MONTREAL — There was nothing David Schlemko could do on Wednesday night to prove general manager Marc Bergevin’s pre-season assertion that the Montreal Canadiens defence corps would be an upgrade on last year’s crew.
He didn’t come to Montreal heralded as an all-world defenceman. Far from it.
The 30-year-old started his NHL career in 2008, with the Coyotes in Phoenix, and has since played for the Dallas Stars, Calgary Flames, New Jersey Devils and San Jose Sharks. He was left unprotected in the Vegas expansion draft this past summer, selected by the Golden Knights and promptly traded some 15 hours later to the Canadiens for a 2019 fifth-round pick.
A player of that stature, with 17 goals and 87 points to his name over 360 NHL contests, wasn’t going to make up for losing the cerebral and skilled Andrei Markov. He wouldn’t account for the physicality lost when Alexei Emelin was claimed away from the Canadiens by the Golden Knights.
And being an upgrade on the inconsistent Nathan Beaulieu, who was traded to the Buffalo Sabres, wasn’t going to make Bergevin’s statement that much more believable.
But what Schlemko showed in his Canadiens debut was that he can do something to make the team’s defence tangibly better than it had been through the majority of their first 25 games. He skated 15:54 in a 2-1 win over the Ottawa Senators, had two shots on net, and he came up with a couple of key defensive plays as the seconds ticked down in the final minute of play.
“I think he’s a good puck mover. I think he’s got a good hockey head,” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien. “His shot from the blue line—they don’t have to be slapshots, but he’s getting pucks to the net so if we have guys in front there could be tips or rebounds. They’re getting in there.
“And I just saw him as a real smart player tonight, making real good decisions, and he seems to give the sense of calmness back there. When he’s got the puck, you know he’s going to do something good with it.”
That’s the type of player the Canadiens have been longing for. It helps that Schlemko’s return coincides with several other members of the blue line playing better.
Jordie Benn was a turnover machine at the beginning of the season, playing well below expectations he set when he came over from the Dallas Stars in a trade last February and playing reliably and consistently through to the end of 2016-17. But he’s been up several notches over the last couple of weeks and played 19:39 against the Senators on Wednesday, finishing plus-1 and notching a shot on goal, two hits and three blocked shots.
Karl Alzner, who’s been average at best (for a player who was signed to a five-year, $23.1-million contract this past summer), has found his game and was named the third star of the night—playing 21:01, recording three shots on goal, and making the play that led to the turning point of the hockey game.
Alzner found Jonathan Drouin with a Hail-Mary pass at 2:56 of the second period, and Drouin drew a penalty shot—which he scored on to tie the game at 1-1.
Phillip Danault scored the winner less than three minutes later, completing a beautiful play from Max Pacioretty and Andrew Shaw.
But with more than half the game left, the defence—composed of Benn, Alzner, Jakub Jerabek, Joe Morrow and Jeff Petry—shut it down.
And Schlemko played a significant role in their success.
“I know he’s a guy that’s got a lot of skill, poise, and the fact that he played as good as he did was impressive,” said Alzner.
That Schlemko played as well against a downtrodden Senators team—one that had lost for a seventh straight time—shouldn’t take anything away from his performance. There’s nothing easy about stepping into the lineup at this juncture of the season with nothing but three AHL contests for conditioning purposes under your belt.
“As the game went on, I felt pretty good,” said Schlemko. “It’s nice to have the coach’s trust. Everyone wants to be out there when you need a goal, or [you’re] in the last minute of the game.”
That Julien would turn to him in that circumstance, with two more precious points on the line against a divisional opponent, tells you what kind of addition he can be.
“I think he’s that puck possession, puck-moving D-man that can really help us out down the road,” said Alzner.
Even better if Schlemko can help the Canadiens in Detroit on Thursday, where a win over the Red Wings would vault the team into third place in the Atlantic Division and into a playoff spot for the first time since the first week of the season.