There is a lot of concern among Habs fans that the Canadiens aren’t going to be able to replace the “offence” that Markov and Beaulieu brought the Canadiens last season, but I see things shaking out differently, and I think the defence will at least match last season’s point total.
In 485 games last season Montreal’s defencemen accumulated 168 points. That is by no means an unattainable total even if at this time there are questions about who will fill the second-slot on both the power play and top defence pairing.
Folks on Twitter have expressed scepticism with my contention that this year’s group can produce at the same level and that at least a couple of them may achieve career highs in total points, but there is a method to my madness.
Why? Quite simply, opportunity. Especially on the power play.
Beaulieu, Markov and Emelin spent a lot of time in Montreal’s top four last season, and even when Beaulieu wasn’t in the top pairings he received a fair amount of powerplay time. The trio combined for 61:30 minutes per game on average, yet scored just 12 goals between them. Even less underwhelming, all of the departing defencemen combined for four power play goals last season, a total that should easily be surpassed by others, perhaps even by Streit alone.
There will likely be four minutes of power play time per game or more that will be divided up following the departure of Markov and Beaulieu. Expect Petry to get another minute per game on the power play, and expect the Habs’ sixth defenceman to be a power play specialist..likely Streit, but there’s also a possibility that it’s Morrow or Jerabek, or even Gelinas, who has a bomb on the point.
Schlemko was on pace for 24 points last season over 82 games, and it’s expected he will fill a top-four role with the Habs. In the past two seasons, he has finally started to show some offence at the NHL level, ending last season with ten points in his last 23 games, including a pair of goals in six playoff games for San Jose. There’s no reason not to expect 20-25 points from him if he plays 80 games.
Alzner saw his point total drop to 13 last season, but he also saw his even-strength ice time reduced – he was essentially tied for fifth among Washington defencemen in ES ice time. That is expected to change in Montreal where he was the plum free agent offseason signing, especially if he ends up being paired with Weber.
Alzner had 60 points in his previous three seasons in Washington, and as a 29-year-old is still in his prime as an NHL defenceman, so it is not unreasonable to expect him to collect 20 points as a Hab in 2017-18; certainly 15 or more is expected considering the opportunity he will garner.
Petry had 28 points last season as the third wheel on the Habs’ blueline and a second-unit power play guy. With Beaulieu and Markov gone, Petry will likely be given at least another minute of power play ice time per game, and because of that, expect his PP totals to increase from seven to 10-15, in part due to the increased ice time, but also because he is going to have an elite playmaker on the power play in Drouin to boost his totals.
Drouin is a bit of a wildcard factor when looking at Montreal’s blue line production. No one knows at this time who Weber’s partner will be on the first power play unit. Montreal’s defence production will depend in part on whether Drouin ends up playing the point with the man advantage. Odds are though, if he does, it will likely only be for about 30 seconds per power play.
I suspect that Drouin is going to be on the ice for 80-90 seconds of most two-minute power plays this season as he’ll be the catalyst. He had 26 PP points last season, and given that he is only 22 and just now finding his offensive stride those totals should only increase as he blossoms into an elite NHL forward. Even if he spends some time beside Weber on the power play, I think he will still play the majority of his power plays minutes up front.
Regardless of where Drouin plays there are going to be PP minutes available to yet another defenceman, and because of that Davidson may be the odd-man out for the sixth defence spot as the Habs may go with a power play specialist in that slot. That would leave the remaining defence battle between Morrow, Streit, Jerabek and Eric Gelinas…whoever looks best during the exhibition season.
If that is the case, the winner of that battle can be expected to put up decent point totals, as he will be given lots of power play time on a first unit that I think has the potential to be one of the best in the league. Galchenyuk/Drouin/Pacioretty/Weber and whoever promises to be tough to stop; there’s a lot of talent on that unit and several big shots along with the elite vision and playmaking capabilities of Drouin.
