Defense – A Potential Surprise

By Bob Trask – The news surrounding the Canadiens’ defense today is focused on the departure of Luke Richardson, and with good reason. He has proven himself as an adept assistant coach and filled in admirably as head coach in the playoffs when Dominique Ducharme was sidelined with COVID.

At other times the focus has been on Jeff Petry and his potential departure, the potential of Jordan Harris and Justin Barron, the maturation of Alex Romanov, the new contract for Chris Wideman, the return of Mattias Norlinder and Otto Leskinen to North America, the surprising play of Corey Schueneman and the pending arrival of Kaiden Guhle and Arber Xhekaj to the pro ranks.

Under the Radar

One name missing in all of this is David Savard. He ranked 3rd in ice time per game for the Canadiens behind the already departed Ben Chiarot and the probably soon to be departed Jeff Petry. Alex Romanov was close on his heals with only 23 seconds fewer minutes per game. In other words, Savard carried a heavy load but he is rarely discussed. We can do that now.

Focus on Flaws

The biggest flaw in Savard’s game is his foot speed and as critical fans, we immediately pounced on that shortcoming. At times players will try to compensate for a weakness in one part of their game by “cheating” a bit and we could occasionally see that happening with Savard.

There are two ways to try to solve this – and perhaps combining the two approaches will bring success.

David Savard

Pairing Savard with a complementary partner who is quick and adept at moving the puck on breakouts can only help. This could be a defenseman who lacks the size and strength of Savard but who would benefit from a partner that could assume the more physical responsibilities of playing defense. A player like Jordan Harris comes to mind.

The second approach may be a more sensitive topic. This is pure speculation on my part but Martin St. Louis and Kent Hughes may have discussed with Savard the need to get quicker. Like many other Canadiens, Savard had a short summer last year and little opportunity to recuperate from a long playoff run. This off-season will run closer to five months rather than a few weeks and gives Savard the time to work on a program designed to prepare him for the role the coaching staff has in mind.

Strength of Savard’s Game

Savard was second on the team in blocked shots per 60 minutes played, behind only Corey Schueneman!? He was also third in the team in hits per 60 minutes played, behind Alex Romanov and Joel Edmundson but ahead of both Jeff Petry and Ben Chiarot. If paired with a smaller, quicker, puck moving defenseman these are a good skills to have.

Savard’s offensive game can also be overlooked but he has surprised more than one team with his stick-handling and his ability to get quality shots on goal. During his career he as averaged 5 goals and 17 assists per 82 games . In his best offensive season he picked up 11 goals and 25 assists so teams ignore covering him at their own risk. He is not a black hole offensively.

His quiet demeanour also speaks of a calming influence and leadership by example. We don’t know what goes on behind closed doors in the dressing room but by observing what we can, it’s not unreasonable to assume that he has earned a measure of respect from is teammates and the coaching staff.

A New Role

When Savard was signed it seemed apparent that Marc Bergevin was trying to plug a hole left by the departure of Shea Weber. One big, physical defenseman was brought in to replace another and it was unfair of anyone to expect Savard to fill Weber’s shoes – but the comparisons were frequent. Savard would take over Weber’s physical responsibilities while Chris Wideman would take over Weber’s power play responsibilities. In theory it could have worked; in practice it failed miserably.

It seems unlikely that those kinds of expectations will be placed on Savard this season. Indeed, we could see Savard tasked with reduced responsibilities and be put into a position to succeed.

At the moment, Joel Edmundson and Alex Romanov look to be the 1st and 2nd pairing defensemen on the left side. And neither is the perfect complement to Savard. In fact, Jordan Harris and Mattias Norlinder seem to fit that description better. And depending on training camp, Kaiden Guhle might be in the mix. All three are young defensemen who could benefit from the presence of a veteran partner.

Chris Wideman

But what that also means is a 3rd pairing role against presumably weaker competition and with reduced minutes. It would also leave Savard with more energy available in penalty killing roles. All of those factors point toward a stronger season from Savard.

It also means that players like Justin Barron, Chris Wideman and any new acquisitions would be vying for the #1 and #2 roles on left defense. Barron with Edmundson seems to make sense but Wideman seems better suited to a role as the #7 defenseman and occasional power play specialist than as a 1st or 2nd pairing defenseman. But those aren’t Savard’s problems, they are problems for management to overcome.

The Coaching Influence

The departure of Luke Richardson creates a big question mark with regard to the coaching staff but it does give St. Louis and the management team the opportunity to hand pick his successor. With one of the organizational strengths going forward being the prospect pipeline on defense, it is imperative that the team does its due diligence and picks the right person for the job.

As we have seen with Marty St. Louis, a coach can have a profound effect on a player’s performance. Jeff Petry and Cole Caufield are outstanding examples of this effect. Without diminishing Richardson’s contribution, there is the potential for a new coach with a new approach to benefit a player like David Savard. It is something we won’t know until the new coach is hired and the season gets underway.

A New Look Defense

The Canadiens defense will look nothing like the group that started last season. Chiarot and Kulak are already gone with Petry a good bet to follow soon. Young players like Barron, Harris, Norlinder and Guhle will be vying for positions while others like Clague and Schueneman could be in the mix if re-signed.

But even though the Canadiens’ defense needs an overhaul and an upgrade, some sense of stability is also important. Maybe David Savard can help to provide that – don’t count him out just yet.

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2 thoughts on “Defense – A Potential Surprise

  1. Great input. All of the changes you describe were necessary. The defence had to get more mobile and involved. There are good signs for the future and Savard is one of them. The new defence coach will be an interesting hire.

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