BROSSARD, Que.,– David Schlemko’s expected six-week absence with a knee injury might not be a huge problem for some teams, but it’s a significant one for the Montreal Canadiens to deal with as they approach the regular season.
Sure, we’re talking about a third-pairing defenceman who was likely earmarked for just 15-18 minutes of ice-time per game. But we’re also talking about a player who was having a good training camp. A player who was used on both the penalty kill and power play in the 5-3 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs he got injured in. A player who was finally showing the promise he couldn’t show when he missed all of training camp and was sidelined until Nov. 29 with a hand injury last season.
Take one look at how the defence pairings were assembled at Canadiens practice on Friday and you see how they’re not as equipped to handle this injury as some of the deeper teams from around the NHL would be.
Jordie Benn, who struggled mightily last season and was in the process of playing himself out of the lineup with a sub-par camp, suddenly finds himself beside Karl Alzner. And Xavier Ouellet, who was scratched for 37 games last season on a less-than-stellar Detroit Red Wings blue line, is lined up with tryout Simon Despres.
With Alzner locked into a spot, one of those three players is taking Schlemko’s place — but none of them have his versatility.
"We have to adjust, right?" said Canadiens coach Claude Julien. "That’s why you never want to get ahead of yourself and start saying this guy’s in, this guy’s not. We’ve still got a pre-season game tomorrow. Who knows what can happen?"
Another injury to a defenceman would be a killer.
When it was announced that anchor Shea Weber wouldn’t be prepared to play until December after a routine, off-season knee scope turned into an operation to repair a torn meniscus tendon, it shifted all the other Canadiens defencemen out of the roles they’re typically expected to fill.
That’s not a foreign feeling for Alzner, Benn, Jeff Petry, Victor Mete, Noah Juulsen and Mike Reilly, who were all here last season and had to go about their business without Weber for all but 26 games. But it can’t be a comfortable one for them, either, knowing that they played a big hand in why the Canadiens allowed the seventh-most goals in the NHL from last October to mid-April.
It was an up-and-down experience for Petry, who jumped from averaging 22 minutes per game in 2016-17 to playing over 24 minutes on 37 different occasions in 2017-18. At times he appeared better than he ever had before, and at other times he struggled as much as any other Canadiens defenceman.
Petry knew the same challenge was ahead of him before he came to this year’s camp and he prepared himself for it.
"I think there was nothing training-wise really that I changed. It was more just I guess the mental side of things just to be ready to play in all situations or whatever situations I’m called upon," he said on Friday. "Being called upon to play heavier minutes—it’s about looking back at what I did well during those times last year and building off of that."
The 20-year-old Mete and 21-year-old Juulsen appear prepared to do the same. They’ve been paired together for the majority of this training camp and whether they end up playing together or not, they’re both expected to fill roles in the top-four.
"Those two guys have done a good job and we put them through a test and I think they’ve answered that call really well," said Julien.
But if the plan had been to use them in a top-four capacity but not rely on them too heavily; if it had been to use all six defencemen as more of a committee in the absence of Weber, it must now be adjusted to account for Schlemko’s injury.
"I just want to show I can be consistent and continue to play the way I have throughout this camp," said Ouellet.
Even if he does, he doesn’t move the puck as effectively or contribute as much offensively as Schlemko does. Neither do Benn or Despres.
In essence, this whole situation is a microcosm of who the Canadiens are. They have talent at every position, but the depth chart takes a significant blow every time a regular gets hurt. Any regular.