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.

PlayerExperience
Jeff Petry864
David Savard735
Mike Matheson465
Jonathan Kovacevic77
Jordan Harris75
Kaiden Guhle44
Total2260

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.

Scoring & Ice Time

By Bob Trask – The Montreal Canadiens offense was rather anemic in the 2023-24 season and it made me wonder what the average performance looked like across the league.

For the purposes of this article, I considered players who participated in at least 50 games during the season and I broke the ice time down in the following manner. The median number of games played for forwards was 75 games while the median number of games played among defensemen was 72 games. On average, the 7th defenseman played in about 36 games. I did not include shorthanded time on ice because scoring is relatively insignificant in this situation.

Forwards

GamesEven StrengthPower PlayTotal
Top Three7515:163:2418:40
Second Line7513:402:1115:51
Third Line7512:140:5213:06
Bottom Three7510:030:0410:07

Defensemen

GamesEven StrengthPower PlayTotal
Top Pair7219:062:3621:42
Second Pair7217:210:2517:49
Third Pair7214:460:0314:49
7th Defenseman3611:300:0111:32

Statistically Inaccurate

These numbers are generalizations only so take them with a huge grain of salt. For example, power play time for defenseman may not always go to the top pair, it might go to the best offensive d-man on the first pair and the best offensive d-man on the second pair. The same logic applies to forwards.

The number of games played is also an average and in real life the games won’t be divided up that equally. Last season, for example, Montreal’s top scoring winger only played in 46 games and only Nick Suzuki played more than the league average 75 games. On the other hand, the defenseman with the 7th highest number of games played participated in 49 games. Both cases indicate a revolving door of players at forward and on defense.

But just for fun, we will go with league averages.

Projecting Performance

There are a multitude of factors that will influence the team’s overall offensive production.

  • A major consideration is how ice time will be allocated and to determine that, a guess at line combinations would have to be made.
  • It is also assumed that each first line player will have equal ice time at 5v5, each second line player will have equal ice time and so on. That’s not what happens in real life but it serves our purposes here.
  • Another consideration is how players will perform with the ice time allocated to them. With veterans some reasonable projections can be made but with rookies the sample size is so small that extrapolating performance will likely be highly inaccurate. Because Montreal had so many rookies last year the problem is exacerbated. But it’s all we have.

Methodology

The projection for each veteran player will be based on a combination of his historical performance and his performance last season For rookies, last season’s totals will be considered but adjusted to compensate for added experience and for outliers like unrealistic shooting percentages The scoring totals will be for even strength only with an adjustment at the end for team totals on the power play and in short handed situations. And adjustment will also be made for production from the bench – those extra forwards and defensemen who are not regularly in the lineup.

One big assumption is that the veteran Mike Hoffman will not be with the team next season. And the rest of the roster is not finalized, so players that do appear on the list may find themselves elsewhere and there could also be unexpected additions to the roster. As I mentioned, there are so many assumptions and variables involved that it makes anything close to an accurate projection futile – but let’s have some fun anyway.

The Blender

There are an almost infinite number of line combinations and defensive pairings. For the purposed of this exercise, here are my combos:

Forwards

  • Caufield – Suzuki – Slafkovsky
  • Monahan – Dach – Anderson
  • Newhook – Dvorak – Gallagher
  • Harvey-Pinard – Evans – Ylonen

Defense

  • Matheson – Savard
  • Guhle – Barron
  • Xhekaj – Kovacevic
  • Harris

Scoring

As mentioned earlier, this will be 5v5 scoring only and playing on the first line or first defense pairing does not mean top PP minutes. Because the Canadiens are in a unique position defensively, the third pairing minutes are divided equally among Kovacevic, Harris and Xhekaj.

PlayerGoalsAssistsPoints
1Cole Caufield321547
2Kirby Dach133144
3Nick Suzuki142741
4Sean Monahan142238
5Juraj Slafkovsky122235
6Mike Matheson102434
7Alex Newhook141933
8Kaiden Guhle82331
9Brendan Gallagher171330
10Justin Barron62329
11Josh Anderson171128
12Christian Dvorak101828
13Jesse Ylonen91625
14Jake Evans51621
15David Savard41620
16Rafael Harvey-Pinard8917
17Arber Xhekaj5914
18Michael Pezzetta6612
19Jordan Harris3912
20Joel Armia5611
21Jonathan Kovacevic2911
Bench4615
Power Play45
Penalty Kill 8
Total271

Analysis

It remains to be seen whether or not these projections are realistic but I don’t believe that they are overly optimistic. The 271 goals would have put the Canadiens 15th in the league, between the Vegas Golden Knights and the Carolina Hurricanes – not bad company to be in. It is also a healthy 39 more goals than they scored last year and only 8 goals shy of what the Toronto Maple Leafs put up on the scoreboard.

Some jaws will undoubtedly drop when they see Nick Suzuki’s totals but it needs to be kept in mind that one-third of Suzuki’s points have come on the power play over his career. He has also racked up short handed points which are not accounted for in this table. Only 5v5 scoring is displayed in the tables. And finally, these totals are based on Suzuki playing 75 games rather than 82. Factor that into the equation and his numbers change dramatically.

The same applies to a few other players.

The reverse applies to Rafael Harvey-Pinard whose numbers were inflated by a a 24% shooting percentage. A figure of 12% is far more reasonable and the projections in the table reflect that.

With respect to the power play, I pegged the number at 45 which is halfway between the median production of 52 goals and the Canadiens’ 38 goals on the PP last season. It doesn’t seem to be an unreasonable assumption is still only about one-half the 89 PP goals scored by Edmonton last year.

Conclusion

What we do see is a roster that is relatively balanced from top to bottom when it comes to scoring that still features a less than average power play.

It is well within the ability of the current roster to produce significantly higher scoring numbers than last year. Some of it could be the result of avoiding major injuries, some could be the modest improvement of the younger players on the team and some of the improvement could come from slightly better results on the power play. Any additional tweaks to the roster that might occur are not considered.

It will be interesting to see what Kent Hughes and Marty St. Louis have in store for us!