Canadiens continue to make difficult but necessary roster decisions

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MONTREAL— Marc Bergevin and Claude Julien promised their Montreal Canadiens would be younger, faster and competitive enough to make this year’s playoffs, and they’ve made all the necessary moves so far to guarantee it.

Monday’s decision to place oft-injured and rarely effective defenceman David Schlemko on waivers is the latest one, and it affirms their commitment to running an authentic meritocracy.

There’s nothing unfair about this decision. The Canadiens secured the 31-year-old’s place on the roster after he beat out several depth players at the position in training camp. They afforded him time to find his best self in a three-game conditioning stint with the AHL’s Laval Rocket after a knee injury sidelined him for their first 16 games. And they gave him every chance to show he could be an important member of the team, even pairing him with Shea Weber after the big man returned from a year on the sidelines with ankle and knee injuries on Nov. 24.

But Schlemko lasted just one game next to Weber on Montreal’s top pair. His performance thereafter, lower down in the lineup, left much to be desired. And with one more year left on a contract that pays him $2.1 million annually, he now seems destined for the AHL.

If the Canadiens want to remain in the hunt for a playoff position — they’re currently one point out of the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference but were among the top eight for all but a few days in the first half of the season — these are the types of decisions they have to continue to make. If they want to exact a maximal effort from all of their players on a nightly basis, they have to continue to rule with an iron fist.

Uncomfortable as it may be to do this to a veteran of 11 NHL seasons like Schlemko, it is the most appropriate way to continue to fuel the internal competition that’s driven the team to unexpected heights thus far. It’s also consistent with what we’ve seen from general manager Bergevin and coach Julien since the 2018-19 campaign began.

There was the decision to keep the NHL’s youngest player in Jesperi Kotkaniemi after he earned his way onto the roster with a remarkable performance through training camp. And then there was the one to scratch 35-year-old Tomas Plekanec (who was two games shy of 1,000 in the NHL) and defenceman Karl Alzner (who was beginning Year 2 of a five-year, $23.1-million contract and set to play consecutive game no. 623 to maintain the NHL’s fourth-longest ironman streak) on opening night in Toronto against the Maple Leafs.

“It tells you that we are expected to win games, and the coach is going to dress the guys who he believes give us the best chance to do that,” said Canadiens centre Phillip Danault prior to Montreal’s 3-2 overtime loss to the Maple Leafs on Oct. 3.

A month later, after Plekanec appeared in just three games and suffered a back injury, Bergevin reinforced the message, terminating the veteran’s contract. And it was on Nov. 26, after eight sporadic and unconvincing appearances, that Alzner was waived.

The meritocracy wheel kept on spinning. Defenceman Xavier Ouellet had started strong but fizzled by the end of November before he was waived on Dec. 7. Defenceman Victor Mete’s game needed sharpening, so off he went to Laval for a seven-game stint before being recalled to the Canadiens.

Noah Juulsen got the Mete treatment after his game slipped. The 21-year-old had a fine start to the season, suffered a facial fracture on Nov. 19, and struggled to regain his rhythm in four games prior to joining the Rocket on Dec. 17.

At different points, former first-round pick Nikita Scherbak and former second-round pick Jacob De La Rose were both exposed to waivers and lost to the Los Angeles Kings and Detroit Red Wings, respectively — with both players failing to wrestle away roster spots after the Canadiens invested heavily in their development.

And in the big picture, Matthew Peca, who signed a two-year, one-way, $2.6-million contract, hasn’t played well enough to secure his place for more than 26 of Montreal’s 49 games. And Charles Hudon, 10 goals and 30 points in 72 games in his rookie season a year ago, has been scratched 26 times because he hasn’t beat out the competition on the top three lines and isn’t an ideal fit on the fourth.

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Julien has said on multiple occasions that these decisions have been difficult to make, but you can’t ignore their part in the Canadiens building a 22-15-5 record to date.

Good play has been rewarded just the same.

Brett Kulak, 25, came to the Canadiens as part of a minor-league trade with the Calgary Flames on Oct. 1. He worked his tail off with the Rocket for 19 games, came up to Montreal on Nov. 23, and has since been a mainstay.

Both Kenny Agostino and Michael Chaput were signed in the off-season to serve as AHL depth, but they put in their work at that level and have all but secured their roles on the Canadiens’ fourth line by consistently providing the energy and strong play required. And look at Mete, whose strong play since returning to the Canadiens earned him his current spot next to Weber.

That type of fairness from the coach resonates with the players. Putting Schlemko (who has just one goal and seven assists in 55 games since coming to the Canadiens in the trade that sent a 2019 fifth-rounder to the Vegas Golden Knights) back in the rotation would have been a deviation from that.

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