MONTREAL — It’s a point that hasn’t been made yet in the already-strong ‘Keep Jeff Petry in Montreal’ case, largely because it didn’t have to be made.
Until now, that is. Because for a third-consecutive season the Montreal Canadiens’ stalwart captain, Shea Weber, has gone down with an injury. It’s a lower-body injury that, according to coach Claude Julien, threatens to keep him sidelined for “quite a while,” and it’s in Weber’s absence that Petry has proven to be an invaluable member of the Canadiens over the last two seasons.
How quickly we forget.
It was once again in Weber’s absence that Petry reminded us of his true worth in a crucial 3-2 Montreal win over the Anaheim Ducks on Thursday.
And this isn’t about what Petry means to this year’s team, which still needs a miracle to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs despite narrowing the gap between them and the Florida Panthers (who occupy third place in the Atlantic Division) to five points with their eighth win in their last 11 games. This is about what he means to their future. It’s about him being a six-foot-three, 201-pound, right-handed defenceman who can play close to half of the game without anyone really noticing before he jumps into the spotlight and scores the winning goal on the first shift of overtime.
This is about Petry’s propensity to do stuff like that more often than not, but particularly when the Canadiens need him most.
“He’s a great hockey player and he seems to have a niche for stepping up at the right moment,” said Canadiens goaltender Carey Price, who made 35 saves against the Ducks.
It’s players like Petry you keep in the fold when you’re retooling your team and trying to compete for a playoff position year after year.
It’s why Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin continues to tell anyone who asks that he’s not particularly interested in moving Petry between now and the Feb. 24 trade deadline — even if the defenceman, who has one year left on his contract at a digestible $5.5 million on the salary cap, is the most coveted asset on the market.
On Thursday, Petry recorded his 27th assist of the season on a Nick Suzuki goal that opened the scoring for Montreal on a power play in the 18th minute of the first period. Later on, he scored his eighth goal of the campaign 25 seconds into overtime by wheeling his way from end to end and rifling a perfect wrist shot off the left post. And what he did in between was just as important.
When we told rookie Jake Evans, who was playing in his first NHL game, that Petry played 27 minutes through the first three periods, he said, “I never would have known that if you didn’t tell me.”
“I think he’s just so good on both ends of the ice,” added Evans, who was perhaps the best player to offer an unbiased opinion on what Petry brings to the Canadiens. “He made a number of really subtle offensive moves at the offensive blue line that showed his skill, and then on the back end he’s such a strong and smart player.”
That’s a fairly accurate depiction of the tools the 31-year-old Petry offers this team on a nightly basis.
It’s with those tools that the Michigander set career highs in goals, assists and points despite Weber’s 56-game absence two seasons ago, and then did so again last season with Weber sidelined for 24 games.
This year, with the 34-year-old Weber healthy up until Thursday’s game, the Canadiens have still depended on Petry for 23:20 per game (he averaged 23:30 in 2017-18 and 23:07 in 2018-19), and he is on pace for five more points than the 46 he put up last season.
You have to think his pace might increase now, with Weber down and the Canadiens having no choice but to depend on him even more.
How will Petry do it?
“I think it’s just being in the situation before,” he said. “There’s definitely a learning curve I guess through that (first period without Weber two seasons ago), and now it’s just to kind of go back to that feeling in the way I was playing at the beginning of last year and the end of two years ago.”
Or, excluding half a dozen games or so in November that Petry felt were below his standard, he should just continue with that feeling he’s had on most nights this season.
“He’s been probably our most consistent D-man all year,” said Suzuki. “He skates so well, he moves the puck so well. It’s a lot of fun getting to play on the power play with him, too; he seems to find all of us really well and then he has his shot, too, which he’s been utilizing a lot.
“He’s got a ton of value. He’s a quiet leader for us and you always know what you’re going to get out of him.”
It goes without saying that Cale Fleury and Josh Brook are promising right-handed defence prospects in Montreal’s system, but they aren’t nearly prepared to score 40-50 points a season and play upwards of 27 minutes a game. That much has been an obvious point in the case for Petry to stay put.
But it’s been largely forgotten that Petry’s the only player capable of adequately filling in for Weber.
That’s just one more reason the Canadiens must hold onto him. And if they’re smart, they’ll get him signed to a contract extension as early as July 1, when they can begin negotiations on a new deal.