With the offseason finally nearing an end, Montreal Canadiens fans have a lot to be excited about for the 2017-18 season. With an improved offense and a healthy Carey Price, the Habs have the potential to have yet another successful season. Unfortunately, there is one thing that may drag them down; their defense. The Habs current D-core is arguably the weakest in years after the departures of longtime Canadien Andrei Markov, Nathan Beaulieu, Alexei Emelin, and the young Mikhail Sergachev who would have most likely made the full time jump to the NHL. There are also very few options left on the free agent market and a big time trade by Marc Bergevin seems unlikely.
The Habs will most likely be heading into the season with this defensive depth chart:
|Karl Alzner||Shea Weber|
|David Schlemko||Jeff Petry|
|Brandon Davidson||Jordie Benn|
While the Habs have a very strong right side, their left side is noticeably weak. The leader of that group is Karl Alzner who is a fringe 2nd pairing guy at best. Additionally, the rest of the bunch seem to be 3rd pairing or depth defenders. Head Coach Claude Julien has very limited options on D and will need to find the perfect pairings in order to save this defense. With these points in mind, it’s time to look at the Habs options on D heading into the season.
Right off the bat, you can slot Shea Weber into the right spot on the 1st pair. With Weber being the Habs best D and also one of the best defensemen this league has to offer, this choice is a no brainer. Unfortunately, the left side of this pairing is one of the biggest question marks heading into the year. While Alzner is the top LD, his lack of speed absolutely means that you have to keep him away from playing with Weber. Any opposing offense with speed would dominate that pairing and many goals would come from it. Also, as we saw last year, Weber is a much better player when playing with a teammate who suits his style of play. After being stuck with Alexei Emelin for a big chunk of the year, Andrei Markov was finally moved up to play with him on the 1st pair. Markov’s strong puck moving complemented Weber’s game which lead to Weber’s GF% and Corsi% increasing significantly. While both Brandon Davidson and David Schlemko do fit this description, neither have the ideal talent to be top pairing defenders.
The best solution to this problem may just be newly signed Jakub Jerabek. Jerabek could be a talented player this season but is still a very big question mark. The young puck mover was brought over from the KHL soon after the Habs were eliminated from the 2017 playoffs. In the KHL, Jerabek was an all-star and finished the season 5th in points for a defenseman. If you’re looking for a good comparison, he had very similar numbers to Toronto’s Nikita Zaitsev the year he came to the NHL. Zaitsev was able to play the full season with the Leafs and picked up a respectable 36 points. If Jerabek has a season like this and translates his strong KHL play to the NHL, we could have a perfect fit to play with Weber. These two together could make for a very exciting pairing. If Jerabek does not turn out, either Schlemko or Davidson should start the year with Weber.
Like the first pairing, the right side of this pairing is basically a lock with Jeff Petry holding this spot. Petry has been one of the Habs best defensemen for several years after joining the team during the 2014-15 season. He also brings elite skating and great puck moving to a lineup that severely lacks these two skills.
The best and most probable to play with Petry on the left side of this pairing is Karl Alzner who was signed to a 5-year, 23 million contact during free agency. While Alzner was a terrible fit for Weber, he is the perfect type of player for Petry. Petry’s biggest weakness is his defensive play whereas it is Alzner’s strongest department. With Alzner covering for Petry’s mistakes in the d-zone, Petry’s pairing should allow far fewer goals against than it did last season and have a very good year. Also, Petry has shown flashes of offensive brilliance over the years and having that stay at home defender could lead Petry to his best offensive year yet. By knowing that Alzner will be back to cover for him, Petry will be able to use his elite skating to hop into the play more and we could see him rack up some pretty decent numbers. Overall, I think this is the most probable pairing, and it should make for a good one as well, both offensively and defensively.
As always, the 3rd pairing will most likely constantly be changing, with different players coming in and out of the lineup regularly. Despite this, I still believe it is safe to say that Jordie Benn will hold his spot on the right side for the majority of the year. Benn was trusted in several situations last season by Claude Julien and his coaching staff due to his very sound defensive play and his limited mistakes. He also proved that he could perform well with any type of defensemen by his side last season so the Habs staff does not have to be too picky when choosing his partner.
The position on the left side could be anyone’s on the left side of the depth chart apart from Alzner as I do not believe the Habs would move him that far down the lineup especially with the Habs being so weak on this side. Also, if Jerabek turns out to be a good player, it will most likely be in a top 4 role. This leaves Brandon Davidson, David Schlemko, and Mark Streit. While I do believe Schlemko is the best of the 3 and will start the season as the 3rd LD, this spot is truly up in the air. Don’t sleep on Davidson, as he was solid in his games played last year and is still young and should have improved this offseason. Also, if the Habs are having trouble scoring or need some help on the power play, Streit would be the obvious pick for this spot. Regardless of the player, the Habs have a pretty solid 3rd pairing on their hands.
While the Habs may not have the best D-core, if Claude Julien and his coaching staff play their cards right, they could put together a decent group that should be serviceable. Nevertheless, we will have to wait until opening day to see what happens as there are many possibilities on D this year. Also, at the end of the day, when you have Carey Price in net, you do not need the best of defenses in order to contend. Although, if the Habs do put together a solid defense this season, we could be in for a great year ahead of us!