Last time, we took a deep dive into the forward group for the 2021-2022 iteration of the Montreal Canadiens. As we discussed, there will be some interesting choices for Ducharme and his staff to make in terms of both line combinations, and who even draws in to the starting 12.
On defense, things are not quite as complicated. 5 of the 6 starting D basically have a guaranteed spot in the lineup. When it comes to spot number 6, there are a few options available and we’re hoping that some rookies can make the decision tougher.
|Left Defense||Right Defense|
|Romanov (LD, RD)||Niku (RD, LD)|
|Norlinder (LD, RD)||Belpedio|
Additions: Savard, Wideman
Subtractions: Fleury, Gustafsson, G. Olofsson, Merrill … and Weber, sort of.
Jeff Petry (12G, 30A in 55 games; 0G, 6A in 20 playoffs games):
We’ve been thinking it for a few years now, but last season solidified it: Jeff Petry is the best D on the Habs, and is a top-pairing D in this league. Unlike many players nowadays, Petry has gotten better every year despite being in his 30s – and he got a new 4-year extension as a reward.
Last season, Petry got off to a great start with 13 points in the first 10 games of the season. Things cooled down a bit as the season went on, but he had a career year. He scored at a 62-point pace (over an 82 game season). If you replace Weber with Savard, and Wideman (who didn’t play in the NHL last season) with Kulak, Petry actually had more points (42) than the other 5 defensemen (Chiarot, Edmundson, Savard, Romanov and Kulak – total 40 points) who are in the lineup this year.
2021-2022 Prediction: With Shea Weber officially out for the season, Petry will take over as the #1 D on the team. Well, he already was the #1 D but Weber’s presence and leadership up until now gave Petry a bit of a shadow to hide behind. This will no longer be the case. With that all said, Petry has played some of his best hockey over the last few years when Weber has gone down with injury and has shown that he can excel in the role of the team’s top defender. We expect no less this year, and could see him scoring at a 60-plus point pace again, especially with the inevitable increase in ice-time and the pretty decent chance that he will almost always be on the ice on the man advantage.
Joel Edmundson (3G, 10A in 55 games; 0G, 6A in 22 playoffs games):
Joel Edmundson is not the flashiest player but he is an extremely effective defenseman. We will be the first to admit that we were unsure about him when he was acquired from the Canes and then extended, but he quickly changed our minds. On a contender he would be a 2nd pairing player, but he complements Petry’s game well. He was ultimately very important in the Habs making the playoffs and their long run to the Cup Final.
2021-2022 Prediction: We expect that he will see increased usage as a result of playing on a pairing with Petry. This might translate to a few more points than his 19 point pace from last season. Interestingly, last year was the closest he has come to playing a complete season in the NHL, having previously always played only 64 – 69 (nice) games per season. If he can stay healthy for the whole season, he should eclipse his career-high of 20 points.
Ben Chiarot (1G, 6A in 41 games; 1G, 1A in 22 playoffs games):
Ben Chiarot is a bit of an enigma to us. He is a beast who can eat up a lot of minutes (he played around 22 minutes per game during the season and over 25 minutes per game in the Cup run), all while playing very physical hockey. Production-wise, this last season was a bit tougher for him compared to his first year in Montreal and while he is not expected to be putting up crazy numbers, a Habs team starved for production from its back-end could definitely use more than a 14-point pace.
2021-2022 Prediction: With the loss of Shea Weber, we expect Petry, Edmundson, Savard and Chiarot to see an uptick in ice-time and responsibility. While we do see Chiarot as a second pairing guy, he will end up playing an important role in shoring up the defense in front of Price/Allen. We don’t expect it, but it would be nice if he could return to his scoring pace from the 2019-2020 season when he scored 9 goals and 12 assists in 69 (nice, again) games.
Sami Niku (0G, 0A in 6 games (NHL) and 3G, 11A in 18 games (AHL)):
Sami Niku is a very interesting, and very low-risk acquisition for Marc Bergevin. On a one-year, $750K league minimum two-way deal, Niku can easily be buried in the AHL if he does not pan out and no one claims him on waivers.
— Canadiens Montréal (@CanadiensMTL) September 24, 2021
Not to toot our own horns here… but we kind of said that the Habs should take a flyer on Niku a few days before they signed him:
— Habs Chronicle (@HabsChronicle) September 20, 2021
Niku was drafted in the 7th round in 2015 by the Jets, and quickly turned into a very interesting prospect when he put up 16 goals and 38 assists in 76 games with the Manitoba Moose in his first year in North America. In his seasons since, he has bounced back and forth between the AHL and NHL, never finding a solid footing in either league. The thing is, Niku is an offensive-minded D and could fill a glaring need on the Habs D core if he can find some consistency.
