EOTP Round Table: The Defense Corps

Is there somewhere we can find when Emelin played on his off wing?

I would like to see what the defensive results looked like through my shot charts and a heat map.

One new feature we are looking to do at EOTP is a weekly written discussion between our various contributors on a particular topic, in a segment I'm calling "The Round Table." Here subjects will be dissected by equals in a spirit of collegiality.

Our pundits, assembled without rank or privilege between them in the Arthurian Knightly Ideal:

Kevin van Steendelaar

Andrew Berkshire

Chris Boyle

Bruce Peter

Stephan Cooper

Chris Boucher


Our Noble Predecessors

This week's topic:

The Habs defense corp was arguably their greatest weakness last season. How will next year's group function and what will be needed to make improvements?

Bruce Peter:

Last year's biggest problem with the defense was the lack of a strong second pairing. The current group looks lacking on the right side and very left side heavy with the Markov return and Bouillon addition to go with Gorges, Kaberle, and Emelin. Emelin showed some ability on the right side last year but struggled when forced to move around. The Markov - Emelin pairing last year didn't yield fantastic results in their time together, but could be a solution going forward if put together permanently.

The D currently projects to have 4 defense pairings, a top 4 and a bottom 4. If the trio of Gorges, Subban, and Markov can stay healthy things should be generally fine, even if Markov can't be a top pairing guy anymore (we don't know how good he still is at this point). It'd be nice if the team could find a stronger driver of possession than Gorges on their top pairing, but Subban is so strong he more than makes up for that.

Chris Boyle:

Is there somewhere we can find what games Emelin played on his off wing?

I would like to see what the defensive results looked like through my shot charts and a heat map.

Bruce Peter:

I think Olivier had it broken out and tweeted some results the other week. Basically Emelin struggled in the games immediately after a switch from one side to another but recovered with more consecutive games. Seems to have ability to play one side or the other, but should stick with one side.

His best defensive partners were Diaz (Emelin playing left side) and Kaberle (Emelin playing right side). They were also his two most frequent partners. I think Markov would work out given a longer sample.

Stephan Cooper:

Oliver was responding to a point that I had made, that the Habs goaltending averaged .929 even strength save percentage, essentially the same as last year for defenders other than Emelin, and .898 with him on the ice. Whoever Alexei Emelin played with was the 2nd pairing most nights (when it wasn't the first pairing), so the weak save percentage is a big reason they were so over matched. Oliver checked and saw that there was a tendency for Emelin to give up proportionately more chances per shot against, especially on the right side but I believe it went away when he had stability on which side he played.

Sorting through the WOWY 5 on 5 ended up pretty interesting. Josh Gorges - P.K. Subban were obvious 1st pairing material although they had a big advantage in on-ice shooting (they back stopped the David Desharnais line pretty often) and save percentage (Carey Price's talent with real defenders?). When away from the pairing these two generally held their own.

Next tier was Tomas Kaberle, Raphael Diaz and Emelin. Kaberle had worse possession with more favourable zone starts but also missed out on the team's salad days 5 on 5 before Brian Gionta's injury. Kaberle - Emelin played dead even hockey both in goals and possession and was probably the team's best 2nd pairing. Emelin - Diaz also did alright but were nothing to write home about (49.3% Corsi, 9GF 12GA). Basically all three were approximately 5th defenders in terms of quality and together they made a decent but not good 2nd pairing. None could carry a 2nd pairing though and when they played with worse partners they sunk.

Then came the dregs of the group, Chris Campoli, Hal Gill and Yannick Weber. Playing together on a 3rd pairing the tendency was for them to be beaten on possession but not give up a ton of goals more than were scored. Whenever they were moved up the lineup they usually got killed.

If Montreal can keep Emelin - Kaberle - Diaz largely to the 4th-6th roles on even strength then their defensive depth actually looks pretty good. Markov as a #2 is the key to next season.

Chris Boyle:

So in other words, Markov is important.

Andrew Berkshire:

Once again so much depends on Andrei Markov. He doesn't have to carry the load anymore, and we don't have to worry about old man Hamrlik wearing down since Subban is the man now, but the key to a second pairing is Markov.

No doubt that he wasn't himself when he came back last year, but I think we all expected that. He still showed flashes of his old self and didn't shy away from contact which is a good thing.
If Markov can be 80% of his old self and Emelin can get consistent usage, something he never had last year, I think that becomes an above average second pairing.

I'm not sure what to expect out of the 3rd pairing but I feel like Diaz has quite the inside track on Weber. Yannick was really pushed out last year and didn't cope well without Spacek. The left side of the 3rd pair is what interests me though. Bouillon seems solid enough, but looking at Boucher's numbers and Kaberle playing under 6 coaches in just over 120 games, there's a chance he's not as bad as he looked.

If things break the right way, and Daigneault runs his D well, I think the Habs have an above average top 6 and a fair amount of depth.

Kevin van Steendelaar:

I agree with Andrew that Markov is the key to a stable defense. Markov was getting better with each game, and was less tentative in his recovery stint. We can't go another season without him as paired with Emelin, the latter could only get better paired with him.

Subban/Gorges, well we know what they bring so no need to go there in any detail.
I too would like to see Kaberle under one coach for more than six months and see if he can get to the level he had in Toronto.

