BROSSARD, Que. – Victor Mete knows the writing might be on the wall for him.
The 19-year-old defenceman, who was drafted 100th overall in 2016 by the Montreal Canadiens, shocked the hockey world by graduating to the NHL this season.
He started off as Shea Weber’s defence partner and has since appeared in all but one of the team’s 24 games, flashing his speed and smarts on a nightly basis. But as his ice-time has dwindled over the past month, the idea of him sticking with Montreal and not going back to major junior has become more and more far-fetched.
And now that David Schlemko appears poised to make his Canadiens debut on Monday against the Columbus Blue Jackets, it seems like a foregone conclusion Mete will return to the OHL’s London Knights in short order.
It’s a possibility the kid desperately wants to avoid, but also one he’s facing with total positivity.
“My goal at the beginning was to make a pre-season game, so I accomplished that,” Mete said Saturday morning. “After that it was to make the team, and I also accomplished that. And what I’ve learned from when I started to now is really good. It’s stuff I can take back with me to junior. I now know what I need to focus on for my summer training. Having the experience of playing in the NHL for a bit, I can kinda see what I need to work on and improve that much more. If I do get sent back, then next season I’ll be more prepared.
“It’s all positive.”
There’s no question about it. And Mete also acknowledged that he understands from the team’s position that the upside of the decision to send him down to junior soon might be too strong for them to ignore.
The Canadiens have to believe Mete will be better served playing big minutes as a leading member of the Knights than he will playing marginal ones with their team. They have to like the prospect of him going to the world junior championship as a member of Team Canada instead of sitting in the press box as a healthy scratch – like he did against the Nashville Predators this past Thursday.
And it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to let Mete get to the 40-game mark in Montreal as a sixth, seventh or eighth defenceman. If he stays beyond that point, he’ll have banked one season towards unrestricted free agency.
Players become unrestricted free agents after seven seasons in the NHL or by age 27. Once a player has played 40 games in his first season, it counts as one of those years.
There is one possibility that will keep Mete in Montreal for at least the next two weeks – and possibly beyond.
The Canadiens might want to keep him as an insurance policy. Schlemko is just starting out after a hand injury has kept him out of action since the first day of training camp, Weber is likely returning soon after missing the last three games with a lower-body injury, and the team might want to make sure they have Mete available in case anyone else falls to injury.
If the Canadiens were to send Mete to London now, they’d have almost no chance of recalling him. He could only return in case of emergency (if they are in need of a player and can’t make a call up from the AHL for whatever reason).
But if they keep him and then decide to loan him to Team Canada, he can be recalled after the world junior tournament. Mete has proven he can play at the NHL level, so exercising this option might be the most prudent way to go. Especially if the Canadiens pull themselves back into the playoff race and all of a sudden find themselves with some injuries on the back end as they head into January.
But the current reality is that the games are getting harder and Mete is playing less and less. At Sunday’s practice, which does not include Weber, he appeared to be on the outside looking in.
“Teams are finding their style now and finding their identity moving out of the first quarter of the season. So they play tighter and better,” Mete observed. “I think everyone has found their game by now, so they’re that much better because of it.”
He’s aware there’s only so much he can do to gain more ice-time from Canadiens coach Claude Julien under the circumstances.
“I think just every shift I go on I need to compete, play hard, just win my battles and just try to do my best out there,” Mete said. “I can’t back down at all. Stay focused and try not to make mistakes.”
It’s an attitude he can take to the rink, no matter which team he’s playing for next. He understands it might just be the one he spent his three prior seasons with at the junior level.