The prevailing sentiment the last couple of years the has been that the Canadiens’ biggest need was finding a top-pairing defenceman to play with Shea Weber.
The play of Jeff Petry in the last 60 games, however, has to make one wonder if he isn’t the Canadiens’ best defenceman. If that is indeed the case; would it not be in Bergevin’s best interest to be searching for a left defenceman that best complements Petry’s game as opposed to Weber’s?
Petry is averaging 24:27 per game in ice time while Weber is logging 22:48, a telltale sign that it is not just fans who are noticing that, at this point in their careers at least, Petry is playing better hockey than Weber. He is 2.5 years younger, and, unlike Weber, is not still recovering from major keee surgery. He skates better, and as a result, he is creating more offence over the past 60 games. He is even averaging more shots on net than Weber this season as his power play ice time has increased.
Luke Richardson has done wonders with Petry in regards to finding the net with his point shot; he is less inclined to try to hit the corners and miss altogther. Petry is also more adept at finding the shooting lanes than Weber thanks to his elite agility, and now that he is hitting the net more often (55 per cent of his shots this season have hit the net, 11 per cent higher than his career average), it’s not surprising that Petry has more points than Weber so far in 2019-20.
The other aspect of Petry’s play that has significantly improved under the guidance of Richardson is his overall defensive game. Better reads, better positioning, and less errors with the puck in his own zone. It is quite possible that he is playing better defensively than Weber right now.
Petry has found a stable partner in Brett Kulak over the past year, and it could be argued that they should not be split up. The main issue with this, however, is that Kulak is not an ideal top-four defenceman, or he would be averaging more than 15:15 per game. Twenty five-minute defencemen do not play with 15-minute defencemen as a rule, but at this juncture, the Canadiens appear to have few other options.
In the offseason, management and coaching obviously wasn’t sold on Kulak being Petry’s partner, as Ben Chiarot was signed, and instantly paired with Petry in training camp. It quickly became apparent that Chiarot was not a great fit for Petry, and Julien went back to the same top-two pairings as he had in the second half of last season.
The fact that Petry has blossomed into Montreal’s top defenceman despite playing with a blueline partner that is best described as a solid #5 or #6 is a testament to how well Petry is playing. It begs the question: How good would Petry be if he was playing with a legitimate number-one left defenceman? A pair that can play 20+ minutes together each game and dial back Weber’s minutes even further to the 20-minute range might be exactly what the club needs if it hopes to make serious noise this season.
To this point; perhaps the Weber/Mete pairing would work best in a second-line role facing club’s second and third lines on most shifts. Less pressure on the still-recovering vet and undersized 21-year-old Mete to be such pivotal defenders.
Using the LA Kings as an example if they fall out of the playoff race; let us suppose that the Canadiens were able to pry Alec Martinez away for some young prospects and/or picks on a Kings team that would likely be looking to rebuild. Martinez has been a 21-minute defenceman throughout his NHL career that provides solid play offensively and defensively.
Pair him with Petry in a top pairing that plays 20-25 minutes per game when you include special teams. Dial back Weber and Mete’s minutes to the 18-22 minute range…keep Weber fresher for his power play minutes and hope he can start finding the range again with his lethal point shot.
On nights when Weber and Mete are playing better, let them play more minutes. There is also no guarantee that Weber won’t be better than Petry as the season goes on, or even next season. They say it often takes two years to fully recover from knee surgery, so perhaps we will see Weber bounce back to his pre-injury form.
Regardless – there has been such improvement in Petry’s game that it is unlikely that Weber will ever be appreciably better than Petry in the future, as the mobile defender is in his prime years as a defenceman It is a safer bet that the opposite could hold true.
All that said, the need remains for a top-pairing defenceman whether it is to play with Weber or Petry. Obtaining one would slot other left defenders into their more appropriate spots. It is safe to say that few, if any other, NHL bluelines would have Mete on a top pairing and Kulak in the top four.
There are some very promising left defencemen in the farm system, one of whom may eventually be able to fill a first-line role. What remains to be seen is when that might occur. Alex Romanov looks to have the most potential, yet he is having a hard time finding top-six minutes in the KHL at 19, so it would be wishful thinking to be expecting him to step into the NHL next season and play 20 minutes a game.
The club needs a bridge to when their young left defencemen are ready to step in, and in a parity-driven league, who knows how much better the club could be with one key defence addition before the trade deadline? Bergevin has four months to find one at the right price.