A Case for the Defense

Bob takes a look at the the defense core the Habs could potentially put on the ice this season and why it could be a strong one

By – Bob Trask On opening night last year, the Montreal Canadiens fielded a defense corps that had a grand total of 932 regular season games under their belt. Those games were concentrated between two players – David Savard and Chris Wideman. The remaining four players had a grand total of 14 games of NHL experience.

Later in the year, Mike Matheson and Joel Edmundson would rejoin the lineup with mixed results. Matheson’s addition helped; Edmundon’s didn’t.

If we fast forward to today, the young defensemen on the squad have gained valuable experience, Matheson should start the season with the Canadiens and Jeff Petry could start the season with the team as well.

There are still a lot of if’s associated with the team. Petry could be traded, Wideman seems like a longshot to make the team and at least one of the young d-men is likely to begin the season as the 7th d-man. But for arguments sake, let’s assume Petry is still in Montreal when the puck drops for the first game.

The starting six could look like this on opening night.

Jeff Petry864
David Savard735
Mike Matheson465
Jonathan Kovacevic77
Jordan Harris75
Kaiden Guhle44

Waiting in the wings would be Arber Xhekaj with 51 NHL games played and Justin Barron ready for recall from Laval with 46 NHL games played.

If you subtract Petry and add Barron, the defense still has 1442 games of NHL experience to start the season. significantly more than what the opening night roster had last year.

But simply focusing on games played overlooks the fact that the two most experienced defensemen on the team would not be considered 1st pairing players on a competitive squad. Savard is better suited to a #5 or #6 role with penalty killing responsibilities while Wideman would be a #6 or #7 role with occasional power play time. It was hardly a veteran corps around which to build a defense.

As a result, inexperienced players were heavily relied upon to shoulder much of the load. This year they will have their experience to draw on and there’s a chance that the veteran presence surrounding them is an improvement over last year.

As an interesting side note, Jeff Petry was probably the best skater among Canadiens’ defensemen when he left the team. Even if he hasn’t slowed down, there are a trio of defensemen on the team who may be even better. They are Matheson, Guhle and Harris. Digging deeper, I would argue that Xhekaj is also a better skater than Edmundson. It would all add up to very mobile defense corps with the exception of Savard who brings other attributes to the table.

The caveat is that Hughes seems likely to make a trade involving a defenseman either before the season or at that trade deadline and that defenseman seems likely to be Petry.

Regardless of what moves GM Kent Hughes might make, this year’s edition of the Canadiens promises to have a very interesting group of defensemen with the potential to excel.

Decisions To Come On Defense

EDITOR’S NOTE: We are proud to introduce our latest addition, Bob Trask, as a contributor on Cheering The Logo. Bob is a fellow BC guy and long time Habs’ fan who, you will see, has a very solid head on his shoulders and a great way to express ideas. Please welcome him to the team and give him a follow on Twitter: @rwtrask. If you would like to join our team, you will find the information here.

By Bob Trask – Since the beginning of the season the Montreal Canadiens’ defense has been a patchwork affair and if the Canadiens are going to have any kind of success going forward that will need to be addressed.

Changes coming

A trade involving pending UFA Ben Chiarot at or before the deadline is almost a foregone conclusion. It also seems likely that Alexander Romanov and Joel Edmundson will be two of the three LD next season while David Savard and Jeff Petry, barring an unexpected trade, will be two of the three RD next season. That leaves spots for a #5, #6 and #7 defenseman and there is no shortage of candidates.

Brett Kulak is unlikely to return. He barely earns minutes now and will probably depart as a free agent this summer or at the trade deadline if the Habs can get anything in return.

Kaiden Guhle may have jumped to the head of the pack in the competition for LD and because he would likely start with 3rd pairing minutes, it’s not entirely out of the question that he makes the jump.

That would leave the Habs with Edmundson, Romanov and Guhle as the three starters on LD. Considering the top 3 LD on the team this year have been Chiarot, Romanov and Kulak, this new group would be a small step forward.

On the right side

Petry’s sub-par play this year combined with his long-term $6.25 million salary probably means his trade value is limited and ensures his return to Montreal. The fact that he is a RD might make him attractive to a playoff contender looking for help but the Habs also need RD. Ideally he plays no higher than 2nd pairing with little PP or PK time. A combination of Petry and Romanov might work.

Jeff Petry

If Savard is to have a role on this team going forward, it should probably be as a 3rd pairing d-man who plays 15 minutes a game with some penalty killing time. A great skating rookie like Guhle combined with the veteran, but slower Savard might also work.

That leaves a gaping hole on RD where a 1st pairing is needed and there are few legitimate candidates. Chris Wideman certainly isn’t a top pairing defenseman and remains a long shot to be re-signed for next year. Josh Brook suffered a knee injury and hasn’t played a game in about a year. Neither of these two represent an imminent solution .

Every other candidate is a left-hand shot who would have to play his off-side.

Potential solutions

Jordan Harris hasn’t signed yet and even if he does it is a long shot to go from NCAA hockey to a 1st pairing in the NHL. Kale Clague, Sami Niku and Mattias Norlinder may also be in the running to earn a spot on the team but the Habs would be better served by allowing them to develop on the 3rd pairing or as a 7th or 8th d-man. Unfortunately that seems to be the role best suited to most of those vying for a spot on the team.

Those RD who are pending UFAs include names like Kris Letang, PK Subban,  John Klingberg and Rasmus Ristolainen. Letang and Klingberg are unlikely to choose Montreal and will either re-sign or go with a Cup contender while Subban and Ristolainen both come with their own histories. A UFA solution seems like a longshot at best.

The position of 7th and 8th on the depth chart could be filled from the list of Clague, Niku, Norlinder, Schueneman or Tobie Paquette-Bisson.

Perhaps the best that Habs fans can expect is to see Petry and Savard bumped up a notch higher than most would prefer. The result might look something like:

Edmundson – Petry
Romanov – Savard
Guhle/Harris – Brook/Harris
Clague – Schueneman

Of course all of that can change should Jeff Gorton and his new management team decide to pull the trigger on a big trade that lands the team a legitimate RD.

Stay tuned!

More reading…

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Habs Looking More Like Road Kills Than Road Warriors

Tough Decisions Ahead For The Habs

Lighter Side: List of Bogus Habs Job Titles