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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Pivotal Decision Coming For New Defense Coach

According to what he told the media just a few weeks ago, Martin St-Louis wasn’t planning on changing his coaching staff but it seems like he will have to after all. As the Chicago Blackhawks have reportedly made Canadiens’ former assistant-coach Luke Richardson their new head coach, St-Louis will have to start looking at resumes to decide who will be coaching his defensive core.

Richardson joined the Canadiens in July 2018 and he has since been the defense coach. He did an outstanding job replacing head coach Dominique Ducharme, who was sidelined with COVID last season.

Crucial decision coming

The decision for a replacement for the position is not one to be taken lightly. With the last trade deadline sending Ben Chiarot and Brett Kulak packing, and with the apparent soon to be departure of Jeff Petry, the Canadiens are in the midst of a serious overhaul of their defensive core.

Further, the organization counts a number of high quality prospects who are getting ready to start their NHL career. In addition to 22 year-old Alexander Romanov, who continues his development at the NHL level, the Canadiens have a long list of young defensemen who will be pushing for a NHL spot in the next couple of years:

  • Kaiden Guhle
  • Jordan Harris
  • Justin Barron
  • Otto Leskinen
  • Gianni Fairbrother
  • Arber Xhekaj,
  • Mattias Norlinder
  • Logan Mailloux
  • William Trudeau
  • Jayden Struble

Required qualities

So the new assistant-coach will have to possess many qualities that perhaps, Richardson didn’t necessarily need to have. For one thing, the trio of St-Louis, Kent Hughes and Jeff Gorton want to create a more mobile, puck-moving type of defense than the bruising style the Canadiens had during their playoffs’ run just a year ago. And as mentioned above, they have started that process.

Here are a few of the qualities that could be required for the position:

Fast-tempo style:

As mentioned, the organization wants the team to play a more skilled, fast pace game. This means that from the defense stand point, the puck must move out of the zone quickly. This can be achieved with good, crisp passes and/or by skating the puck out of the zone when needed. The style of coach will have to blend in well with what St-Louis wants for the forward group, obviously.

Good communicator:

As you can see, the defense could get very young in a hurry. Today’s kids need and often respond better to coaches with good communication skills. They will not only need to know why they are or are not in the line-up, but will have to develop an affinity, a complicity with the defense coach.

Good with kids, development skills:

This goes without saying. Complementary to the communications’ skills, the new coach will have to live with “rookie mistakes”, and how to use those mistakes as a teaching tool for them to continue developing and progressing in their young career. With youth comes mistakes. You can’t have a guy who will toy with the kids’ confidence and natural abilities. Most will agree that benching them after a mistake is not the way to go.

Special teams:

The Canadiens’ special teams has been awful for many years and if there is one area that has not improved since the arrival of St-Louis, it’s the man advantage and while playing short-handed. The power play and penalty kill needs new ideas so adding a new assistant-coach with a fresh outlook, with a track record of success, will be very important for the team to have any kind of success.

There is a sense of excitement about Martin St-Louis as a head coach and the names should be pouring in to fill that position. So there shouldn’t be a shortage of excellent candidates to fill the hole left by Richardson in the organization. The Canadiens need to get the right person for the job, as it will determine a lot about the future of the team’s defensive core.

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