MONTREAL — At this point, it has to be a concern for the Montreal Canadiens that a generally successful defence pairing of Victor Mete and Shea Weber hasn’t been reliable enough for the majority of the six games they’ve played together this season.
In Game 6 on Tuesday, Weber was on the ice for all three goals the Tampa Bay Lightning scored in a 3-1 win that left the Canadiens with a 2-2-2 record. Mete was on the ice for the two Tampa scored at even strength. And the cumulative results for both players since the puck dropped 12 days ago haven’t been much better.
Weber has been on the ice for seven of the 15 goals Montreal has allowed at even strength, and 14 of the 23 they’ve allowed on the whole. And Mete, who has less of a role on the team’s penalty kill, has been on for five of the 15 at even strength.
We’re referring to two players who built a lot of chemistry together over the last two seasons. They mostly complemented each other beautifully, with Mete’s free-wheeling skating serving as an outlet for the less mobile Weber. Meanwhile, Weber’s physically domineering style makes up for Mete’s lack of stature. And with well over a decade of NHL experience under his belt, Weber was also the perfect player to bring the 19-year-old Mete up to speed during the 2017-18 season.
There’s been a synergy between them ever since they first linked up. But since the start of the 2019-20 season, it just hasn’t been there.
“I think it’s just being quicker,” said Mete in response to a question about how he and Weber must adjust. “Quicker (passes up the ice). (Quicker) in the neutral zone and the D-zone, just kind of (need to) play less defence and more offence.”
Have things changed between the two?
“The style we want to play has changed a bit,” Mete expanded. “Obviously, we want to kind of put them on their heels and play on our toes, so just get the puck and move it up instead of going D-to-D a couple of times and then letting them get into their neutral zone forecheck.”
This is what Montreal’s system relies on — recovering pucks and moving them fast enough to inhibit their opposition from setting themselves up to disrupt the Canadiens in transition. When execution fails from two players who are relied on to play heavy minutes, two players expected to start that transition, things devolve from there.
They devolved for Weber and Mete in an opening-night loss against the Carolina Hurricanes, just as they had in back-to-back losses to the Buffalo Sabres and Detroit Red Wings last week. And on Tuesday night, the pair had a couple more breakdowns and found themselves on the ice for goals against.
Weber and Mete weren’t alone. As Canadiens coach Claude Julien accurately noted in his post-game press conference, the line of Jonathan Drouin, Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Joel Armia were as much to blame for the momentum-changing goal scored by Tampa’s Braydon Coburn in the final minute of the first period.
“I think at least twice they could have had the puck out as forwards, and two or three times they could have killed the play and they didn’t,” Julien said.
And on Tampa’s third goal, Mete and Weber were left to fend off an odd-man rush because the same three Montreal forwards were late getting back into the defensive zone after getting onto the surface as the puck was moving towards centre ice.
But none of that changes the fact that both Weber and Mete are depended on to make the difference in situations like those, and on too many occasions so far they haven’t been able to.
It’s something that needs to change in a hurry if the Canadiens are going to produce better results.
“We know what we have to do,” said Mete. “We just need to move on and go from there.”
Whether or not he and Weber will have a chance to do that as a pair is up for debate. During the third period of Tuesday’s game, Julien and Canadiens defence coach Luke Richardson opted for changes. Weber moved to the left of Jeff Petry, Brett Kulak lined up with Christian Folin and Mete was on the left side of Ben Chiarot.
Perhaps they were just in-game adjustments — much like the ones made to three of the forward lines that saw Montreal outshoot Tampa 14-6 and out chance them handily in the final frame — but they could be seen as an indication that the coaching staff isn’t exactly enthralled with what they’re seeing from what’s supposed to be their top pairing.
Not that Julien was willing to say as much. The coach deflected when he was asked specifically about the Weber-Mete duo.
But there could be something to the fact that Kulak and Petry were given the assignment of facing Tampa’s lethal first line of Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point and Steven Stamkos. That decision probably didn’t just simply boil down to matching speed versus speed.
No matter how Julien feels, both Mete and Weber know they can be better. Weber said as much after Tuesday’s game, adding that he and Mete were forced to spend too much time defending.
That’s been the case through most of their time on the ice together thus far.
That said, it’s not as if they haven’t done good things as a pair this season. The fact that they’re a combined minus-3 despite being on the ice for all those goals against suggests they’re contributing in other areas.
But they are two players the Canadiens depend on primarily to impact the game from a defensive standpoint, and both are in need of a course correction in that department.