A cursory glance at Montreal’s defensive depth on the left side isn’t going to get many people excited. However, they have enough players to make it a position of intrigue for the rest of the summer and into training camp.
As we sit here in late July, how many left-shot defencemen are sure-fire locks to be on the opening night roster? I can think of one – Karl Alzner. That’s not because he’s coming off of a great year either but rather his contract makes him someone that would be very difficult to move and with four years left, they’re not going to run him through waivers and demote him. He’ll be in the opening night lineup.
After that, however, there are plenty of questions and not a whole lot of answers as things currently stand. Here is an overview of the others that will be vying for a roster spot (listed in alphabetical order).
Jordie Benn: I have to admit, I’m rather surprised he’s still on the team. He wasn’t particularly thrilled about being in a platoon down the stretch and after the year he had, he’s not likely going to lock down a full-time spot. I think there’s a contender out there that views Benn as an upgrade over most of the remaining free agents and could flip a mid-round pick Montreal’s way to get him. Otherwise, he’s someone that’s going to be in and out of the lineup again.
Simon Despres: In terms of his reputation, Despres seems like a candidate to really push for a spot. I mean, he’s not that far removed from being a pretty good player with Pittsburgh and Anaheim. On the other hand, he didn’t exactly light up the KHL last year and was basically used as a fourth defenceman. Second pairing KHL players don’t typically make an immediate NHL impact. Despres is coming into camp on a PTO and an awful lot is going to have to go his way if he’s going to make the team right away.
Victor Mete: One of the few feel-good stories from last season, Mete held his own with Shea Weber early on before struggling and eventually suffering a season-ending finger fracture in early March. While he’s a decent fit in terms of playing style with Weber, he’s not the type of player who should be logging top pairing NHL minutes as Weber will when he eventually returns. If the Habs would prefer to have Mete in more of a depth role, I’d suggest that playing him in all situations in Laval may be the better move for his development, at least to start the season. With him being waiver exempt, his roster spot isn’t exactly secure.
Xavier Ouellet: After getting bought out by Detroit in June, Ouellet quickly joined the Canadiens and moved from a situation where there isn’t much of a path to playing time to another situation where there isn’t much of a path to playing time. He isn’t a top-four player in the NHL and while he’s cheap, Montreal has so much cap room to work with so the lower cap hit won’t help him break a tie. He may be able to push for a #7/8 spot but if not, it wouldn’t be shocking to see him on waivers.
Mike Reilly: After being acquired at the trade deadline, Reilly showed why so many teams wanted to sign him a few summers ago after he worked his way into August free agency as the offensive skill set is certainly there. He also showed why he couldn’t get a long look in Minnesota as his defensive zone play left a lot to be desired. He will head to camp in the hopes of landing a role that he had down the stretch last year (where he averaged over 20 minutes a night) but that may be too tough of a task for him to achieve.
David Schlemko: A training camp injury really derailed Schlemko’s season as he never got on track even when he was healthy. I think Marc Bergevin believes he’s capable of a lot more and considering the year he had, no other team is going to take a chance on him so he should once again get an opportunity in camp. The fact he has spent some time on the right side in the past should help his chances but if he falters in camp, I wouldn’t be shocked if they waived him knowing he’d be a pretty safe bet to clear.
Rinat Valiev: He didn’t wind up getting much of a look with the Habs after they acquired him from the Maple Leafs near the trade deadline as a lower-body injury cost him nearly a month of action. I don’t think his inclusion in the Tomas Plekanec trade was merely as a warm body but rather someone who they think could still have a little bit of upside. I suspect he is going to get a long look at camp and may be someone who contends for the lead in preseason appearances.
These players will be contending for what appears to be three-to-five roster spots depending on their plans for Brett Lernout on the right side – is he a regular on the third pairing with Weber out or is he a fringe piece/waiver fodder? (They also need to determine if they’re carrying seven or eight healthy blueliners to start the year. I’m also assuming that Weber’s injury locks in Noah Juulsen to start the season as a regular as well.) At any rate, at least two of these players aren’t making it to opening night.
(Before going any further I should mention that there are three other players that will likely see preseason action but figure to be safe bets to be cut and sent to Laval in newcomers Michal Moravcik and David Sklenicka plus veteran Matt Taormina. It may not be an overly impressive collection of left-shot players but they sure have a lot of them…)
GM Marc Bergevin is on record saying a team can never have enough defensive depth. While he’s often ridiculed for that, I tend to agree (especially considering the injuries the team has had in the past). That said, it certainly feels like they have too many lefties. There is room to subtract a player or two without creating a whole lot of uncertainty whenever the injury bug rears its head again. Something has to give, right? If not, it’s going to be a really interesting battle come training camp even if most of the players involved in the battle aren’t particularly intriguing to follow.