Do the Canadiens Actually Have a Problem at Left Defence?
Victor Mete and Brett Kulak might not put up points, but they should be the last of the Habs' worries.
The Montréal Canadiens’ blueline is built around two big names: Shea Weber and Jeff Petry. Weber has a reputation as one of the steadiest top defencemen in the NHL, while Petry has slowly gained the recognition among casual fans that he has enjoyed from the analytics community for years. Both of those players are right-handed, though, leading many to believe that the Habs are imbalanced and have a huge hole in the roster on the left side of the blueline. You can read article after article after article about how urgent this issue is, and how it’s one of the primary reasons the team is struggling to compete. Can a team really contend with Ben Chiarot, Victor Mete, and Brett Kulak playing left defence?
As I covered here, the Canadiens have a number of problems that have limited their ability to convert their strong possession numbers into wins. They are:
Poor finishing (need to get more of those expected goals in the net)
Poor goaltending (need to get a decent backup and lower Price’s GP)
Poor powerplay (projected to have cost them ~5 standings points this year compared to league average)
Poor penalty kill (projected to have cost them ~2 standings points this year compared to league average)
Can the LD be blamed for any of these? None of the Canadiens defencemen (right or left-handed) have strong special teams numbers, and if you’re blaming your blueline for not converting quality chances into goals your team’s got a lot of problems. The special teams problems seem by all accounts to be systems-based (forcing shot after shot from the point is not the way to run a powerplay in 2020). So right off the bat, I think the Habs have far greater things to worry about.
From a personnel perspective, it is true that the Habs do have room for improvement on their left side. In terms of their projected even strength Wins Above Replacement as a trio, they rank 19th - not horrible but still below-average. But they’ve made an actual improvement difficult to achieve. This isn’t just because acquiring a top-pairing left defenceman is difficult, but because they’re in an odd straitjacket of their own creation.
Ben Chiarot certainly played far better this season than most people expected. In 18-19 with the Jets, he was strong defensively but one of the least impactful offensively in the entire league. This season he was just about average at both ends playing 53% of his time on the top pair with Shea Weber. He’s signed for two more years at $3.5M, and it’s pretty clear that the Habs are huge on him (why would they move a guy they feel comfortable playing 23 minutes a night?). Meanwhile, Alexander Romanov has been hyped like crazy by the Habs and is probably assured a spot in the lineup next season even if he could probably use some AHL time. He’s clearly a huge part of their plans moving forward.
So that leaves one (or both) of Victor Mete and Brett Kulak headed to the press box or the trade block, which would be a waste of their abilities. Both players have played top four-calibre hockey in terms of their ability to drive play when they’re on the ice. They play very defence-first styles which do not translate to point totals, but which make life a lot easier for Carey Price and help the forwards move the puck into the offensive zone and maintain possession.
Mete uses his skating and agility to put up elite zone entry numbers - this season, he ranked 1st in the NHL (ahead of Roman Josi) in terms of the rate at which he carried the puck into the offensive zone rather than dumping it in. He also ranked 9th among defencemen in transition passes and 7th in cycle passes, a sign that his playmaking ability is strong. He’s been a strong partner to Shea Weber as well; in 270 minutes played this season their expected goals for % (xGF%) was actually higher than when Weber was paired with Chiarot.
Kulak has been solid as a rock overall, but he has especially thrived when paired with Jeff Petry. In the past two seasons they have recorded a staggering 59.9% xGF% together in 860 minutes; among 44 lines that have played more than 800 minutes together in that time, they rank 1st in that stat ahead of Slavin/Hamilton, Suter/Spurgeon, and Giordano/Brodie. They’re really really good together.
Both of these players also provide excellent cap value. Kulak makes $1.85M for the next two seasons, while Mete is projected by EvolvingWild to receive an almost identical contract this fall. That makes them excellent value players considering that through their Wins Above Replacement contributions they’re worth roughly $4.5M each. The Habs should be ecstatic at the surplus value they receive from these two guys, especially considering the flat cap environment and the team’s desire to acquire a star through free agency. They wouldn’t likely see this value reflected in a trade return because of their unremarkable counting stats. Kulak’s market value and reputation is low, and the Habs almost certainly will not receive commensurate value for what he provides. Mete’s youth, skating, and pedigree would command a larger return, but again not proportionate to the calibre of his play. Letting either of these two waste away in the pressbox would also be poor asset management.
There is one glaring imbalance on the Canadiens’ left side (aside from point totals). According to Corey Sznajder’s manual stat tracking, they lag far behind their right-handed counterparts in terms of denying entry to the defensive zone. Opposing forwards don’t favour one side over the other when trying to enter the Habs’ zone, but they find far more success making it across the blue line when they challenge their LD.
To put this stat into context, the regular RDs’ 16.5% denial rate would rank 3rd among NHL teams, while 8.2% would rank dead last.
There are multiple ways to interpret this stat, none of which are ironclad. Weber and Petry have long ranked among the league’s most aggressive defencemen when defending the blueline, meaning that their partners might intentionally play more conservatively in that regard. It’s important to remember too that entry denial is not a proxy for defensive skill, as many of the best scoring chance-suppressing blueliners in the league rank relatively low. Stepping up at the line might make a player vulnerable to getting walked, and a talented defensive player might prefer to use other means to close off the slot and prevent chances against. The strong defensive numbers of the Habs’ LD support this notion, but the strong contrast might contribute to the perception that they are being carried defensively by the right side.
The Canadiens’ left side is by no means a strength, but it’s not a glaring weakness either. It could undoubtedly be improved; adding a Jonas Brodin or Vince Dunn this offseason could benefit the team immensely. But considering the far more urgent needs on the roster - finishing talent, special teams help, etc. - there are other areas that should be prioritized. On top of that, top four defencemen are expensive both on the trade market and in free agency, and the cost of acquiring the “wrong guy” could be devastating (just ask the St. Louis Blues about Justin Faulk). If a Keith Yandle or Nick Leddy is the only option, the Habs could clog up their cap while actually making their left side worse.
Brett Kulak and Victor Mete’s stats might not look great on the back of a hockey card, but there’s far more to defence than point totals. Both players have provided the Canadiens with inexpensive top-four calibre hockey at even strength, while complementing their right-defence partners very well. Trading or scratching Kulak, for example, would mean sacrificing a pairing with Petry which has been one of the league’s most effective in the past two seasons. Even if you think that both guys are being “carried” by the stars on the right side, the results would indicate that there really isn’t that much room for improvement by replacing them. Both players provide the Habs with a competitive advantage in a flat-cap world where finding cheap defencemen who can be trusted in top-four minutes will be a primary objective for most contending teams. With Alexander Romanov on his way and Ben Chiarot locked up, prioritizing the left side could backfire for Marc Bergevin.