For many years, people around the NHL have been saying that winning teams were built from the net out. Further, came the expression “good defences win championships”. Much has been said about the Montreal Canadiens’ top-four, qualified by coach Dominique Ducharme as his “four Clydesdales” when referring to Shea Weber, Ben Chiarot, Jeff Petry, and Joel Edmundson. The four workhorses have been counted on heavily in the last playoffs and were key to the Habs reaching the Stanley Cup Final. But it seems like losing Weber long term could very well put a wrench into their chances of repeating.
For one, what was the Canadiens’ second defensive pairing last season will now be the first pairing and will be given the toughest assignments while having to face the opposition’s top lines. Both Claude Julien and Dominique Ducharme (or is it Luke Richardson?) have all deemed that the pairing of Ben Chiarot and Shea Weber were more suitable in that role. While they still have Chiarot, despite what some people claim, David Savard cannot fill that role at that level. Not in the long run anyway.
Jeff Petry has done well in replacement of Weber when the captain was limited to 26 games after breaking his foot in game one in 2017-18. But he did finish the season with a minus-30 and had faded immensely in the last month or so of the season. Only Alex Galchenyuk (-31) had a worse plus/minus on the Habs that year.
Having Edmundson and Petry on the top pair exposes the right-handed defenceman in particular. In spite of what some claim, he’s not a number one defenceman. While possessing excellent qualities, he is often subject to “brain cramps”, making poor decisions with the puck in his own zone or with poor execution. Edmundson has been a blessing for the former Oiler but they will now be facing even tougher minutes. Still, they will form the Habs’ best defensive pairing.
This will then move Chiarot to the second pairing. The step between him and Edmundson is non-existent. Both are very similar players. Where it will hurt will be his defence partner. Savard is a few notches below the level of Petry for the second pairing (compared to last season).
Unless Chris Wideman, who has only played 41 NHL games since the 2017-18 season, surprises everyone (himself included) by beating Savard to the spot and play over his head, the Canadiens’ second pairing is very likely to be weaker in comparison with last season’s second pairing.
Savard vs Weber
They are many who think that Savard can replace Weber since the captain didn’t have his best season. It is understandable to think that… on the surface. Yet, coaches and NHL players knew that Weber was a tough opponent to face. Top lines hated facing him and Chiarot. Most of the time, particularly at home where the Habs had the last change, that pair had the toughest minutes in hockey against top opponents.
“Oh but Savard is as tough and his defensive stats are comparable”, we keep reading. Yes, yes they are. But unlike Weber, Savard was more sheltered. In Columbus, he played predominantly at even strength on the third pairing with Vladislav Gavrikov (43% of the time) and Gabriel Carlsson (12%) with some spot assignments with Zach Werenski (4%). That’s a far cry from playing on the top pairing as Weber did.
Where Savard comes in handy is that he actually can, for short periods of time, fill in on the top-4. Mostly though, he’s a tough defender who is tough to play against and he can be counted on for the penalty kill, where he gets his extra minutes. On those two aspects of the game only, he can take Weber’s minutes.
The third pairing is somewhat even with last year. The Canadiens are hoping that Alexander Romanov improves over last season but there’s no guarantee of that. Brett Kulak is what he is: a good, but very inconsistent 6-7 defenceman. Having Wideman and/or Savard on that third pairing would be an improvement over last year. Particularly with Savard. I would love to see a third pairing of Romanov on the left and Savard on the right. Youth and exuberance, combined with toughness and experience.
Habs’ biggest need
For the above-mentioned reasons, and despite the Canadiens not being as deep in quality centres as last season, the team’s biggest need has been for a top-4 quality right-handed defenceman to be paired effectively with Chiarot. Teams usually don’t give those defencemen away and there are none on the free agent market that fit that definition. Jason Demers is the closest but he is, in my opinion, a step below Savard.
Of course, a Seth Jones or Dougie Hamilton would have been excellent but it wasn’t meant to be. If we believe NHL insiders, they wanted nothing to do with Montreal… or with Canada… or both.
If Marc Bergevin cannot address this gaping hole on his team soon enough, it should be a very long season for both Carey Price and Jake Allen. Fans and media were complaining that Weber didn’t have a good season (and he didn’t), they are very likely to see how much he was needed.
One of their saving graces could very well be their added offence found by replacing Tomas Tatar with Mike Hoffman and Christian Dvorak taking over for Phillip Danault. The Habs’ brass must be praying that Ryan Poehling can fill the hole left by the departure of young Jesperi Kotkaniemi though. But that’s for another time.