At this point, we know that Shea Weber will be returning ahead of schedule.
Montreal Canadiens coach Claude Julien said at the beginning of the week that it won’t happen between now and Sunday, but, according to our sources, the team’s captain could be back patrolling the blue line by this time next week.
Having Weber return from off-season knee surgery weeks ahead of the original projection of mid-December is a godsend for a team that’s been waning in its own end of late—allowing 46 goals in 11 November games. But it also means that (eventually) a hard decision is going to have to be made.
Making room for Weber would have been a more pressing matter had right-hander Noah Juulsen not suffered a facial fracture in a game against the Washington Capitals this past Monday. Hence the report that surfaced last weekend from Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, which indicated Canadiens’ general manager Marc Bergevin might be considering trading a defenceman.
But Juulsen could be back in short order. The team hasn’t put a timeline on his return yet, but you have to think the fact that he didn’t require surgery is going to help expedite the process.
If teammate Nicolas Deslauriers only missed a month after having surgery to repair a facial fracture suffered in a fight against New Jersey’s Brandon Baddock on Sept. 18, it might not be out of line to expect Juulsen to be out for less time.
If things do play out that way, and if the Canadiens remain healthy on defence, Bergevin will be forced to do something quickly.
With that in mind, here’s a look at his options:
Waive Karl Alzner and send him to the AHL if (when) he goes unclaimed
In one way, it’s the toughest option for Bergevin to exercise. In another way, it’s the easiest.
There’s virtually no chance a team would claim Alzner, and pushing him down to the Laval Rocket—a little over a year after signing him to a five-year, $23.1-million contract—might be a hard pill for ownership to swallow.
That said, paying Alzner to play in the minors and sharpen his game in case the team suffers injuries beats paying him to do nothing but practise.
Alzner’s been scratched for 16 of Montreal’s 22 games and isn’t likely to hold his place in the team’s lineup even if he does get another chance to play.
Given that, sending him to the AHL is a better solution than being pressed into trading a defenceman for less than what Bergevin would obtain on the market if he held until closer to the February trade deadline.
Trade Jordie Benn
It’s an option Bergevin has to entertain regardless of when Weber and Juulsen make their returns to the lineup.
Benn is in the final year of a contract that pays him $1.1 million annually, and he’s bumped up his value considerably since the beginning of the season.
Granted, Benn has struggled playing top-pairing minutes in recent weeks, but he has thrived in a lesser role over the majority of his games to date.
Ideally, the Canadiens would get him back into that role when Weber returns, which would enable him to keep his value intact and allow Bergevin to consider moving him by the time Juulsen’s ready.
Adding a pick to the 10 the Canadiens hold in the 2019 NHL Draft is the objective. If Benn allows Bergevin to add one to the four he owns in the first three rounds, this could be the option the GM goes for when the time comes.
Trade David Schlemko
If Bergevin doesn’t have owner Geoff Molson’s consent to move Alzner to the minors, or if he doesn’t feel like going down that road—and if he’d prefer to keep Benn (for depth purposes) until the deadline to help the Canadiens maintain their place in the playoff picture—moving Schlemko has to be considered.
However, obtaining value for him is going to be a tricky proposition.
The 31-year-old, who moves the puck efficiently, has played just six games this season after appearing in only 37 last season. Injuries have limited him—they have in every single one of his 11 NHL seasons—and when you consider that he has another year left on his contract at $2.1 million, it’s a stretch to think he can fetch you more than Benn can on the market.
But if Bergevin is willing to accept less just to get Schlemko out the door, there are teams that would probably consider moving for him.
Trade Xavier Ouellet
The question in this case is simple: Does trading Ouellet offer the Canadiens better value than keeping him as a depth option?
The answer might very well be no.
It’s hard to imagine the Canadiens will get anything more than a marginal return on Ouellet’s services if they move his $700,000 cap hit to another team, and he’s been valuable to them on more nights than expected thus far.
Trying to sneak Ouellet through waivers doesn’t seem like an option, either—with teams likely willing to pick up his cheap, two-way contract for free.
We’re not striking Ouellet being traded or waived as a possibility, but it’s lower down on the priority list for the reasons listed above.
Send Victor Mete to the AHL
We wouldn’t suggest it was a possible outcome if we didn’t think it might happen.
That said, it’s listed as a bottom consideration because a team that’s focused on playing quickly is best served to keep Mete in its lineup.
But the fact that the 20-year-old is eligible to be sent down without having to clear waivers opens up the door to the possibility. Especially if Bergevin doesn’t want to be pressured into making a trade he can’t execute on his own terms.
And the fact that Mete might benefit from a few games at a lower level—to bring his confidence up to where it was a year ago in his rookie season—only kicks the door open wider.
Here’s what we think will happen:
When Weber makes his return, the Canadiens will line up their defence as follows:
Mike Reilly-Shea Weber
Jordie Benn-Jeff Petry
Victor Mete-David Schlemko
This will give Weber a mobile puck mover to play with, reduce Petry’s role, get Benn back to more manageable minutes, and put Mete with a more reliable partner in Schlemko.
And if everyone remains healthy when Juulsen returns, we believe the Canadiens will opt to waive Alzner and go with the following:
Mike Reilly-Shea Weber
Jordie Benn-Jeff Petry
Victor Mete-Noah Juulsen