2021-2022 Prediction: Predicting where Niku will fit into the Habs/Laval roster is a bit tricky. 5 of the 6 D spots are a lock (Petry, Edmundson, Chiarot, Savard and Romanov). The final spot will be up for grabs and we imagine that the contenders are Niku, Kulak, Norlinder, Wideman and Guhle. Norlinder and Guhle *should* return to their respective teams and continue to develop, leaving 3 players for 2 spots (1 active roster spot plus one reserve). If we had to guess, Niku probably has the worst odds of the 3 players to grab one of those spots, but who knows. We do hope he impresses the coaches at camp and in the pre-season, and ends up on the roster. If he does not make it on the Habs roster, we’d expect to see him play some big minutes in Laval to hopefully earn an extension with the Habs.
Niku could definitely be an asset in the future for a Habs team that has been lacking true offensive defensemen for a while. With Niku, Norlinder and Brook in the pipeline (as well as other interesting prospects such as Struble and Harris), the chances of at least one offensive defenseman becoming a mainstay on the Habs roster have definitely increased relative to years past.
David Savard (1G, 5A in 54 games; 0G, 5A in 20 playoffs games):
With Shea Weber out for the entire season, Savard is likely to have some big shoes to fill. Savard is no offensive defenseman, and unlike Weber, he has no booming shot from the point that strikes fear into everyone who gets in its way, but he is a relatively steady, reliable, big-body D who is tough to play against. We saw this first-hand in the Cup Final.
2021-2022 Prediction: We expect Savard to play 19-21 minutes a night, kill penalties and clear traffic in front of Price/Allen. He won’t put up points, but he will hopefully help the goalies steal a game or two with his ferocity. We have Savard in the dark horse category because we aren’t sure what kind of impact he will have with the added responsibility of “replacing” Weber. Will he be like Chiarot who elevated his game when he was given a more prominent role upon signing with the Habs, or will he end up on the third pairing?
Chris Wideman (9G, 32A in 59 games; 1G, 1A in 4 playoffs games) (KHL):
Chris Wideman was an exciting young player for the Ottawa Senators before the infamous Uber incident.
Wideman became the fall guy for the rest of the group (Duchene, Chabot, White, Tierney, DeMelo and Formention), and never quite found his footing in North America after that. He was traded by the Senators shortly after this incident to the Edmonton Oilers, and was subsequently traded to the Panthers after 5 games. He got 1 game with the Panthers before being relegated to the AHL. That same year, he was traded yet again to the Penguins, but ended up on their AHL squad too. In all, Wideman wore 5 different jerseys in 1 season.
After playing 1 more season in the AHL for the San Diego Gulls, he travelled East and played with the Nizhny Novgorod Torpedo in the KHL. There, Wideman posted 41 points in 59 games, earning the KHL Defenseman of the Year award.
2021-2022 Prediction: Wideman looked impressive as a rookie in Ottawa – he carried the puck well and made some very nice offensive plays. With the Uber incident behind him, and some confidence regained in Russia, Wideman is a dark horse to not only earn the 6th defense spot on the Canadiens roster, but also man the 2nd PP unit and provide some much needed offense from the blueline.
Players on the Rise
Alexander Romanov (1G, 5A in 54 games; 1G, 0A in 4 playoffs games):
The Montreal Canadiens did a fantastic job of building hype around Alexander Romanov last year. He signed a contract and burned a year off his ELC by joining the Habs in the Toronto bubble. While he didn’t play, fans, players and coaches were enamoured by the young Russian who brought incredible energy, commitment and joy to the team.
Everyone was incredibly excited to see him finally make his NHL debut, and boy, he did not disappoint.
The coaching staff let Romanov do his thing when the season started, but as time went on, they began to reign him in; they wanted to calm him down a bit. He started making poor decisions and lost a lot of confidence in his defensive abilities. This all culminated with a healthy scratch to begin the playoffs.
The Russian suited up for only 4 playoff games; scoring an important goal in the Stanley Cup Finals.
2021-2022 Prediction: Ducharme and Richardson need to give Romanov a bit more freedom this year. Yes, there’s a lot for him to learn and he does try to do too much sometimes. The kid is an electrifying player who won’t put up a ton of points but will get fans on their feet with some bone-crushing hits and hopefully some great plays on the powerplay, too. He will likely be competing with Wideman for the PP2 spot. Romanov showed some jitters on the powerplay early last season which led to him being removed from the unit for the rest of the season. If he can instil confidence in the coaching staff this season, he will become a key player for this team.
Abundance of Depth
Kulak will likely spend a good amount of time as the 7th D with the team, although we could see him quickly come in for Wideman should that experiment not pan out. And as usual, Ouellet will be the first to get the call up in the case of an injury.
Unlikely to See NHL Action
The players below are unlikely to see NHL action due to the 8 players ahead of them in the pipeline. On the left side, there is already a log-jam which likely keeps Guhle out for another year. Norlinder can play RD/LD, but he will only stay in North America if he is in the NHL as he has a contract with 1 year left on it with Frölunda of the SHL. Brook / Belpedio might get a look or call up to the NHL in the case of injury as they would be the only natural RDs in Laval.