When Shea Weber was acquired for P.K. Subban last year, the general understanding was that while Weber was not as individually gifted as a playmaker relative to the departing Subban, he provided a more stable and consistent game that would augment and elevate the play of his peers. Weber also offered security not only for Carey Price, but for his more offensively-orientated compatriots on the Habs blue line.
In exchange, the Canadiens were to find a partner for Weber that would account for Weber’s weaknesses, and the resulting pairing would be greater than the sum of its parts. Nathan Beaulieu was the initial candidate for this position at the start of the season, followed by Alexei Emelin, but it wasn’t until Andrei Markov took up Weber’s flank that the Canadiens were blessed with a bonafide first pairing on par with the best in the NHL.
Now, all three of those individuals are gone.
Instead, the Habs are positioned to enter the 2017-18 regular season with a left defence corps consisting of Mark Streit, David Schlemko, Jakub Jerabek, Brandon Davidson, Karl Alzner, and possibly Jordie Benn, who can play the left side if needed.
Including Benn, last season, the six (Jerabek was in the KHL) players in the NHL combined for 10 goals, 47 assists, and 57 points in 272 games played. Markov recorded 6 goals, 30 assists, and 36 points in 62 games.
Markov played an average of 21:50 last season. Aside from Alzner (19:47), whose skillset is not exactly complementary to Weber’s, no one else came within three full minutes of that mark [Schlemko, 16:45; Streit, 17:06; Davidson, 16:38; Benn, 16:50 (with Montreal)].
Yes. Markov was aging.
Yes. Markov demanded a lot of money and term relative to other players his age.
Yes. Markov has an injury history.
However, whether Markov was justified or not in his demands, and whether Marc Bergevin was justified or not in refusing them, does not change the Canadiens blueline situation. Cap space cannot play hockey, and this is especially pertinent when the next best UFA defenceman by point production still available is Cody Franson.
Some will point at the Pittsburgh Penguins as an example of a team winning without big-name rearguards. Likewise, Claude Julien’s Boston Bruins didn’t exactly have a glut of puck-moving rearguards either, especially in their pre-Torey Krug heyday. However, the Penguins have two generational talent-forwards that can take up the slack in the transition game for successful zone-exits. Julien had the best two-way player in the game, Patrice Bergeron, as well as David Krejci, who was no slouch either. The Canadiens, to mimic that, would have to give Alex Galchenyuk (if he’s even playing centre) a lot of decision-making freedom.
It also has to be said that Pittsburgh was outplayed territorially in at least two (Washington, Nashville), and arguably all three (Columbus) series, and only pulled through because said elite generational talents made the most of the limited chances they got. In an alternate universe, Sergei Bobrovsky doesn’t put up an .882 save percentage and the Penguins’ offseason narrative is lamenting the absence of Kris Letang.
The Canadiens do have one wildcard in all this: Jakub Jerabek. The Czech blueliner excelled in the KHL last year, and if Nikita Zaitsev is any indication, could play first-pairing minutes. His skillset compliments Weber’s, and utilizing Alzner as a shutdown specialist in turn would limit the stress on Jerabek during his transition to NHL game speed.
The question then becomes: 1) is Jerabek good enough to fill that hole, and 2) are the Canadiens willing to give the relative unknown a chance to try?
Andrei Markov’s departure, after 990 games and 16 seasons, creates a significant weakness on the Habs blueline. Replacing him now becomes Marc Bergevin’s top priority for the remainder of the offseason, as he needs to convert that cap space which he did not give to Markov into hockey players capable of filling the General’s skates.