Canadiens Have Mixed History of Handling Young Defencemen

*This article was published during the 2021-22 season

The Montreal Canadiens have iced one of the more veteran defensive groups in the NHL in recent years. The top defencemen of this year and last have been all over the age of 30, including Shea Weber (36yrs), Jeff Petry (34yrs), David Savard (31yrs), and Ben Chiarot (30yrs).

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It is time to start building around the young defencemen that the team has acquired and to look to the future after this year can be considered a wipe. It is the worst start in franchise history and more changes are coming, this time to the roster. The best course of action is to sell any pieces that are worth anything to any team that will take them. This, in turn, will free up more roster spots and allow the young players, who the Canadiens have to increase in playing time, to gain much-needed confidence at the NHL level.

There are a number of moves that the team has made in recent years that will stand out to you. Some good and some bad. This includes sending Mikhail Sergachev to the Tampa Bay Lightning, waiving Victor Mete, claiming Kale Clague, signing Sami Niku after his contract was mutually terminated, and putting Alexander Romanov in the right position to succeed.

We will look at the good first, because who doesn’t like to read about good news involving their team?

Canadiens Have Added 2 Young Defenders With Potential This Season

I expect Sami Niku to get his best look in a Canadiens jersey in the second half of the season. Chiarot is the best trade chip the team has, and if they fail to move him for anything before the deadline, that would be a disaster. This, as well as finally being healthy after entering COVID protocol at the beginning of the month, will allow Niku to establish his game with consistent time in the lineup.

A seventh-round pick, Niku took off soon after that and played exceptionally well for the Manitoba Moose, the Winnipeg Jets’ American Hockey League (AHL) team. He was never able to get his footing and stay in the lineup in Winnipeg, playing 53 games across three seasons after his one-game trial in 2017-18.

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Niku was passed in the Jets’ depth charts by the likes of Logan Stanley, Dylan Samberg, and Ville Heinola, and with the addition of Nate Schmidt and Brenden Dillon, there was just no room or opportunity.

The addition of Clague was the most recent defensive move made by the Canadiens. It came after former general manager Marc Bergevin had been fired. What looks to be the better of the two recent additions when it comes to young defencemen, Clague was performing well in Los Angeles, there was just no room (“Canadiens claim defenceman Kale Clague off waivers from Kings”, Montreal Gazette, Dec. 5, 2021).

Kale Clague Montreal Canadiens-Canadiens Have Mixed History of Handling Young Defencemen
Kale Clague, Montreal Canadiens (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

In a power-play role with the Kings, Clague was able to really show his offensive ability, but once the defencemen started to get healthy, they elected to put him on waivers since they have a number of other prospects in their system. But, one team’s loss, is another’s gain.

Clague is a player that the Canadiens can build around and will help out their offence a great deal in the future. Their identity as a team should be to get younger and get their youth battle-tested in the NHL. Clague is at the age where he is starting to come into his own and an opportunity to play every night, especially in the top-four and with power-play time, would be beneficial.

It is a perfect season for the Canadiens to test out what they have and plan for the future.

Romanov Put in a Position to Succeed

I believe part of the reason why Mete was seen as expendable was that the Canadiens knew what they had in Romanov. As I previously stated, the defence on the team were mostly veterans and there just wasn’t much of an opportunity for young defencemen to succeed while the older experienced players filled the lineup in what was seen as a win-now mode.

Not every young defenceman can come in and play top-pairing minutes in the NHL, it’s just too difficult in many circumstances to match up against the best in the world on every shift. That’s what cuts into the confidence of young players and puts some doubt in their minds. A slower approach is more often than not the best course of action.

Alexander Romanov Montreal Canadiens-Canadiens Have Mixed History of Handling Young Defencemen
Alexander Romanov, Montreal Canadiens (Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)

At age 21, Romanov surprised and played 54 of the 56-game season with an emphasis on physicality. He isn’t the largest player, but he throws the body around every chance he gets and plays hard. That’s a big reason why he was able to stick around and be effective as a defenceman at a young age – not letting opponents just walk around him unscathed.

Now, with Weber out for the season, Romanov’s ice time has slowly increased, while deservedly so, receiving time on the penalty kill. Once Chiarot is likely dealt, the Canadiens will turn to him on the number one penalty kill.

Being on a line with a talented and reliable veteran in Jeff Petry or David Savard has definitely helped out Romanov if there have been lapses or mistakes in his game. Once he is a more established player in the NHL, he should be the one helping along the next group of young talent.

Losing Out on Mete & Sergachev

Letting go of Mete may be a blessing in disguise as, since the move to place him on waivers, the team has jumped at the opportunity to add both Niku and Clague. All are very young and still have potential. As you may know, defencemen typically take longer to develop than forwards.

Mete may get a better opportunity and a longer look in Ottawa based on the pieces they have. Right now he is slotted in on the second line and has the ability to play both sides, something that will come in handy with a fully healthy defence core if he wants to continue to get regular time in the lineup.

Mete is only 23, so I wouldn’t be as quick to judge just yet. Give him a few more years and then say it was the right decision to let him go for nothing. Sure, he isn’t a goal-scoring defenceman, but a lot of players aren’t. He can move the puck and may turn out to be a great puck-moving defenceman in his career.

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Trading Sergachev was a bad move from day one. The Canadiens never gave him a chance and were looking to add a forward at the time. Whatever they saw in him to draft him ninth overall in 2016 was definitely worth keeping and the decision quickly came back to haunt them.

The Canadiens gave Sergachev a four-game trial before sending him to the Lightning, where he broke out immediately for 40 points in 79 games and was very effective on the power play. He is a big presence out on the ice and a combination of his size and reach make it very difficult for the offence to get around him.

Mikhail Sergachev Tampa Bay Lightning
Mikhail Sergachev, Tampa Bay Lightning (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Sergachev has recorded 210 points in 412 games with the Lightning since being traded, and he’s only 24. That’s a player the Canadiens would love to have lined up on the first pairing for them right now.

On the other end of the deal, Jonathan Drouin, the player who came back to Montreal, hasn’t lived up to what they had hoped when acquiring him. He has played significantly fewer games and is a minus-72, while Sergachev is a plus-61 since the trade. That, of course, has a lot to do with the team but also with the ability at both ends of the ice when they are on.

If recent history is any indication, the Canadiens should be willing to re-sign both Clague and Niku to short-term contracts at the very least and see what they have before letting more skilled defencemen leave the organization.

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