The issues on defense at the end of last season were not hard to diagnose. Living through them all season was quite frustrating for many a Habs fan. I took my shots at the Habs defensive issues heading into the off-season back in June, and things are very different just a month later.
Lately, Marc Bergevin has been on fire, and he didn't forget his defense in the process. He answered nearly every question I raised about the Canadiens defense, and did most of it over the span of two days. Basically one day, if you don't count the fact that the whole Gorges thing started the day before free agency. Not only does Marc Bergevin seem to have cut the dead weight, he has managed to balance things out with cap space to spare.
It's been said before on EOTP, that one of the most encouraging things about Marc Bergevin so far is his ability to learn from his mistakes and move forward. I submit to you that he has done exactly this with the Habs' defense, and that the team will enter a new season with a superior group to that of the previous one.
P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov
Bergevin didn't wait long to lock down the General for three more years. Markov is still very productive at his age, and Andrew Berkshire has you covered if you need to know whether his contract is worth it. I'm all for the Markov extension, because if the Habs do have an open cup window, he's the kind of guy you'll want around to help get through it. He was not one of the problems on defense last year, and we should be quite happy to have him back at solid value.
We know P.K. wants to be in Montreal, so I find it fair to skip speculation about unlikely scenarios where he's not. He has filed for salary arbitration, but the reality is he's unlikely to even make it that far in the process. The strong likelihood is that a deal gets done before arbitration is necessary, and with it the two best defensemen on the team will be back for a new season with new deals. If you consider these two as the most important pieces on defense, which I most certainly do, this fact is very reassuring.
Josh Gorges or Alexei Emelin
Bergevin needed to move a left-handed defenseman no matter how you looked at it. With young guys pressuring from below, and especially once Markov was locked down for three more years, it was clear that one of these two would be on the trade block. I personally rooted for Emelin to be traded over Gorges, but as many pointed out to me, the latter would be the easier to move. This proved true as Josh will be making his home in Buffalo next year and Emelin will be back on the Habs blueline.
As for Gorges, I don't know about waiver threats, or which team leaked the Toronto deal, and I won't speculate. What I do know is that Bergevin needed to make space on the left side of his defense, and in his budget to go after someone to play on the right. Moving Gorges did exactly that, and although Emelin was my first choice I get why he would make that deal. Josh was a true Hab, and I'm as sad as anyone to see him go, but his departure provided an opportunity to improve the overall quality of the Habs blueline, and that's exactly what Bergevin did.
Gorges was essentially on his way out the minute the Toronto deal was leaked, so it was time to address that hole on the right side. Bergevin took care of that, picking up big Tom Gilbert at a great price. Tom is pretty good; last year with the Panthers, he averaged 21 minutes and was a positive possession player with 51% CF while taking a majority of his starts in the defensive zone. FANCY. He's also like 6'3" and 206 lbs. And, Bergevin got him at 2.8 million per season for two years, 1.1 million less than Josh Gorges with less term. Excellent signing.
That still left Bergevin with only two right-handed defensemen under contract, but it didn't take long for us to find out that Mike Weaver had been re-signed by the Canadiens as well. Weaver was a great addition for the Habs at last year's deadline and I'd venture to guess that a lot of fans were rooting for him to be back in some capacity. He may not get to play every game of the season, but it's clearly preferable that if Michel Therrien wants a 'veteran presence' he'll be turning to Weaver and not Douglas Murray or Francis Bouillon.
Nathan Beaulieu and Jarred Tinordi
When talking about the Josh Gorges deal, Marc Bergevin made it clear that the team has plans to advance the two young defenders: "We have two young defensemen who are left shot. At some time, they need a place to play." The denizens of EOTP have been banging that drum a while, and it seems Habs management is now heading in this direction. Obviously camp will determine whether one or both will be permanent roster players, but the message from Bergevin is very encouraging.
I don't think it likely that both will be playing 82 game seasons, because Michel Therrien seems reluctant to trust them, and they do both shoot left. Beaulieu definitely earned his spot in these last playoffs, so I would think he's got the advantage if it were a competition between them. But, Jarred Tinordi can play the right side and has done so in the past. I'd love to see Therrien try these two out together with Tinner on the right at some point, at least in the preseason. I get the 'too soon' argument, but would anyone not be excited just to see what that could be? I think it's worth a shot.
Are they better overall?
Well, my buddy Andrew Berkshire ran some numbers, and determined that Gilbert, Beaulieu and Weaver alone, if subbed in for the exact minutes of Gorges, Murray an Bouillon, would raise the team's 5 on 5 Corsi by 3.28 percent. That suggests pretty strongly that the production level of the defense should rise, and this could have an even bigger impact than 3.28 percent if you consider the far greater balance they now have. In all, it's a faster, more mobile overall group with better puck skills, so yes they are much better if you ask me.
Bergevin not only made the defensive corps better, he's also finally singing a tune that many fans have been screaming for the better part of two seasons. Beaulieu and Tinordi are in the final years of their ELCs and I wouldn't be surprised if either of them were getting impatient. They're both show ready, and the biggest source of my frustration last year was watching Murray and/or Bouillon playing instead of them. Kudos to Bergie for acknowledging the need to bring these guys into a more serious role, and soon.
Even if you're one to worry constantly about the Therrien era deployment problems, there's not as much for him to screw up. It's pretty obvious that he's got a significantly better crop of defensemen to work with than he did, and this should make things a lot easier on him. Just in case, feel free to leave him your pairing suggestions in the comment section.