On the back end, there continues to be a significant question of who will play with Shea Weber on the top pairing. Do the Habs have someone who can fit the role if Andrei Markov doesn’t come back?
On the surface, the fact that they handed Karl Alzner a five-year deal would suggest that they would be okay with him taking the role. They had a similar player in Alexei Emelin with Weber for most of 2016-17 and while it wasn’t a great success, it wasn’t as bad as many expected either. That said, he fits in much better as a second pairing player that can slide up to the top pairing in late-game defensive situations.
So, if Alzner is off the table, who is the best option to play with Weber? Suffice it to say, none of them are appealing.
Jordie Benn: Benn fit in quite nicely after being acquired just prior to the trade deadline and spent time with Weber on the penalty kill so there is a little bit of familiarity. However, he too lacks the complementary game to be a proper fit as a long-term option and he didn’t fare too well when moved into a second pairing role in the postseason.
Brandon Davidson: There’s a case to be made that he’s going to be the number seven to start the season. I think there’s also a case that they could try him with Weber. He showed signs of being able to take on a bigger role in Edmonton before his upper body injury set him back this past season. His strengths pair up well with Weber but after being a depth guy at best, can he realistically move up and take on that big of a role in Montreal?
Jakub Jerabek: There were enough other teams after him that the Habs clearly see NHL potential in the 26-year-old rookie. He’s a decent skater and is good in the transition game which are certainly pluses but realistically, can he make the jump from the KHL to a top pairing without many issues? The likelier scenario is that there will be growing pains and if that’s the case, having a player go through that on a number one unit is far from ideal.
Joe Morrow: He couldn’t crack the lineup regularly in Boston so if Claude Julien asks him to play with Weber, it will be one part shocking and another part terrifying. He’s a nice depth addition but he shouldn’t be in the equation here.
Jeff Petry: In terms of the overall fit, Petry is the best one by far except for one thing – he’s also right handed. He and Weber played together a bit on the power play but not much else. Petry has the skill set to play bigger minutes but how difficult would it be for him to shift to his off-side? Plus, putting them together would mean their two natural righties would be on the same pairing with the other two right side slots then having to be filled by lefties.
David Schlemko: He should fit in nicely after being acquired from Vegas…as long as he’s on the third pairing. He’s a good skater and that’s more important now than even a few years ago but there is a reason he has bounced around in recent years. To ask him to start logging more and tougher minutes than he has before is asking for trouble.
So, which of these players is the best option (or, if you prefer, the least undesirable option) to play with Weber? There isn’t exactly an obvious choice by any stretch. That certainly makes Markov that much more important to bring back but even he isn’t an ideal fit at 38; he can’t log top pairing minutes for an entire season.
In a post-Markov world, I suspect they’re hoping someone like Davidson can hold down the spot at least somewhat competently but with his track record, that’s a tough ask. Even if that happens, that position is looking like a prime target to go through the blender as more than likely, it will be a by-committee situation for a good chunk of next season unless they want to go with Alzner in that spot and live with the next-to-no offence he’ll up with Weber.
There are certain spots you can get away with uncertainty but the top pairing isn’t typically one of them which may put some pressure on Marc Bergevin to make another move there whether that’s Markov or someone else via a trade between now and the end of the offseason. If not, they’ll head into 2017-18 with a risky strategy for their back end.