Joel Hanley. Darren Dietz. If anyone had asked most pundits at the start of the season whether these two defencemen would see time in the NHL this season with the Montreal Canadiens, it would have been an easy "no" from most. "Not with that depth," they would have certainly said.
However, due to the injury epidemic that has swept through the Habs blue-liners this season, the Canadiens have used 14 different defencemen so far, with only one of them, Victor Bartley, arriving to the organization during the season via trade. Everyone else was part of the defensive depth of the organization at the start of the season.
On Sunday evening, the Habs announced the recall of Ryan Johnston from the AHL's St. John's IceCaps. Should he play a game with the team, he will be the 15th defenceman used by the Canadiens this season, which would break a team record established in 2000-01.
General Manager Marc Bergevin has always preached the importance of defensive depth in the organization, and there is no clearer evidence as to why than what is happening this season. The defensive position is among the most physically punishing in the NHL, as players are constantly putting themselves in harm's way to block shots and advance pucks, with bruising results. To Bergevin's further credit the coffers are not even bled dry at this point, as Dalton Thrower and Mac Bennett are still at his disposal, and could be recalled to play at a moment's notice.
The season started off well enough, with Greg Pateryn and Jarred Tinordi struggling to get any ice time, frequently finding themselves healthy scratches, as the starting six of P.K. Subban, Andrei Markov, Jeff Petry, Alexei Emelin, Tom Gilbert, and Nathan Beaulieu were part of an unbeatable Habs lineup. Eventually both Pateryn and Tinordi were able to take some regular shifts with the team as the unavoidable scrapes and bruises started to pile up on the blue line.
In late December, Gilbert was placed on the Injured Reserve list, which opened the door for Mark Barberio to be recalled from St. John's, and he immediately leapfrogged past Tinordi and Pateryn on Michel Therrien's depth chart, with Pateryn earning some ice time when Emelin also went down to injury.
The writing was on the wall for Tinordi, and in mid-January was traded to the Arizona Coyotes for Bartley and John Scott. Bartley was assigned to the IceCaps, but only played nine games (plus another five missed due to injury) before he too was recalled to the Canadiens.
In the meantime, Morgan Ellis was putting together an incredible bounce-back season after a very difficult 2014-15, which saw him spend some time in the ECHL on the final year of his entry-level contract. This season on a "show me" deal, Ellis was the leading defensive scorer for the IceCaps, and one of the top in the league, earning himself an AHL All-Star Game invitation. His tremendous season was crowned with a recall to the Canadiens for his NHL debut.
This is where things got silly. The injuries refused to subside, this time claiming Nathan Beaulieu as the next victim. It was Darren Dietz who was recalled to make his debut. Then when Subban was injured in a freak collision with Emelin, it was Hanley's turn to receive a call-up to the big dance. Beaulieu went out once again with a broken thumb in a game against Tampa Bay, and Brett Lernout became the 15th player to man the blue line for Montreal.
Unfortunately for Lernout, he too was injured — in his debut game no less — and it's now Johnston's turn to get called up.
Fifteen defencemen in a single season. That beats the record of 14 who suited up for the Canadiens in the 2000-01 season when the Canadiens blue line included: Patrice Brisebois, Francis Bouillon, Stephane Robidas, Craig Rivet, Eric Weinrich, Karl Dykhuis, Sheldon Souray, and second-year veteran Andrei Markov. The head coach that year? Michel Therrien.