Eggs Bennett Issue 21-03
September 10, 2021
Is it me, or has this off-season been a complete shit show for the Habs? An offer sheet, free agent departures, entry draft disappointments and expansion draft drama – being a Habs fan this summer was not for the faint of heart.
If the off-season was a shit show, the first act took place on July 22nd when the Habs announced that defenceman Shea Weber – the Man Mountain himself – would be out for the 2021-22 season due to injury. There was considerable speculation that his NHL career may be over.
We may have transitioned from twilight to dusk faster than we expected, but there is no denying the greatness of Weber’s career.
In my view, Weber’s 16-year NHL career can be broken down into three distinct phases.
The first phase I’ll call the ascension years. In the first five years of his career, from 2005-06 through 2009-10, Weber was rising to the level of a number one defenceman for the Nashville Predators. In his first season he played just 28 games and had two goals and eight assists while playing an average of 17 minutes per game. But with each passing year, Weber’s point totals grew, along with his ice time (TOI).
The 2010-11 season witnessed a shift, and this is where we entered the eight-year period I’ll refer to as the prime years. From 2010-2011 until his season ended in 2017-18, Weber was playing between 25 and just under 27 minutes per night. He was also hovering in the 50-points-per-season neighbourhood. It was during those prime years that GM Marc Bergevin acquired Weber from Nashville, a deal Bergevin still believes defines his tenure with the Habs and that changed the team culture.
The third phase, from 2018-19 through 2020-21, I’ll name the decline years. During this phase we saw Weber’s contribution to the Habs drop, both in TOI and points production. This was especially true this past year when his points per game (PPG) dropped to .40, a level he had not seen since his rookie year. If you’re tempted to ask me about the playoffs, his PPG dropped to .27 despite an increase in TOI.
We can identify a precise turning point for Weber.
There were indications that Weber was beginning to slow down before he left Nashville, but he was still performing at a high level. In his first season with the Habs, his TOI was at 25:03 and he was at .54 PPG. No doubt we would still take this version of Weber today, but this was, in fact, a decline from his peak years with the Preds.
The 2017-18 season was the dramatic turning point for Weber. In September he was sidelined with a lower body injury (LBI), and then again on November 21st. He was placed on injured reserve (IR) on November 30th and activated again on December 2nd. Then on December 18th Weber had foot surgery and was subsequently placed on IR on December 22nd.
Weber was activated from IR on November 27, 2018, nearly a year later. The player that returned from injury was a step or two behind the guy who left. The Habs did not make the playoffs that year, and the two seasons that followed were shortened by COVID-19. As a result, Weber has not played in an 82-game regular season since 2016-17.
In the 2019-20 season Weber played 65 regular season games and 10 playoff games, for a total of 75. In 2020-21, Weber played in 48 of 56 regular season games and 22 playoff games for a total of 70. In neither season did Weber play the equivalent of one regular season schedule of 82 games.
Weber missed games in both shortened seasons due to injury and saw his TOI and PPG decrease.
Plans to replace Weber need to be rooted in reality.
“It will be impossible to replace Shea Weber. What he brings to our team, on and off the ice… we’ll try our best, but I know deep down that we can never replace Shea Weber.”
Who said this? Three guesses and the first two don’t count.
We know that in GM Marc Bergevin’s mind (and heart and soul and other vital parts) that Weber is irreplaceable. But in planning the defence group going forward, Bergevin would be well advised to not confuse playoff Weber with regular season Weber, or prime Weber with decline Weber.
The Shea Weber that needs to be replaced is not the guy Bergevin acquired by trade, and certainly not the peak version of himself from a couple of years prior. The current version of Weber should probably play around 20 minutes a night, may benefit from some load management via occasional games off, and should have realistic expectations for offensive production.
The other hard truth is that even with Weber in the line-up, there has been a hole in the defence group since Andrei Markov departed via free agency. A puck-moving defenceman that can contribute offensively should have been, and I believe was, on Bergevin’s radar long before we learned of Weber’s situation.
The two holes – the one left by Weber and the one that existed with him there – should not be conflated. If one single acquisition cannot be expected to fill the hole left by Weber, he surely can’t be expected to fill both holes.
David Savard may replace Weber more adequately than is immediately obvious.
Bergevin signed Savard to four years at $3.5M. Savard is a 20-minute guy, which is pretty close to what would have been a realistic expectation of Weber. If we’re honest, TOI is accounted for. But we need to further consider how Weber was utilized and what he contributed during that time.
As noted, there was a time when Weber was a solid offensive contributor. This has diminished over time. This past season he had six goals, four of which were scored on the power play, and 19 points. In the playoffs, where he played his best hockey of the season, he had one goal and six points in 22 games. It would be disingenuous to suggest his absence translates to a giant offensive loss.
Savard was nearly as productive for Tampa Bay in the playoffs, and on a good Columbus team once peaked at 36 points. Savard was not acquired for his offensive prowess – let’s nail that down. But depending on how he is deployed it’s not impossible to consider that Savard may replace the Weber that left the Habs where TOI and PPG are concerned.
We cannot overlook Weber’s role on special teams.
It’s true that Weber played on both special teams. In recent years, he was effective on one of them. David Savard will replace Weber’s penalty kill minutes. There is an argument to be made about developing a young player like Alexander Romanov for the PK but in short, the role is assumed by Savard.
Weber’s departure forces the Habs coaching staff to make a decision for the power play that was long overdue.
Weber scored one power play goal in 22 playoff games – it was a beauty top corner shot that opened the scoring in the Vegas elimination game. He had four PP goals in the regular season. One of those was scored when he banked a shot off a goalie from behind the net, a clever but unusual play. for your point man. Another was going desperately wide before being tipped into the net by a rookie defenceman. A potent power play threat is who Shea Weber used to be, not who he is.
In recent years, what we saw on a loop from the Habs power play was the tendency to force the play back to Weber for the big point shot that was too often bobbled, blocked, or blasted wide of the net. There were moments of past glory, but mostly the man advantage had become predictable and impotent. This is not a criticism of Weber – his decline years were obviously directly attributed to injury.
With Weber in the line-up, it was highly unlikely anyone was sitting him when the man advantage rolled around. But since Weber has been sidelined, there is an opportunity for an identity shift. The addition of Mike Hoffman’s shot and Christian Dvorak’s net-front clean-up offer new options. Chris Wideman and Mattias Norlinder will have a chance to prove their puck-moving worth. This is an opportunity for the Habs to effectively replace Weber’s power play minutes.
This is where we need to be reminded of the pre-Weber hole. A mobile defenceman to play the point was a PP need long before we had any inkling Weber was headed to LTIR.
We shouldn’t minimize the importance of leadership, character, attitude, and other buzz words.
During the early years of Bergevin’s tenure we could count on an annual buzz word that would get repeated ad nauseum for that season. Most of them have been used to describe Weber. As comical – and sometimes questionable – as Bergevin’s usage has been, I doubt any serious fan would discount the importance of leadership.
How will the Habs address the leadership void left by Weber’s departure? Bergevin has been clear they will not name a captain for the coming season. Perhaps this is wishful thinking about Weber’s prognosis, or perhaps it’s an opportunity for the next Habs captain to emerge from the new young core.
In the meanwhile, Assistant Captain Paul Byron will also be on LTIR. Unofficial Captain Carey Price may be delayed in his start and will be load managed throughout the season. Corey Perry will be providing leadership in another locker room. The Habs are a young team that has experienced turnover during this off-season and Brendan Gallagher looks to be the last man standing to lead the group.
The Man Mountain has made an exit and, ironically, it may be the leadership hole that he leaves that is the most challenging to fill.