Canadiens' benching of Mete in loss to Jets magnifies need on defence

Connor Hellebuyck made 36 saves to power the Jets to a 4-2 win over the Canadiens.

MONTREAL — It’s Masters week and we’re taking a mulligan on a recent assertion we made that Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin has more of a want than a need on defence ahead of this year’s trade deadline.

In fairness, when we initially put that forward as part of this mailbag last Friday, Brendan Gallagher was still healthy and the Canadiens were maxed out on the cap. Bergevin had also repeated several times leading up to then that he really liked his team and that he wasn’t looking to offload players just to create more cap space to add to it. And even if we knew everything the GM was saying should be taken with a grain of salt — or even a block of it after he traded for Eric Staal without moving money out a day after saying he wouldn’t do that — we didn’t feel he was outright lying about those two things.

If nothing changed between last week and the deadline, Bergevin would have been believable addressing the media afterwards and saying he didn’t have to do anything. We’d have even agreed with him.

But after Gallagher was placed on the long-term injured reserve list with a fractured right thumb on Wednesday, the option to add on defence without necessarily sacrificing as much off the roster suddenly became available. So while the initial thought was Bergevin wouldn’t jump through hoops trying to clear space for just any warm body on the blue line — especially with Ben Chiarot recovering more quickly than expected from a broken hand suffered March 10 — we feel differently now, knowing he has the ability to exceed the cap by Gallagher’s contract value to bring in some help.

We also feel Bergevin might feel it’s a necessity after seeing what happened in Thursday’s 4-2 loss to the Winnipeg Jets at the Bell Centre.

Don’t get us wrong, after 13 seasons of covering the Canadiens and the NHL, we’ve made it a practice not to overreact to one thing that happens in a given game. And if we don’t, Bergevin certainly doesn’t in his ninth year as GM and after a 20-year career as a defenceman in the league.

But this one thing that happened on Thursday was quite revealing, and the circumstances made it impossible to ignore.

The Canadiens, playing their third game in four nights and their second in 24 hours after losing to the Maple Leafs in Toronto Wednesday, were facing a rested Winnipeg Jets team that was idle since Monday. Prior to it getting underway, coach Dominique Ducharme stressed the importance of being able to rely on everyone on his side. Then the game got underway, it devolved with the Canadiens surrendering two early leads and he chose to cut his bench down to five defencemen for the third period.

Victor Mete sat and watched while partner Alex Romanov hopped over the boards for eight shifts, probably thinking about the error he made in not tying up Trevor Lewis’ stick on the goal that made it 2-1 in the ninth minute of the first period or one of the few shifts in the second where he and Romanov got caught in the turbulence of the Jets forcheck, which extended his average time-on-ice to a team-leading 57 seconds.

Prior to this game, Ducharme was rather satisfied with what he was getting from Mete and Romanov as a pair. Statistically, at five-on-five, they had controlled over 60 per cent of the shot attempts and the expected-goal share, according to naturalstattrick.com, and the eye-test was just as pleasing.

But the coach’s decision to rip all that up and park Mete on Thursday only magnified the need the Canadiens have at this position.

“It was hard, and we thought it was pretty hard — especially tonight — with the two guys together, so we decided to play the second and in the third period use five Ds to get more experience with Romy,” the coach said. “And at the same time, we were down by one, so trying to make sure we were not giving up the next one and just keeping the game simple and moving it to the forwards and hoping for offence.”

It was a strategy that was working decently well before Nick Suzuki took his second penalty of the game — a high-sticking minor with just over four minutes remaining — and effectively killed whatever momentum the Canadiens had gained, but it’s not going to be a viable strategy moving forward. Not for a team that will play its remaining 20 games between now and May 11, locked into a schedule that features four games a week and sequences of three games in four nights.

And if Ducharme didn’t like the idea of having 21-year-old Romanov paired with 22-year-old Mete against the Jets for at least a third of Thursday’s game, he’s probably not into it for Saturday’s game against them either.

And it’s not as if the coach has much flexibility here. Xavier Ouellet, who recently had a three-game audition next to Romanov, didn’t prove to be a worthwhile option. The pairing controlled less than 45 per cent of the shot attempts, surrendered 65 per cent of the expected goals and could only be depended on for a total of 35:36 together at five-on-five. It’s not as if he’s plugging Ouellet back in to the right of Romanov and expecting a better result as the games get harder.

Otto Leskinen, who’s currently on Montreal’s taxi squad, is just 24. He has five games of NHL experience and a fairly similar profile to Mete — a left-shot defenceman who’s more comfortable on the left side and not particularly made to excel in the physical areas of the game, where third-pairing defencemen are often put to the test by big, physical forwards on the third and fourth lines of the opposition.

Combing through the Canadiens’ AHL affiliate Laval doesn’t reveal a more suitable option. There are players who have played very well there and helped propel the Rocket to the best record in their division, but none of them really qualify for what the big team currently needs. They’re all short on experience, and half of them would have to play out of position — just like Mete and Ouellet.

And even if Chiarot might be getting closer and closer to a return, he’s not jumping back in just yet. If he was, he’d help the experience quotient, but would still force one of Montreal’s defencemen to play out of position to the right of Romanov.

Meanwhile, in Columbus, right-hander David Savard, who has 597 games of experience and a $4.25-million salary that expires at the end of this season, sat out of the Blue Jackets’ 6-4 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning to ensure he’ll remain healthy between now and Monday’s deadline. The expectation is he’ll be traded, and the Canadiens would probably be one of several teams interested in his services.

Anaheim Ducks defenceman Josh Manson, who’s a hard-nosed, 29-year-old right-handed defenceman with close to 400 games of experience only makes $4.1 million and qualifies as another player the Canadiens might want.

Whether Bergevin gets his hands on either player between now and the deadline is anything but certain, but he has a lot more flexibility to do so than he did a little over a week ago. He’s also got 12 picks in the upcoming draft and a long list of prospects he can part with to make it happen.

As for the incentive, it’s been upgraded after seeing what happened in Thursday’s game.

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