Weber had his lowest PPG total since 2007-08 last season, but with the addition of Drouin I can see him getting 25-30 points on the power play alone, and boosting his point production back to the 45-50 range after getting 42 points last season.
Weber had 26 PP points on a couple of occasions in Nashville, and that was on teams that did not have the forward talent the Habs will have on the first unit this season. With his cannonading shot on the point and Drouin’s superior passing skills, Weber is a good bet to be quite productive on the power play.
Some will argue that at 32 his point production can be expected to drop, but history has shown that elite defenders with heavy point shots do not regress statistically in their early 30’s.
In fact, Al MacInnis, Zdeno Chara and others, if anything, put up better numbers from 30-35 than they did in their 20’s, so it is not a long shot by any means to think that Weber may well flirt with 50+ points considering he has hit at least 48 on five separate occasions in his career and factoring in the boost Drouin is going to give to the power play. Drouin had ten more PP points than Radulov last season. He is going to make the power play better, perhaps even lethal.
Benn was on pace for 24 points last season and did not look out of place in a top-four role with the Habs even if he did not flash much offence. Odds are he is on the bottom-pairing though with the additions of Schlemko and Alzner, and Streit waiting in the wings, it’s not realistic to expect him to hit the 24-point mark. He is most likely going to get somewhere between 15-20 points if he remains relatively healthy all season.
One must always consider that there will be injuries on the blue line as well, and when that happens the odds are that the replacement will be a defender with offensive skills as the best bets to be on the fringe are Streit, Jerabek, Davidson and Morrow.
If Benn were to miss 20 or so games as he often does, the defenceman that replaces him may well produce at a higher rate, so the thought that the six-man corps will be able to come close to last year’s total of 168 points is not an overly optimistic one in my estimation – I expect this group to get 160-180 points while providing steadier defensively play.
I also think Schlemko/Alzner/Benn are a better trio defensively than Markov/Beaulieu and Emelin. There will be fewer turnovers and poor decisions such as pinching in at the wrong time as Emelin did far too often. There will also be less risky plays with the exit of Beaulieu.
Are any of the additions better than Markov would have been at 39 this season? Perhaps not. None bring Markov’s offensive sense and passing skills, and that is the one thing that will be most missed from the departing blue liners. Fact is, though, that Markov was only one of six defenders and collectively the new additions will bring assets to the group that weren’t in abundance with the departing defenders.
There is more to playing defence than making smart passes, and for all of Markov’s many assets, the fact remained that he was a 12-point scorer on the power play and Streit alone had 13, so to suggest that the Habs are going to be devastated by the loss of Markov offensively would simply be incorrect as players will be now put into offensive roles that weren’t afforded the opportunity before. No one player is likely to replace his 36 points this season barring a trade, but collectively it can be matched.
In summation – I’m expecting 45-50 points from Weber with an improved power play; 30 points from Petry with more offensive responsibilities…so a modest two-point increase; 20-25 from Schlemko as he was on pace for that last year and will be top-four this season; 17-20 from Alzner as the Habs are going to play him 22+ minutes a night and likely with Weber; 15-20 from Benn as that’s what he consistently provides; at least 20 or so from Streit or whoever else plays the majority of the time in the sixth spot and is given lots of power play time; and 10-15 points from the rest of the defence group when they fill in and replace guys who are injured, as the odds are good that it’s a blue liner with some offensive skills.
That adds up to 160-180 points if you take the median average, which is in the same range as what last year’s group produced.
A full training camp with Julien and an entire season with Schlemko, Alzner and Benn may not bring giddy excitement to Habs’ fans, but it plays right into Julien’s style. He wants no-nonsense defencemen who aren’t risk takers, and he will have the best goalie in the world backing them up.
The Habs will win a lot of 3-2 and 2-1 games that will be decided on a defenceman’s shot on the power play after a terrific setup from Drouin. Don’t expect a lot of blowout 6-2 Habs’ wins this season, but expect a lot of wins, nevertheless from a team that will once again challenge for a division title.