The Montreal Canadiens need help on the left side of their defence.
That was a constant refrain from the off-season up to the 2019-20 season’s postponement due the COVID-19 pandemic. It was sung by the virtually every media member, echoed throughout the fan base in every venue, and the truth of it was acknowledged by Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin and head coach Claude Julien on multiple occasions.
Don’t think for a second left defenders Ben Chiarot, Brett Kulak and Victor Mete haven’t heard it. Not even self-isolation would keep them from it.
What it means to Chiarot, though, is something entirely different than what it does for Kulak and Mete. The six-foot-three, 225-pounder signed a three-year, $10.5-million deal with the Canadiens in July 2019 and then proceeded to offer one of the only positive stories of a wholly disappointing season — playing nearly a full seven minutes more per game than his career-average of 16:10, scoring nine goals (or four more than he had in any of his six previous seasons with the Winnipeg Jets), and finishing with 21 points in 69 games to beat his previous career high of 20 points in 78 in 2019.
At worst, an upgrade is bumping him from the first pair to the second pair, or a player of equal value is reducing his workload on the first pair to a more manageable 21-22 minutes per game instead of the 26-30 he was often playing.
But any changes at all would put both Kulak and Mete in an even fiercer competition for ice-time than they were already in, and an upgrade would bump either of them from the lineup — like Marco Scandella’s January acquisition from the Buffalo Sabres did for six weeks before the 29-year-old was flipped to the St. Louis Blues on Feb. 18.
It’s a reality both defencemen were keenly aware of throughout the season, and it’s one that’s bound to occupy their thoughts this coming off-season. Left defenceman Alexander Romanov, the organization’s second-round pick in 2018, is all but certainly leaving the KHL to sign with the Canadiens soon after he’s eligible to on May 1. And Romanov is coming with the understanding that, even though there are no guarantees, there are strong assurances a place will be carved out for him on Montreal’s blue line.
Bergevin has said in multiple interviews he sees the 20-year-old starting on the team’s third pair, and recently told La Presse the brass sees Romanov developing into a top shut-down type who will be capable of playing upwards of 24 minutes a night within three years of his arrival.
Kulak’s seen little of Romanov, but he’s come away impressed with what he has seen.
"I watched him at the at the (2019) world juniors. He looks like a heck of a defenceman," the 26-year-old said from his Canmore, Alta., home during a 15-minute telephone interview with Sportsnet on Thursday.
Kulak, who’s signed for two more seasons at $1.85 million per, also acknowledged what Romanov’s probable arrival meant for him.
"I think I have to find another gear and level to win out in that competition," he said. "It’s going to be no different than having Benny (Chiarot) come in and he’s taking up a lot of minutes.
"For me, it’s been like that for a number of different years. When I was back with the (Calgary) Flames (from 2014-18), there was guys I always competed with in training camp, and then it’s the regular season and everyone’s playing and we’re all good players. It’s just about finding consistency at the top level of your game day in and day out."
It’s something Kulak did in his first season with the Canadiens, but something he knows he struggled with over this past one. That’s a thought that dogged him over the last few months, but also one that will he believes will guide him over the next few.
"I knew I wasn’t playing my best, and if I was, I don’t think anybody would be saying we need to look for an upgrade," Kulak said. "So that’s kind of something I take upon myself. And I motivate myself with that, too, to work harder and get better."
It’s the same process Mete will submit to, even if he views his season in a different light than Kulak views his.
"This year I felt I was much better in all areas of the game," Mete said when we caught up with him via telephone on Wednesday.
That’s not to say Mete is under the illusion he played perfectly. He knows that he averaged 1:46 less per game than he did in the 2018-19 season wasn’t solely a function of the Chiarot and Scandella acquisitions.
There were times he was overwhelmed in his own end, and times where his decision-making faltered, and he was bumped down the lineup because of it.
But it’s almost easy to forget the Woodbridge, Ont., native is only 21, given that he’s accrued 171 games of NHL experience and played alongside Shea Weber or Jeff Petry for most of his time as a Canadien. He’s coming out of his entry-level contract, which means he’s nowhere near a finished product, and that’s something to consider in the shaping of Montreal’s blue line.
"I’m still very young and there’s still a lot of improvement to get to," the fourth-round pick in 2016 said before mentioning that he’s steadily progressed from his 2017 NHL debut up until this point.
It’s a process Mete’s very much looking forward to continuing, but one with an immediate obstacle in his way to overcome. As of right now, he’s at least two weeks away from removing the walking boot he’s been in since he suffered a clean break of his left ankle bone blocking a shot in a Feb. 18 loss to the Detroit Red Wings.
#Habs Victor Mete goes to the room after blocking this shot. pic.twitter.com/L6Zhfvew34
— Here's Your Replay (@HeresYourReplay) February 19, 2020
Mete says the injury is healing well after several treatments from the Canadiens medical staff, and since he’s been adhering to exercises he was given after access to the team’s facilities were cut off a little over a week ago. He adds it’ll be a priority to build up the strength in the bone as soon as he’s able to, "working on little techniques," and getting back to skating fundamentals provided there’s ice available to him (the pandemic is putting a wrench in that plan for the time being and could threaten it well into the summer months).
Outside of that, Mete said he wants to "just get bigger, keep putting on some pounds and muscle and, on the ice, do work on little details like closing quicker (in the defensive zone)."
He added he’ll resume shooting work with specialist Tim Turk if possible, with the payoff of last summer’s work in that department being the first four goals of his NHL career this past winter.
On Romanov’s imminent arrival — and on Bergevin’s proclamation to La Presse that he might trade a forward for even more help on defence — Mete says he can only do his part to win out in the competition.
"I’m going to have to try to work extra hard," he said. "I know that coming into camp I’m going to have at least another guy I have to beat out."
Kulak, who registered just seven points over 56 games this season, knows it could be him. So he’s preparing to be the best version of himself, which means "shutting down the play, playing really good defensively, using my feet and my puck movement to skate the puck out of the zone or make a good first pass out, and following up the play."
As for the constant scuttlebutt about Montreal’s blue line, neither Kulak nor Mete can fully tune it out. All either player can do is rise above it.