The Montreal Canadiens need help on the left side of their defenses.
This was a constant waiver from the off-season to the postponement of the 2019-20 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was sung by practically every media member and repeated throughout the fan base at every venue, and the truth has been acknowledged multiple times by Canadien's general manager Marc Bergevin and head coach Claude Julien.
Don't think for a second, defenders Ben Chiarot, Brett Kulak and Victor Mete didn't hear it. Not even self-isolation would stop them.
What it means for Chiarot is very different from what it does for Kulak and Mete. The six-foot-three, 225-pounder signed a three-year, $ 10.5 million contract with the Canadiens in July 2019, and then offered one of the few positive stories of a completely disappointing season – nearly seven minutes longer per game than his career average by 16:10, scored nine goals (or four more than in one of his six previous seasons with the Winnipeg Jets) and ended with 21 points in 69 games to exceed his previous career high of 20 points in 78 in 2019.
In the worst case, an upgrade from the first to the second pair pushes him, or a player of the same value reduces his workload for the first pair to manageable 21 to 22 minutes per game instead of the 26 to 30 minutes he often played.
But any change would put both Kulak and Mete in an even tougher competition for the Ice Age than they already were, and an upgrade would knock one of them out of the way – like Marco Scandella's January takeover of the Buffalo Sabers did for six weeks before the 29-year-old freaked out in the St. Louis Blues on February 18.
It is a reality that both defenders have been very aware of throughout the season, and one that will keep their minds busy in the coming off-season. Left-wing defender Alexander Romanov, who was elected in the second round of the organization in 2018, is certain to leave KHL to sign with the Canadiens shortly after being authorized to do so on May 1. And Romanov comes to the understanding that there are no guarantees. There are strong assurances that a place will be worked out for him on the Montreal blue line.
Bergevin said in several interviews that he saw the 20-year-old start at the third pair of the team and recently told La Presse that Romanov is becoming a top shutdown guy who will be able to Play 24 minutes a night within three years of his arrival.
Kulak has seen little of Romanov, but he is impressed by what he saw.
"I watched him at the World Juniors (2019). He looks like a damn defender," said the 26-year-old from his home in Canmore, Alta., During a 15-minute phone interview with Sportsnet on Thursday .
Kulak, who signed $ 1.85 million a year for two more seasons, also acknowledged what Romanov's likely arrival meant to him.
"I think I have to find a different gear and level to win this competition," he said. "It will be no different than when Benny (Chiarot) comes in and it takes many minutes.
"For me it has been like this for a few years now. When I was back with the (Calgary) Flames (from 2014-18) there were people with whom I always competed in the training camp, and then it's the regular season and everyone is playing and we're all good players. It's just about finding consistency at the top level of your game day by day. "
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It is something Kulak did with the Canadiens in his first season, but something that he knows he has to deal with the latter. This is a thought that has haunted him in the past few months, but also one that he believes will lead him in the next few months.
"I knew I wasn't going to do my best, and if I were, nobody would say we had to look for an upgrade," said Kulak. "I take on something like that. And I also motivate myself to work harder and get better."
It is the same process that Mete will submit to, even if he looks at his season in a different light than Kulak sees it.
"This year I felt a lot better in all areas of the game," said Mete when we caught up with him over the phone on Wednesday.
This does not mean that Mete is under the illusion that he played perfectly. He knows he had an average of 1:46 less per game than in the 2018-19 season, which wasn't just a function of the Chiarot and Scandella acquisitions.
There were times when he was overwhelmed at his own end, and times when his decision-making stalled and he was pushed into the lineup because of this.
But it's almost easy to forget that Woodbridge, Ontario, is only 21 years old because he has collected 171 NHL games and spent most of his time as a Canadian alongside Shea Weber or Jeff Petry. He's leaving his entry-level contract, which means he's far from finished, and that should be taken into account when designing the Montreal blue line.
"I am still very young and there is still a lot to improve," said the election in the fourth round in 2016 before mentioning that he had made steady progress from his 2017 NHL debut to this point.
It is a process that Mete is looking forward to, but one with an immediate obstacle to overcome on his way. He is now at least two weeks away from the hiking shoe he was in since he suffered a clean fracture of his left ankle bone that blocked a shot in a loss to the Detroit Red Wings on February 18.
#Habs Victor Mete walks into the room after blocking this shot. pic.twitter.com/L6Zhfvew34
– Here's your iteration (@HeresYourReplay) February 19, 2020
Mete says the injury has healed well after multiple treatments by Canadian medical personnel. Because he adheres to exercises, he was given after access to the team's facilities was interrupted just over a week ago. He adds that once he is able to "work on small techniques" and get back to the basics of skating, building up strength in the bones will be a priority, provided he has ice at his disposal (the pandemic put a wrench in this plan for the time being and could threaten it into the summer months).
Apart from that, Mete said he wanted to "just get bigger, keep building a few pounds and muscle, and work on the ice on small details like quicker closing (in the defense zone)."
He added that if possible, he would resume shooting with specialist Tim Turk, with payout for last summer's work in this department being the first four goals of his NHL career last winter.
With Romanov's upcoming arrival – and with Bergevin's proclamation to La Presse that he could trade a striker for even more defense assistance – Mete says he can only do his part to win the competition.
"I will have to try to work extra hard," he said. "I know that when I get to the camp, I will have at least one other guy to beat."
Kulak, who only scored seven points in 56 games this season, knows he could be. So he is preparing to be the best version of himself, which means "quitting the game, playing really well defensively, using my feet and pucking to get the puck out of the zone or a good one to faint and follow first. " the piece. "
As far as the constant scuttlebutt over Montreal's blue line is concerned, neither Kulak nor Mete can switch it off completely. All a player can do is rise above it.