MONTREAL — Let’s not call Shea Weber’s injury a blessing in disguise for the Montreal Canadiens.
It would be callous to wish for anyone to have to suffer through the type of pain the defenceman has been through along his failed quest to return to Montreal’s lineup before season’s end; the type of pain he’ll go through to have a torn tendon in his left foot surgically repaired in the coming days; the pain of the long, arduous rehabilitation process that will follow and eventually have him prepared for next season’s training camp — and seemingly not a day sooner.
If the Canadiens and Weber had it their way, he’d have not had to have suffered through any of that and he’d have been playing games long ago. And both parties would’ve been thrilled if he was able to return for the 23 meaningless ones remaining on Montreal’s schedule.
We understand all of that.
But, we also do recognize that Weber’s injury, and his unavailability from here to April 7, are far from the worst things the Canadiens have had to deal with this season. And yes, we must acknowledge that his absence could do more for their future — and for his — than either party might be willing to publicly admit.
The Canadiens have gone 8-14-4 since Weber was shut down on Dec. 18, and we can’t envision them doing much better with him playing after missing so much time with this injury — especially since it was also announced on Thursday that starting goaltender Carey Price has been diagnosed with a concussion and is out indefinitely. We can’t possibly consider that a bad thing when it stands to dramatically increase the team’s odds of drafting first overall this summer.
And with Weber approaching his 33rd birthday this summer and still being counted on to play an integral role in the Canadiens’ potential revival (as early as next fall), the team needs to give him his best opportunity to be at full health and strength.
“I think right now [Weber] feels that’s the next route to take as well,” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien ahead of his team’s game against the New York Rangers.
How could he not?
Weber had suffered this injury at the very beginning of the season, “probably in the first game,” as Julien had put it, and he played on it for 25 more games. He was shut down in Vancouver, sent to Montreal for an evaluation and promptly placed in a walking boot for roughly six weeks.
Weber first returned to the ice for solo skating sessions in the first week of February, but it was a matter of days before he was back off his skates and in the medical room. Appointments with two specialists followed, and in the end the decision was made that Dr. Robert Anderson, of Green Bay, Wisc., will perform surgery.
“I think if we had been in a playoff position right now, we’d still be making the same decision because he wasn’t comfortable enough and well enough to play,” said Julien. “So that decision has nothing to do with where we are in the standings, but where we are with him.”
But given where the Canadiens are in the standings, they’re making the right call — and they’d also be wise to proceed with full caution before re-activating Price.
If they don’t allow Price to play before season’s end, so be it. His eight-year, $84 million contract extension kicks in next fall, and there’s next to no incentive to expose him to further risk this year while the Canadiens are clinging to 28th place in the standings, 13 points out of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and 27 points back of the Toronto Maple Leafs for third place in the Atlantic Division.
In an ideal world Price and Weber would both be healthy, helping their teammates restore some sense of pride that will carry over to next season. But another unintended consequence of their absence is that players who figure to be a big part of the team’s future will have the chance to gain valuable experience.
Defenceman Noah Juulsen has that opportunity starting on Thursday night. He was drafted by the Canadiens 26th overall in 2015 and he’s making his NHL debut on a pairing with veteran Karl Alzner against the Rangers.
24-year-old goaltender Charlie Lindgren, who was just signed to a three-year contract extension, is up with Montreal on an emergency basis. And though he’s not playing against New York, he will have his chance to expand on the eight-game sample he played earlier this season.
Those are good things in what’s been a trying season.
“I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining, because I’m not, but it just seems like everything that could’ve gone wrong this year has,” said Julien. “But one thing I can tell you about this year is I know that in the future it’s going to pay off because our guys will be stronger for it. I guess they’ll have gone through the battle of going through adversity, and hopefully it’s going to make us stronger in the long run. We’ve just got to stay the course right now. I don’t want our guys putting their arms down and giving up. I want them to continue to compete every game and to try to win every game. That’s how we’re going to get better.”
Losing Weber for the rest of the season — possibly Price, too — won’t change that objective.