Montreal was always going to have a few issues this year. In fact, many thought this team would be lucky to tread water while Weber recovered from off-season surgery. Instead, this Canadiens team shocked a lot of people with a fast-paced, high-energy game, and currently occupy a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Theyre doing it with an ever-shifting defensive alignment, including a handful of players playing well above their station. Theyre staying competitive and earning points with a power play that has the ferocity of a limp noodle most nights, and now theyre getting back one of the fiercest shots in the league.
Webers return is coming at the absolute best time for this Canadiens team. With a more functional power play, Weber should start creating goals for an offence on the cusp of breaking out. Games where theyre getting close but failing to generate chances on the man advantage should start turning in the Canadiens favour.
Jeff Petry has played well as Montreals top defender, but Webers return also shifts some of that pressure off of his shoulders going forward. Logging 25+ minutes with regularity in all situations is hard on the best in the NHL, let alone with a rotating cast of partners. Adding Weber back into the mix reinforces Petry with another trustworthy option for Claude Julien. Being able to deploy steady defensive options on multiple pairings should help shore up the defensive miscues that have hurt the team.
Above all else, hes a presence on the ice and in the locker room. While the team has played well with just their alternate captains, seeing the captain suit up should help spur the club to the next level.
The stage is set for Shea Weber to step into the breach at the perfect time, with Habs in the throes of a four-game losing streak.
Canadiens defenceman Shea Weber meets with the media during a news conference at the Bell Sports Complex in Brossard on Oct. 1, 2018, after being named captain of the team. Graham Hughes / THE CANADIAN PRESS
Timing, they say, is everything — and the timing for Shea Weber’s return to the Canadiens’ lineup is impeccable.
If all goes according to plan and the captain makes his comeback Tuesday evening against the Carolina Hurricanes, the stage is set for Weber to step into the breach at the perfect time, with this young team now in the throes of a four-game losing streak.
Going into the season, a lot of people expected the Canadiens to be in the Jack Hughes sweepstakes, fighting for the bottom spot in the league and the first pick in the draft. I was more optimistic: I thought that if they could tread water and remain within two or three games of .500 until Weber’s return, they might conceivably be on the playoff bubble come spring.
Instead, they are three games over .500 and clinging to the final wild card spot in the east at this extremely early date in the season. Now, Weber is coming back at a point when, after salvaging a single point out of winnable back-to-back games against Buffalo and Boston on Friday and Saturday, the Canadiens are clearly running on fumes and badly in need of a towering, shutdown defenceman.
They need the Man Mountain everywhere on the ice — but Weber has been missed most where it matters most, in the final minutes of tight games. The Canadiens have left far too many points on the table, especially on the road, in games where they were up a goal or tied and had to settle for a single point in overtime or a straight loss and no points at all.
A 4-3 overtime loss in Ottawa on Oct. 20, 4-3 in Buffalo on Oct. 25, 6-5 at home to Buffalo on Nov. 10 and three of the four losses in the current streak could all conceivably have been in the win column with Weber in the lineup. During his one healthy season with the Canadiens, Weber was a plus-20 with 17 goals and 25 assists while playing a shade over 25 minutes a game.
From his sheer presence to the looming physical threat and the booming shot, Weber contributes so much everywhere on the ice — but it’s his ability as a shutdown defenceman the Canadiens need most right now. Those late goals the club is surrendering are killers, both in the standings and to the general morale. No one will be happier to see the big guy back in the lineup than Carey Price and Antti Niemi, who have both been inconsistent in cleaning up the inevitable mistakes made by the young defence.
There may be rust. Weber has been sidelined for almost a year and before that, he was trying to play with a fractured foot — and still somehow putting up six goals and 10 assists in 26 games and playing 25 minutes and 21 seconds a game, slightly more than the previous season when he was healthy. It’s important not to expect too much immediately. The absence of a player like Weber is felt throughout the lineup. Subtract a player of his calibre and you set off a chain reaction: each defenceman behind him has to step up a notch, often beyond that player’s abilities.
When you try to gauge Weber’s impact on a team, the domino effect means you have to look far beyond his numbers. Jeff Petry has done an admirable job of filling in as the team’s No. 1 defenceman in Weber’s absence, especially at the offensive end of the ice. (At the risk of offending the Kool-Aid Krowd, we’ll mention Petry has two goals and 15 assists to date, compared with P.K. Subban’s two goals and 10 assists. But I digress.)
If you have the luxury of using Petry on your second defence pairing, the effect ripples up and down the lineup and even affects the forwards, who have less to worry about with Weber back there.
More than anything, you know Weber is going to be back there in these tight, tough late-game situations when the Canadiens have been blowing it with some regularity. Imagine the glare from “Dad” if Max Domi or Jonathan Drouin decide it’s a good time for a brain-cramp penalty with the game on the line.
In the long run, Weber’s absence through the first quarter of this season may have been a good thing. The Canadiens learned a lot about themselves, about what they are, about the team they have. They showed that they can win without their leader and now they have a chance to win with him.
And Weber, who has sometimes looked worn down come playoff time, has avoided 24 games, more than a quarter-season of wear and tear. He’s going to be fresh, a tower of power where Claude Julien’s charges need it most.
The trade for Subban was a good trade, no matter what you think. It’s hard to prove when one of the principals is out of the lineup for nearly a year — but now we’re about to see why Marc Bergevin was wise to go out and get Weber in the first place.