Prior to last fall’s training camp, GM Marc Bergevin made a definitive claim at the Habs charity golf tournament that the Canadiens defense “will be better than last year.” Clearly, it wasn’t.
Excuses can be made about injuries to key players, downturns in performance or just plain bad luck. However, the results of the advanced stats and the eye test proved that Bergevin’s predictions were never realized.
On paper, the Canadiens blueline had players with reputations for being solid defensemen last season. As the NHL has been transitioning to placing a greater importance on mobility and speed rather than physicality, Bergevin clearly hadn’t added enough of what was needed to compete. The coaching of their defensemen didn’t do anything to offset the weaknesses. As a result the Canadiens placed 30th in terms of the penalty-kill and had the seventh worst goals-against average.
The good news is that by the trade deadline, the Canadiens knew their season was lost and allowed their youth to step into larger roles to aid in their development. Fans saw Victor Mete, Noah Juulsen and Mike Reilly provide a much more energetic, mobile and fast paced style of defensive play. It wasn’t hard to improve on defense at the end of the season compared to what was seen in October.
A benefit of the implosion of the Canadiens’ season is change. Jean-Jacques Daigneault and Dan Lacroix were fired, with Dominique Ducharme and Luke Richardson taking their places.
Richardson has been tasked as the assistant coach in charge of the team’s defensemen and penalty-kill. His arrival seems to herald a new philosophy for the Habs. In today’s NHL, defenseman play a larger role in a team’s overall offensive plans.
In a discussion with the Montreal Gazette, Luke Richardson said “You got to have your real quick, puck-moving defenseman that can join the rush. To have that fourth man in the rush is very important these days. In Binghamton, in the American league, I tried to instill that in guys like Chris Wideman and Cody Ceci, just moving up in the play.”
“Not putting yourself in jeopardy defensively at any time, but always ready to add into the offence”
Richardson continued, “Not putting yourself in jeopardy defensively at any time, but always ready to add into the offence and I think that could be anybody. I think moving up as a five-man unit — even if you’re a defensive defenceman — I think it’s important to get up there because it controls the gap. We talked about that, Claude and I, just really working on gap control this year and making that five-man unit move up and down the ice together.”
The question is, do the Canadiens’ have enough mobility on their blueline? Due to the limited NHL experience of Mete, Reilly, and Juulsen, as well as having Shea Weber out for several months, the responsibility of being the anchor of the Habs blueline will again fall on the shoulders of Jeff Petry. Having four of six members of the defense capable of playing the style Richardson wants to employ is helpful, however none are what anyone could call a top-pair defender. This will have an effect on their overall effectiveness as they play above their experience or abilities.
Richardson stated his concern about the loss of Shea Weber and spoke to the excitement of the new direction of the team’s defensive scheme.
“It’s a big concern, but it’s the time of the year that it gives you time to plan around it and worry about the guys who are able to play,” Richardson said. “There’s some great young players I’m looking forward to work with and I’ve done that quite a bit with Ottawa with the young players coming up and then in the American league in Binghamton for four years. So I’m real excited to work with some of the young players that are coming in. I know I saw Victor Mete play last year quite a bit in the world juniors and a little bit on TV, but not very much. But the puck-moving defenceman and guys like that nowadays is how the league’s built. So I’m looking forward to that.”
“There’s some great young players I’m looking forward to work with..”
This season is clearly a transition season. While it is important for Montreal to focus on developing their own picks as part of the youth movement, some jobs will still be available to anyone willing to step up. There has been a flood of new defenders signed to the team at all levels and even a professional try out for Simon Despres. Those moves could cause a trickle-down effect for the depth defenders in Montreal and Laval that were not drafted by the team. They may end up being cast aside via trade or waiver.
This is where a healthy and focused Carey Price is needed most. When he is on his game, Price acts as a third defender, retrieving dump-ins, directing traffic in the defensive zone and making key saves. If he can return to his career average level of play it would be a significant improvement over last season, shaving approximately one goal-against per game off the team average last season. That alone would make the new edition of the Habs defence a much better squad than the one seen last October.
Regardless of how diligent the coaching staff is in preparing for a season opener without Weber, mistakes will be made by the defensemen that will form the 2018-19 edition. The responsibility to cover those errors will fall to Carey Price and Antti Niemi when he steps onto the ice. If Price is able to mask those errors, and Richardson can guide the defense into playing the style that is becoming the standard in the NHL, the defense will be much improved one from what was seen at the start of the last season.
Weber’s return will only help improve that defense even further. While it is highly likely to be improved from last season, it will need more time and likely a couple more additions before it can potentially become better than the defense of the 2016-17 season, where the Habs placed fourth in the NHL.
Edited by Cate Racher, All Habs Hockey Magazine