Montreal Canadiens defenseman Shea Weber has little to prove at this juncture. Sure, a Stanley Cup and a Norris Memorial Trophy would each be nice, but, as a 1,000-game veteran and the captain of the most storied franchise in NHL history, he’s got the respect of everyone around the game. In the situation in which he now finds himself, that’s all that matters.
Canadiens on Verge of Making Playoffs
After his 1,000-plus games, he’s understandably earned somewhat of a reputation. It’s as a punishing 6-foot-4, 229-pound shutdown defenseman. Of course, there’s always his slapshot at the other end of the ice. However, for all intents and purposes, especially with his power-play production effectively halved from what it was in his prime, Weber’s primary strength is arguably as a presence in front of goalie Carey Price. Considering the physical nature of the playoffs, he’ll effectively be front and center come the postseason.
So, it stands to reason, the Canadiens should want their captain as healthy as possible come the start of the playoffs. Currently out with an upper-body injury, Weber simply isn’t right now. Logically speaking, resting him for the balance of the regular season is the only choice for the Canadiens to make… even if he suddenly feels ready to come back… even with the Canadiens technically still in a race for the final playoff spot.
At this point, with a 99.7% of making the playoffs entering action Thursday night, the Canadiens have nothing to legitimately fear with regard to securing a spot. It’s a formality, just like overtime with Cole Caufield on the ice apparently. You already know the outcome, but you have to play it out just for sake of it.
Ultimately, with the Habs 10 points up on the Calgary Flames, even if they can theoretically catch up with five games left (one more than the Habs), the chances are negligible the Habs let this slip away. Hell, the Canadiens don’t have to really do anything except wait for the Flames to drop at least a point by just losing either in or past regulation in any of their remaining games.
Technically, the Vancouver Canucks, 16 points back with nine games left, can also catch the Canadiens, but call a spade a spade; Right now the Canadiens are simply playing out the remainder of their schedule to determine who they face in the first round. Excluding the unlikelihood that the Edmonton Oilers take the North Division, the Canadiens will either face them as No. 3 seeds or the Toronto Maple Leafs if the status quo holds true. And, objectively speaking, the Canadiens should arguably prefer to face the top-seeded Leafs, even in spite of how the Habs have fared better against the Oilers during the regular season.
Rumors of Weber’s Demise
The simple reason is the playoffs are a different animal than the regular season. You can throw out records against individual teams, because the playing style changes drastically. Games are tighter, more physical and more of a grind. Look no further than Weber’s arguable decline as proof he’s not as effective right here and now. It’s a small sample size of course, but before he got put on the shelf, whether he had been playing with an injury or not, the Canadiens had gone 4-9 in their previous unlucky No. 13 games.
The Canadiens’ latest game without Weber in the lineup, a decisive 5-1 defeat to the Ottawa Senators, notwithstanding, the Habs initially won three straight games without him. They hadn’t won two straight the entire month of April.
Meanwhile, the power play on which Weber mans the point but that had gone silent leading into his absence? All of a sudden it scored four goals in 10 opportunities during the three-game winning streak. The penalty kill on which Weber gets a team-leading 2:53 per game? It’s a mediocre 78.4% on the season, but hasn’t surrendered a goal since Weber’s been out.
To Play or Not to Play Weber
Now, there’s no point arguing that the Canadiens are a better team without Weber in the lineup. He’s not going anywhere, for a multitude of reasons. For better or worse, the Canadiens can count on him returning for the playoffs, maybe even beforehand with interim head coach Dominique Ducharme having said during a media-availability session the team doesn’t expect him to play on the current road trip at least. That means there’s a chance he could return for the final two games of the season at home against the Oilers.
It’s a paradox, but for those games to mean anything at all, heading into a potential first-round series against those same Oilers, the Canadiens will likely have to sweep the upcoming two games against the Maple Leafs for even a chance at pulling ahead of the third-place Winnipeg Jets. In such an instance, sure, Ducharme would understandably love to set the tone by icing as healthy of a team as possible for a chance to gain momentum heading into the playoffs. However, he’d be messing with a winning formula in the process, though.
Dead if you do, dead if you don’t, in other words… at least if you ignore how a completely healthy Weber would be a welcome addition to the Habs in the playoffs, the different playing style and all. Give him the balance of the regular season to rest, even if he doesn’t want it, regardless of the potential seeding-scenario outcomes, because he’s just that big of a presence on this team, both physically and emotionally (even if he doesn’t seem to have the latter word in his personal vocabulary).
If the Habs truly need momentum to get up for the first games of the playoffs, the insertion of the likes of Weber (and Brendan Gallagher) for Game 1 should work wonders, I’m sure. In effect, the Canadiens have nothing to lose right now other than a few meaningless games in the grand scheme of things. Come the playoffs, that’s their and his proving ground, right there. For the record, he’s just 25 playoff games short of 100 for his career.
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 written for such publications as the Montreal Gazette and Bleacher Report and worked for the NHL itself and his hometown Montreal Canadiens. He currently covers the Habs for THW as a columnist.