Canadiens Set Stage for Extended Rebuild by Re-Signing Wideman

By most accounts, Chris Wideman is more of a complementary defenseman than a key one on a winning hockey team. The Montreal Canadiens still won big, re-signing him… at least for the long-term future. He just likely won’t be sticking around to see it, though.

Chris Wideman Montreal Canadiens
Montreal Canadiens defenseman Chris Wideman – (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Habs just extended Wideman, who had been a pending unrestricted free agent (UFA), signing him to a reported two-year deal worth a reported $1.525 million. If the unconfirmed figures are accurate, the Canadiens plugged a huge potential hole on the right side on defense at a very affordable price, but, no, the two years does not equate to the aforementioned long term. More on that later…

Chris Wideman vs. Jeff Petry

The potential hole comes in the form of Jeff Petry, who could get realistically traded this offseason. If Petry leaves, Wideman admittedly isn’t exactly the first defenseman who comes to mind as a replacement who can consistently play at the same level and eat up the same number of minutes.

Jeff Petry Montreal Canadiens
Montreal Canadiens defenseman Jeff Petry – (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

True, they co-led the team’s defense in scoring with 27 points. However, Petry is more of a minute-muncher, with a second-ranked 22:07 per game, who can be deployed in all situations. Wideman (14:53) is a depth (offensive) defenseman by almost every definition, who helped the Habs out of a jam with so many injuries sustained on defense (and through the lineup). He did log a lot of minutes on the power play, leading all defensemen with 2:29 per game, but two things:

  1. Sami Niku, who last played as a Hab in January, eventually getting sent down, was second and
  2. The Canadiens’ Wideman-quarterbacked power play was ranked 31st (13.7%).

Related: Montreal Canadiens: Niku and Wideman Vie for Seventh-Defenseman Job

For some additional context, the Canadiens used 14 total defensemen in 2021-22. Only one (Alexander Romanov, the Jacques Beauchamp-Molson Trophy winner) played more than 70 games. Wideman trailed only Romanov (79) and Petry (68) in that category (64), shining a light on the team’s lack of depth, especially on the right.

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Entering next season, the Habs have (for sure, for all intents and purposes) got Wideman and David Savard. Then there’s maybe the upstart Justin Barron, who’s still waiver-exempt and could maybe stand to develop longer in the American Hockey League, and of course Petry, if he doesn’t get traded. That’s it.

Wideman’s Expanded Role with Canadiens

As a result, there is a train of thought where Wideman isn’t replacing Petry per se, but more so just reclaiming his own spot with the signing. And it remains to be seen what general manager Kent Hughes does in free agency, but it’s hard to believe in rumors the Habs will pursue Kris Letang, his ex-client, after this signing.

Penguins Defenseman Kris Letang
Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang – (Photo by Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Remember, Wideman was a pending UFA. He reportedly signed for a cap hit of $762,500, when he earned $750,000 during what was in effect a career season. That’s a far-from-significant raise, when he could have easily explored what free agency had to offer. Sure, there may be a level of job security he’s getting with the Habs, but, logically, he’s re-signing with the hope of playing regularly.

At a media-availability session after the contract announcement, Wideman spoke of his expanded role. Now 32, he’s suddenly a veteran, who’ll presumably be expected to help bring along the younger guys.

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“I know my jersey’s probably never going to hang in the Bell Centre, but I have an opportunity to leave this organization after two years or however long it’s going to be and leave it in a better place than I found it on and off the ice,” he said. “That’s a tremendous opportunity and a challenge and something I’m looking forward to.”

Canadiens’ Rebuild in Full Swing

Ultimately, re-signing Wideman is a step you take if you’re not looking to contend. And, all due respect to Wideman, who’s obviously paid his dues in the AHL and overseas, if he is going to be played regularly, it’s what you do if you’re looking to rebuild (and not turn it around in the standings immediately).

Meanwhile, the term is a sign the Habs acknowledge the organizational need on the right side and the two years is how long it could take to address it properly, in which case it makes no sense to sign an aging UFA like Letang. Ultimately, they may sign another stop-gap measure via free agency as an insurance policy, but worst-case scenario? Alexander Romanov (for the most capable example) can switch sides and play the right.

Alexander Romanov Montreal Canadiens
Montreal Canadiens defenseman Alexander Romanov – (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

It’s only a worst-case scenario in the sense the Canadiens wouldn’t have the bodies to fill an NHL-ready right side. For example, were Barron to get cut for the sake of his development and Petry to get traded, as is largely expected. However, more and more, it’s becoming clear the Canadiens aren’t looking to compete next season, in which case they very much might prefer the futures Petry would get them in return.

In other words, win later, lose in the short term which Wideman seems to acknowledge. Singing the praises of Hughes and executive vice president of hockey operations Jeff Gorton, Wideman added, “They’re going to get the Montreal Canadiens where they should be a lot quicker than people realize.”

It’s just likely not going to be for those two years at least, though. And you know what? That’s fine. So is the Wideman signing.