At the beginning of a new year, with a little look back at 2017, and we can clearly say that the quote of the year was, “Our defense is better than last season.” You will recognize Marc Bergevin’s now infamous words spoken at the Canadiens golf tournament. Needless to say, this Canadiens team has collectively struggled on defense since the beginning of the season, but let’s evaluate how they have performed individually.
Shea Weber is suffering from an undisclosed foot injury suffered in the first game of the season against Buffalo. That injury has hurt Weber’s defensive play by reducing his mobility.
Weber’s play was even more affected when playing against third or fourth lines players at five-on-five. These players normally generate a lower number of effective shot attempts than the league average.
The group that Weber faced, averaged a season ratio of 3.48 eSAT For per 60 minutes, which is 43.6 percent of the league average. But against Weber, they generated 5.16 eSAT For per 60 minutes, which is higher than the league average. That put the opposition suppression of Weber 9.6 percent under the opposition expected production.
The difference against opposition top six forwards was dramatic, where a 5.52 eSAT For per 60 minutes was expected, the opposition managed to create 6.36 eSAT For per 60 minutes, an opposition suppression of 3.4 percent under the opposition expected production.
Shea Weber has not faced the best power-play units in the league. Those units were two percent under the league average in eSAT For. Still, when Weber was sent on the defensive mission, the opposition suppression was again under the opposition expected production, at 2.3 percent under.
The biggest question at the beginning of the season concerned who would be Weber’s partner on the left side, and this question has still been unanswered. So far at five-on-five, Weber most often paired with Jordie Benn and Victor Mete. But neither of them are the perfect partner.
While being paired with Victor Mete, Weber’s level of eSAT For was higher than Jordie Benn. When looking at eSAT Against, the result was the opposite.
It is true that these numbers are under the replacement zone, but Shea Weber’s injury certainly didn’t help.
Victor Mete was been a pleasant surprise at the 2017 training camp, surpassing many of the regular defensemen. He played so well, that he forced the hand of the management to keep him in Montreal.
By the end of October and at the beginning of November, things were getting a little bit more difficult for him. Mete then saw his ice time going down from 14-15 minutes to 9-10 minutes per game.
That reduced ice-time helped Mete to gain more confidence in his play, slowly giving better performances. In the last three games prior being loaned to Team Canada for the World Junior Championships, his average ice-time went back to a little more than 15 minutes, and was still in a upward trend.
Karl Alzner was acquired on the free agent market and was expected to be the replacement for Alexei Emelin, lost to the Vegas Golden Knights expansion draft.
A heavy contract for a stay-at-home defender like Emelin was one of the reason that led to him not being protected. The only problem is that Alzner wasn’t signed at a cheap price either, with a long-term contract of $4.625 million average annual value.
Both are not puck-moving defensemen and have difficulties to build the offense from their zone. The main difference between them, is that Emelin was bringing an intimidating physical aspect that Alzner has not.
Comparing the two on the eSAT chart, Alzner this season and Alexei Emelin from last season, shows us that Emelin was allowing a lower amount of effective shot attempts at five on five, at 3.8 percent over the league replacement line.
On the penalty-kill, last season Alexei Emelin faced an opposition that was creating 4.32 effective shots attempts per 20 minutes, and with him on the ice they produced 4.78 effective shots attempts per 20 minutes, giving him an eSAT against opposition suppression of 47.7 percent.
This season, Karl Alzner faced an opposition that is generating 4.00 effective shots attempts per 20 minutes, and with him they produced 5.38 effective shot attempts per 20 minutes, giving him an eSAT against opposition suppression of 41.3 percent.
So far, Jeff Petry is having his worst season with the Canadiens since he was acquired from the Edmonton Oilers. Jeff Petry is not recognized for his game in the defensive zone and that has been particularly true this season.
One thing is for sure, the combination with Alzner isn’t a successful one, with a save percentage of 88.89 percent when paired together at five on five.
As a matter of fact, Jeff Petry, even as a puck-moving defenseman, is showing a superior eSAT for and has allowed less eSAT when combined with another puck-moving defenseman compared to a stay-at-home type of defensemen.
Even though Jordie Benn has scored a career high four goals, he has been true to himself as a typical third-pair, stay-at-home defenseman. Benn keeps his play simple, and he’s has been very good defensively at five-on-five, when there’s not much offense waiting for him.
But like most Canadiens players, the penalty-kill has been very difficult for him. The opposing power-play he faced has generated 5.06 effective shots attempts per 20 minutes while he is on the ice, when they normally generate only 3.92.
David Schlemko was one of the mysterious acquisition of Marc Bergevin this summer. And he remained a mystery for quite a while, as he started his season only on the November 29th. In his twelve games played, Schlemko has been the most reliable in all situations.
It is difficult to give an accurate evaluation of Schlemko performance due to the small sample, but considering the team record of 6-5-1 his presence must have helped in some way. His five on five performance is very interesting in that sequence.
His performance when paired with Victor Mete has been impressive as well. In the 34 minutes they played together at five on five, the effectiveness of the shot attempts for was at 86.5 percent above replacement, while having not allowed effective shot attempts.
Joe Morrow is a defenseman that Claude Julien knew in Boston. Morrow is not doing his first stint in the NHL, and it is still difficult to see where he fits, as he’s not the typical third-pair defender.
At five on five, he has been doing fine defensively, particularly when paired with Jordie Benn, They are showing a save percentage of 95.7 percent, which is very good for a third-pair. Usually that pair will often be use on the penalty-kill together, and this where they are completely inefficient, showing a save percentage of 76.9 percent.
Morrow’s defense at five on five is at 55.3 percent eSAT against opposition suppression and at 33.8 percent on the penalty-kill.
On offense, at five on five he is not doing much with an eSAT for above opposition of 38.1 percent, but on the powerplay he’s at 60.1 percent.
Jakub Jerabek is still adapting to the North-American sized rink, but has shown to be very mobile and very effective defensively. Jerabek has a good vision of play and his offensive production should follow if coach Julien allows him to stay in the lineup more often.
There are very few positive points in the analysis, but a healthy Shea Weber would provide more help at the blue-line. Victor Mete is more advanced in his development then expected and, to continue that progression, he could be playing with Weber on a first-pair, but most favorably on a second-pair with David Schlemko. Jakub Jerabek, Joe Morrow and Jordie Benn are good fits for the bottom pair.
On the other hand, the Canadiens deeply need a left-handed, elite puck-moving defenseman for their first pair. Since there’s such a heavy trend of difficulties on the penalty-kill, they need to make major changes in the player utilization and most surely on the strategy while short-handed.
Finally, Karl Alzner and Jeff Petry are two expensive and expendable defenders who are not delivering for their salary and trading them is not going to be an easy task.