Perhaps the most intriguing question facing the Habs this summer is how things will shape up for the defensive corps. Our community spent the bull's share of the season drinking a wonderful concoction of despair, hope, excitement, anger and confusion, as Michel Therrien would constantly ice the likes of Douglas Murray and Francis Bouillon, while most would agree that there were better options.
The arrival of Mike Weaver at the trade deadline was a breath of fresh air, one of the better moves Marc Bergevin has made. A responsible defenseman who doesn't contribute much offensively, but blocks a whole lot of shots and almost never seems out of position or behind the play, unlike some who came before him. Throughout the Habs' playoff run, I was still left scratching my head a few times. But by the time we got to the Rangers, Murray was saddled in the Press box, Nathan Beaulieu was impressing, Francis Bouillon was surprisingly effective, and I felt like Therrien had settled in and found a solid lineup on defense.
Yet that lineup still had its shortcomings, and is also not long for this team, as three of the aforementioned players are headed for free agency. And they are not alone, as they are joined by Habs lifer Andrei Markov, and one of the best defensemen in the NHL, P.K. Subban. If anything about the 2014-2015 Montreal Canadiens is completely up in the air, it's what the defensive lineup will look like come this fall. What should the Canadiens do?
Subban and Markov
Give Subban all the money we have. I worry what you just heard was "give him a lot of money." What I said was: Give him all the money we have. Ron Swanson references aside, it's time to pay the man. It is probably safe to assume that he'll fetch a long term deal, somewhere in the $8-9 million per year range, which is definitely reasonable for a Norris Trophy winner 25 years of age. Not signing him to a deal would be the worst thing to happen to the Canadiens since "Le Trade," so I'm sure we'll all be able to swallow whatever sum they agree to.
Andrei Markov should also get a new contract, albeit on a much shorter term than his younger counterpart. Despite his age and injury issues, Markov finally put together an injury-free season in 2013-14, and he along with Subban may well be one of the better pairings in the NHL when they are on the ice together. Assuming that Subban and Markov are locks to return, which seems a foregone conclusion, there are four spots left to fill in the top six.
The other free agents
For argument's sake, let's assume that this is the end of Murray and Bouillon in the Habs uniform. They are both expendable, because there are simply better left-handed options already under contract for next year. Mike Weaver is an interesting case, because he played extremely well down the home stretch, and in the playoffs. He is particularly interesting, because he shoots right, and the Canadiens have a noticeable shortage of right handed NHL defensemen. If Marc Bergevin elects not to re-sign Weaver, he will likely have to consider other free agent options.
If the Canadiens do lose Mike Weaver to free agency, one would have to hope they attempt to upgrade, something Andrew Berkshire alluded to on a recent episode of Ice Level. As far as right-handed defensemen are concerned, likely the best fit is impending UFA Anton Stralman. Mike Weaver would surely be the cheaper option, but despite his play, Stralman is still an undeniable upgrade. In any case, Marc Bergevin will need a solid right-handed defenseman, and will need to address that issue as soon as possible.
The issue with the right side was exposed greatly by the Russian rearguard as he struggled mightily to play his off side. Many an eyebrow was raised when Marc Bergevin signed him to a four-year extension after his season-ending knee injury of the previous year, and it seems they were not without reason. Emelin did not have the best of seasons. He did put up 17 points in 59 games, but his possession numbers were not great, dropping to 44% even-strength CF from his previous year's 51%. To be fair, possession numbers fell almost uniformly among the defense from the previous year, but it was visually apparent that he has serious problems playing his off side.
This is an issue that needs to be addressed immediately by either the coaching staff or management. With the amount of quality left handed defenders the Canadiens have in the system right now, Emelin either needs to be moved back to his natural side, or he should be looked at as trade bait. He can't play the right side, and I happen to know of an extremely tall defender in Hamilton who has played on the right side for the Habs, shoots left, and was better at it.
Tinordi and Beaulieu
For me, it stands to reason that both Jarred Tinordi and Nathan Beaulieu have earned their chance to make the jump and play for the Habs. Both players have seen time with the club over the last few seasons, and neither has looked out of place much, if at all. Nathan Beaulieu was absolutely excellent in the playoffs, and I can't see how he at least doesn't get a roster spot. As they are both entering the final years of their respective Entry Level Contracts, their permanent additions to the roster open up some short term spending room to pay Subban, Markov, and still have space to consider signing a free agent to bolster the right side.
The one problem that may prevent both from coming up is depth. If you have a look at our updated Organizational Depth Chart, aside from Greg Pateryn, there is not much NHL-ready talent on the farm. Even Pateryn is a player that has only handled spot duty in the past and hasn't really been called upon for extended duties. Management may elect to play it safe, bringing up only one of the two young guns, and keeping the rest of the lineup largely intact. This would likely form a top six of Subban, Markov, Gorges, Emelin, Beaulieu, and Mike Weaver or another free agent.
Aside from a few times in the playoffs where I wondered what the hell he was thinking, Josh Gorges is straight-up solid. If there was ever a guy who fit the Marc Bergevin definition of CHaracter, it's this guy. He generally sits right behind P.K. Subban an Andrei Markov in ice time, has the ability to play tough minutes, and can shut it down defensively with his positioning and shot blocking. When he went down with a fractured hand late in the season, the problems with Alexei Emelin became even more obvious as he was asked to step up and play more minutes.
Can we really look at Gorges as trade bait though? Well, yes. His contract is a bit cheaper than Emelin's so he could be easier to move. Not to mention we could likely expect a better return for Gorges than we could for his Russian counterpart. I'm inclined to say Gorges should stay, but again, there's a log jam on the left and someone either has to play their off side or move on to another team.
So, what's the plan?
In my opinion, the team's best interest is to re-sign Mike Weaver, bring up Tinordi and Beaulieu, and look to move one of Alexei Emelin or Josh Gorges. Upgrading upon Weaver is an interesting concept, but if Weaver can be signed at under two million per for two years, I like that idea too much to dismiss it. Bringing up Tinordi and Beaulieu may have the feel of mortgaging the entire season on them, but Beaulieu is a no-brainer, and Tinordi can play the right side in addition to being a massive physical presence.
There are a number of teams that may be able to use a serviceable defenseman like Emelin on their roster. Edmonton is a destination that has been floated around by the EOTP staff, for obvious reasons. If Bergevin could move Emelin or even Gorges to a team needing defense like Edmonton, in a way that frees up some cap space, he would be in an excellent position. This would enable the easy re-signings of Subban and Markov, while leaving ample room to sign Mike Weaver or a suitable replacement/upgrade. In such a scenario, Bergevin could likely benefit from some extra cap space even after all of this is said and done.
No matter how you slice it, Marc Bergevin has his work cut out for him. There is a log jam up the left side, a gaping hole on the right, and the guy he's been using on the right just can't hack it. His two best defensemen need new contracts, and one of them is looking at an epic pay day. He has two young players that seem ready, but giving them both the nod would not leave him the greatest of safety nets in Hamilton. And, while I can't presume to know, I have to think that those two Bulldogs may be getting a tad impatient.