Obviously, injured defenseman Shea Weber is a huge loss to the Montreal Canadiens, However, the degree to which that is the case really only sinks in when you look at the team’s power play and just how much the Habs depended on their captain from an offensive perspective.
Thankfully, Jeff Petry, who led the Canadiens in power-play points last season with 15, is still around. He’s undeniably going to factor in, in a big way on the man advantage this coming season. However, it should be pointed out Weber was second in PP production among defensemen with 11 points, his overall prowess thereon achieving quasi-legendary status over the course of his 1,000-game career.
So, right off the bat, the Canadiens are down a big weapon from the back end (even if Weber’s utilization from the point had become somewhat predictable for opponents, in part resulting in a mediocre, 17th-ranked 19.2% power play in 2020-21). However, consider that Petry and Weber were the only Canadiens defensemen to earn 10 points on the power play. Hell, they were the only Habs defensemen to earn five or more.
Gustafsson’s Underrated Impact
In fact, no other Canadiens defensemen scored more than a single point on the power play in 2020-21. Ben Chiarot was the only other Canadiens defenseman to so much as score a power-play goal, while Alexander Romanov and Erik Gustafssson added solitary assists, the latter over the course of just five regular-season games, in his defense.
In actuality, Gustafsson was the most adept of all defensive deployments on the power play last season, at least based on goals for per 60 minutes, according to data compiled at the University of New Brunswick. When he was on the ice, the Habs scored two power-play goals, or 12.8 per 60 PP minutes. The combination of Weber and Petry ranked second (10.5).
Of course, Gustafsson is no longer in the picture, whereas David Savard will for all intents and purposes take Weber’s spot in the line-up, presumably beside Chiarot. In the interest of full disclosure, Savard had no power-play points last season. He had two assists in 2019-20, but, prior to that, you’d have to go back to 2015-16 for his last PP points. Needless to say, he’s unlikely to contribute in any meaningful way from an offensive perspective, which is all right… in the sense that no one should be expecting him to as it’s just not his game.
Romanov’s Untapped Power-Play Potential?
Ultimately, Romanov is the only remaining Habs defenseman aside from Petry to accumulate any meaningful time on the man advantage in 2020-21, and “meaningful” in this case translates to 45 second per game and 40:08 overall (Chiarot had less than 10 minutes). So, Petry is the only real threat and cloning him just isn’t an option. Of course, practically speaking, it would be genius, keeping one in the locker room, switching them out every so often. No one outside the organization would be the wiser, but science, unfortunately, isn’t quite there just yet.
To a degree, signing Chris Wideman could help. However, he’s projected to be a depth option as a seventh defenseman (at least at the moment), and bringing on Wideman to solve your offensive shortcomings from the blue line alongside Petry is kind of like discovering a second male of a species on the brink of extinction in the hopes of bringing it all the way back. There’s a deeper problem at work here.
Related Link: Canadiens’ Wideman Adds Scoring Depth to Blue Line
Now, the make-up of the Canadiens’ defense has been well-documented. It shouldn’t shock anyone if (when) it fails to produce much in the way of offense this season, which is a major concern regarding their hopes of making the playoffs. However, regarding the power play specifically? Alternatives thankfully exist.
Petry and Petry Alone
As the above Gustafsson stat would allude to, the Canadiens are by no means obligated to deploy two defensemen at the same time on the power play. As such, one unit quarterbacked by Petry and Petry alone on the back end makes sense, even if only due to lack of anyone else.
Romanov could realistically draw in on the man advantage and probably should, but such a situation would more so be exploratory in nature so as to see just what the 20-year-old can bring to the table with more responsibility. Sure, he didn’t produce much last season, on the power play or in general, but the 40 minutes he got as a rookie is far from enough to form any kind of decisive conclusion regarding his offensive capabilities.
Romanov remains a top-four defenseman on this team in the future, especially with Chiarot poised to hit free agency next offseason. The Canadiens owe it to Romanov and themselves to give him every opportunity to deliver in the offensive zone. So, in some ways, the lack of viable options on the back end is a blessing in disguise, conceivably forcing the Habs to do what they perhaps normally wouldn’t.
Norlinder on the Way
With prospect Mattias Norlinder on the way, realistically in 2021-22 after another season overseas, thankfully there is a light at the end of the tunnel and a youth movement in effect somewhat. It is slightly disconcerting though that, as impressive as Kaiden Guhle has been, he’s been receiving the lion’s share of attention among defensive prospects. Granted, Norlinder is day to day and can’t play, but it’s abundantly clear the Canadiens need someone like him more in the immediate future, especially if Romanov doesn’t successfully develop his offensive game this season.
To his credit, Romanov was on the ice for two power-play goals last season, producing at a rate just below Weber (3.6 GF per 60 minutes to 4.7). However, that’s probably more so an indication of the decline of Weber, who scored just five points on the power play in the last 39 games of his season last year, than Romanov’s emergence.
Regardless the fact that Romanov alone was more productive than the pairing of him and Brett Kulak (9:02 total) underscores both how little power-play help there is to be had on defense this coming season and how it’s likelier than not that the power play’s success will live and die with the Canadiens’ forwards. There may not have been a combination of five forwards that registered significant ice time last season, but it could happen sooner rather than later… at least whenever Petry is resting on the bench.
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.