The Montreal Canadiens have a very good problem this season. Nine NHL-capable defencemen in their organization provide defensive depth not seen in some time.
Marc Bergevin has always touted the benefit of defensive depth, and each time he has made a move for a depth defender, that player has ended up playing significant minutes at some point during the season. In recent years, Francis Bouillon, Douglas Murray, Mike Weaver, and Sergei Gonchar played a supporting role to the top three defencemen on the team.
The depth enjoyed in 2004 resulted in young defender Francois Beauchemin being placed on waivers in an attempt to return him to Hamilton at the start of the season, but he was claimed by the Columbus Blue Jackets and lost for no return.
The situation is similar this season with three young and talented defenders — Greg Pateryn, Jarred Tinordi, and Mark Barberio — who are all on cheap contracts in their restricted years, and would surely draw attention if placed on waivers, hence why they have been protected thus far.
Marc Bergevin took a gamble at the start of the year when he submitted Barberio to waivers to send him down to St. John's in the AHL. Thankfully for the organization, he went unclaimed, and was able to demonstrate his potential while playing on the top defensive pairing with up-and-coming prospects Morgan Ellis and Darren Dietz. He put up 20 points in 26 games, showing his offensive upside to go along with his tough defensive assignments.
In the meantime, Tinordi and Pateryn waited patiently in the wings as healthy scratches in the NHL for the majority of the season. Both were able to get some games in the AHL under the auspice of "conditioning assignments," which do not require exposure to waivers, but their lack of game play was certainly weighing on them, and becoming a source of frustration.
Each of those players got an opportunity to play games once the season began to take its toll on the health of the regular players. Pateryn got his opportunity when Alexei Emelin went down with an injury in mid-November. For Tinordi it was a longer wait — until mid-December — to get some games when Jeff Petry was injured. Both demonstrated that they can play in the NHL, and that all they need is the opportunity to play on a regular basis.
The organization understands the situation their prospects are in, but they cannot risk losing such sought after assets with no compensation, hence a sort of development Catch-22 situation where they won't improve until they play, but won't play until they improve.
When Tom Gilbert was injured, it was assumed that it would be one of Pateryn or Tinordi who would step in. But when Barberio became a late scratch for the St. John's IceCaps on the day that Gilbert was placed on the Injured Reserve list, questions started being asked. Sure enough, at the sound of the 5 PM bell on December 27th, Barberio was called up to the main roster, and has played in all three games since. That left Pateryn and Tinordi to watch from the sidelines yet again, and both missed out on a chance to play in the Winter Classic on New Year's Day.
To date Pateryn has played 10 games, Barberio has played five, while Tinordi has played three. It is hard to determine a team preference for any one of them at this point, but it does seem that Tinordi has been getting the short end of the stick, seeing Beaulieu and Pateryn (and now potentially Barberio) passing him on the team depth chart.
When Tom Gilbert is taken off IR, Marc Bergevin will have to make a decision, because keeping nine healthy defencemen on the team, and therefore having no 13th forward, seems an unlikely scenario.
His easiest option is to send Barberio back to the IceCaps, since he won't have to clear waivers as he hasn't reached the 30-day/10-game threshold for a player called up after his waiver clearance earlier in the season. Pateryn and Tinordi don't move, and it's back to status quo.
If the team decides that Barberio is the best option to stay with the team, then perhaps one of Tinordi or Pateryn will need to be moved. Will Bergevin risk placing either one on waivers to go down to the AHL, or does he try to trade one of them?
Or will Bergevin try to move Gilbert, or convince Alexei Emelin to waive his no-trade clause for a move to another team, allowing the Canadiens to keep their youthful trio? The trade return for that kind of deal would likely only contain future parts, and would not address any of the roster's current needs, so is there any advantage to making that move?
Certainly the future of the team's composition is in the capable hands of Bergevin who has proven to be quite shrewd with his moves. Something will have to give in the near future, when Gilbert is given the all-clear to return.