limited to one assist in his last six games, the goal at this stage must simply be to keep the puck out instead and keep players like Leivo from looking like superstars, all due respect to him.

Not-so-fun fact: Leivo has five goals all season. Three have come against the Habs, two of those with Weber on the ice. Weber has been responsible for both, giving up the puck deep in the Habs’ zone on the other one as well (March 11; 2-1 loss to Flames). Coincidentally, that was Chiarot’s first game out of the lineup, perhaps indicating it’s all symptomatic of Weber trying to do too much.

Josh Leivo Calgary Flames
Calgary Flames forward Josh Leivo – (Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images)

Regardless, Weber is going to give the puck away, even with Chiarot back… especially due to the condensed scheduled. It’s unavoidable based simply on the amount of ice time he gets. Giveaways are a function of ice time. It’s that simple. However, steps can be taken to put him and the Habs in the best position to succeed, even as things only get tougher from here on out with a few sets of three games in four nights coming up and 16 in 26 days until the end of the season. As fate would have it, it starts with another go-around against Leivo’s Flames this Friday night.

If simply resting Weber isn’t an option (instead of benching him), putting the puck off his stick and onto his partner’s as often as possible is the best way to go about it. In such an instance, it probably makes sense to give him a partner who handles it more like a hacky sack than a hand grenade, passing it to a teammate rather than an opponent. Ironically less likely to blow up in your face that way.