I'm not sure Weber can be that NHL level rearguard that he appeared to be in Hamilton. Maybe some PP time on the point will turn things around but overall I'm more comfortable with Diaz on the third pairing. Problem is both will have to compete in camp to get regular time over The Bull. He can still play 60-80 games a season, if healthy.

Stephan Cooper:

Weber is an interesting case when you consider how young he is. It's going to be his 23 year old season and you shouldn't totally write off a defenseman before 25 unless they've shown nothing.

Ideally he'd get sent back to Hamilton for a year to see if he can develop a defensive positioning game that a guy of his type needs to be a successful NHL defender. For next year I'd much rather try Frederic St-Denis (who demonstrated competence at being a no frills defenseman last year) as the 8th defender than Weber who needs to sort some things out. Parallels to Pacioretty who probably learned a lot in the NHL but was getting beaten in the big leagues. Waivers complicates that unfortunately. Then again, how much attention would a guy that was so poor last year get on the waiver wire to start the year? Take him and you're stuck with him in the lineup.

Emelin is such a wild-card going forward. The talents to be an impact NHL defenseman are so apparent even if the results weren't so hot. I'd like to see if he can manage some special teams play next year as well. He was poor on the penalty kill and never tried on the powerplay which was a major strength for him in Russia.

In terms of depth in the Hammer, after St. Denis there isn't much there, so it falls to Jarred Tinordi and Nathan Beaulieu who are unproven at the pro level. That said we can't afford injuries OR they look for a veteran AHL/NHLer who can be called up.

Chris Boucher:

Markov's health is the key.

Despite not being at his best last season, he had far better numbers than any defenseman not named Gorges, Subban, or Kaberle.

Markov improves the power play, and gives Therrien some solid options for even strength ozone starts: Markov and Subban for right side face offs and Markov with Kaberle for left side face offs.

A healthy Markov slides everyone down and allows for better matchups

The addition of Bouillon is interesting and will make for a competitive camp. He can still move the puck up ice, and is solid in transition.

Combining Markov's return and the maturation of Last year's rookies ensures a better D.

Chris Boyle:

Like Stephan, I'm not ready to give up on Yannick Weber yet.

He is turning 24 years old next month. Everybody projected him as the next Streit when he was called up, Weber has played 109 professional games. In those games he has 5 goals and 30 points. 14 on the PP.

Streit through his first 124 games had 12 goals and 42 points. 22 on the PP.
That is advantage Streit, although Streit was 28 and 29, not 21-23

Brian Campbell through 23 had 49 GP and 11 points.

Kimmo Timonen through 24 had 50 GP and 12 points.

Duncan Keith through 23 had 81 GP and 21 points.

James Wisniewski through 24 had 137 GP and 43 points.

Familiarity with a player exposes you to their warts, but it also allows you to take for granted what that player does well and what elite skills he does possess.

Morgan Ellis is ranked above Weber in this seasons list. Weber through his age 20 CHL season had 96 points in 110 games. Ellis in those same two seasons had 125 points in 125 games. Is that based on the minor inflation in points, or is it based on nobody knowing what Ellis' weaknesses will be as a pro? Will Ellis even make it as a pro by the age of 21? 22? or 23?

Not every defenseman hits the ground running like Subban. I remember I hated Streit in his first season and a half. The Habs have no reason to panic with Weber, so I want to wait and see another season or two before I lose confidence in his future.

Andrew Berkshire:

A salient point. We all expect Weber to shine on the PP and with Subban on the team and at a similar age it can fog over the realistic expectations we should have for Weber.

What I would like to see in regards to Weber is for the team to stop using him on the wing. Let him figure it out on D and improve without messing him up

Stephan Cooper:

If you look at what Weber has done on the power play, its relatively good. Almost as productive as Subban as a goal scorer.

But the issue is he isn't so good there that its worth a roster spot when he's so limited 5 on 5.

Chris Boyle:

How many D not named Subban are great 5 on 5 at 23.

Have we seen him carried by somebody like Markov or Subban yet?

Andrew Berkshire:

Weber was actually quite excellent at even strength in a sheltered role with Spacek in 2011.

Stephan Cooper:

Well he was perfectly competent carried by Spacek. That's about as good as it gets for third pairing support.

There's another factor that we're going through an unusual period in defensemen development. There's a whole cadre around the 2008 draft coming of age now that are skewing perceptions. Much like the young forward wave after the lockout.

Bruce Peter:

Weber's biggest fault was probably that the Habs were so injured on the blueline for the first 3 years of his pro career that he's old hat already in the organization. Hopefully Weber and St. Denis help insulate the trio of Beaulieu, Tinordi, and Ellis, although I'm quietly confident that Beaulieu can make a smooth adjustment to the pro level.

Chris Boucher:

Weber's issue is not talent. He has the tools. In terms of 1on1 puck battles in the defensive-zone, only Gorges had a higher success rate than Weber last season. It's the more positional and experience-based aspects of defensive-play that hurt him. He didn't recover enough loose-pucks, he didn't block enough shots, and he didn't block enough opposition passes. These things should come with time.


Here our discussion ends, we agree that there is plenty of potential for a turn around in the Habs' defense's level of play but acknowledge a number of pratfalls. How Markov will do is key, Emelin has potential and we shouldn't count Weber out.

If there is a particular subject you would like to receive the round table treatment, contact stephan.cooper30@gmail.com

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