Thursday, January 27, 2011

She Said: What Should The Habs Do With Their Defense Corps?

by Tyg

So it's time for another round of Armchair GM and this time we're talking Habs defenders.

The question is, with a mix of aging vets and young, raw players on the back end, what should the Montreal Canadiens do with their defensive lineup going forward?

At first, I was going to cut loose everyone under 6 feet and 200 lbs, and everyone over 30 years of age, but I like to touch base with reality when it comes to these type of posts.

Besides, I fully expect my counterpart Willey to go gonzo and blow the team up, so I thought I would try a more plausible scenario.

So here's my pseudo-realistic take on what will likely happen on the Habs blueline next season.

P.K. Subban

Subban fits under both of my initial requirements: He's a solid six footer who weighs 206 lbs and is a rookie at only 21 years old.

This kid is still raw but he has the speed, skill and point shot that should give him a a solid home on the Habs' blueline for years to come. A little bit of seasoning alongside Hal Gill will do wonders for his development.

Prediction: Are you kidding? There hasn't been so much hoopla and press over a Habs rookie since Carey Price, and his entry level contract doesn't expire until after next season anyway—at which point Subban will still be a restricted free agent.

James Wisniewski

The Wiz is actually only 5 ft 11 inches, but he does hit my 200 lbs mark and at 26 is still in his prime.

He reportedly loves Montreal and his 12 points in the past 13 games mean that despite losing Josh Gorges, the Habs' blueline has picked up a solid young defender who possesses a cannon on the power play, which has skyrocketed as a result.

Wisniewski provides good quick puck movement, solid defense and some much needed grit. He's known to drop the gloves when necessary, something no other Habs defender will readily do.

Prediction: Since young, puck-moving defensemen are more scarce than Stanley Cups and are worth almost as much, I expect Pierre Gauthier to sign an apparently willing Wisniewski, albeit with a substantial pay increase.

Josh Gorges

The Habs stay-at-home stalwart is considered small, but his stats on the team website list him as 6'1" and 200 lbs.

Like Wisniewski, he is 26 and is going to require a pay raise to remain on the roster. Unlike Wisniewski, however, he does not possess an offensive weapon and he's a restricted free agent instead of an unrestricted one.

Prediction: Shortly after his season-ending ACL injury was announced, Gorges told the media that Gauthier had already reached out to allay any fears regarding his future with the team.

It seems safe to predict that Gorges isn't leaving Montreal.

Andrei Markov

In the past two years Andrei Markov has proved himself a poor investment for the Canadiens. Yes, he's a top four puck-moving defenseman but despite being 6" and 200 lbs, he doesn't provide much in the way of grit on the back end.

He has great vision and truly impressive skill, but he's coming off his third major injury and he's on the wrong side of 30. He's also got a hefty cap hit and there is a risk in signing him because of his glass knees.

But veteran puck moving blueliners are always in high demand, and Markov is a Habs product first and foremost. This past summer saw him granted official Canadian citizenship and he has recently stated his desire to retain his Canadiens one as well.

Prediction: Expect a reduced rate and a shorter term than his last contract, and working this deal will likely backburner any others in the meantime.

Alexandre Picard

On paper Picard looks like what the Habs need. He's 6'3", a hefty 215 lbs and is only 25 years old. The truth of the matter, however, is that he's bounced from team to team for a reason.

He's not capable of playing long minutes without making some truly egregious defensive errors, and he's ill suited to playing with a rookie partner. Both of these factors have have worked against him this year considering the makeup of the Habs defense corps.

Like most of his counterparts he lacks grit and has little ability to move the puck well. Frankly, there are times he looks like little more than a career AHLer, which probably explains why he's the new regular in the press box.

Prediction: Picard's going to be shown the door at the end of this season.

Hal Gill

The importance of Gill's mentoring of Subban and Gorges cannot be understated. He also sports the "A" because of his ability to elevate his game during the playoffs, where his experience and leadership truly shine.

The problem is that for most of the regular season Gill looks every bit of his 35 years.

He's brutally slow and far too often gets caught flat footed. He rarely delivers the crushing checks he's capable of, usually because he's trying to catch his man to begin with.

He tends to take too many slashing penalties and despite his impressive 6'7" and 241 lbs, he really is not much of a fighter. Ideally, I'd rather see him as a coach within the minor ranks of the organization and working his way back up to NHL level defensive coach.

Prediction: Rumors have the Habs already reaching out to extend Gill's contract. I'd drop him, but I'm pretty sure that Gauthier won't.

Jaroslav Spacek

Like Subban, Spacek still has another year to ride out on his contract after this one. Unlike Subban though, Spacek's got almost no foot speed, zero offensive upside and is largely a one-man turnover machine in the neutral zone.

He's listed at 6' and 210 lbs, but he's also 36 and has had more bad games than good ones this season. He can't clear the paint in front of his net and often times can't even box out opposing forwards.

Since he has a limited no trade clause and a sizable cap hit, I doubt moving him is an option even assuming he'd waive. Georges Laraque is off the books at the end of this season, so I'd buy out the rest of Spacek's contract.

Prediction: Spacek's not going anywhere. Jacques Martin loves his vets and no GM in their right mind would take an aging, overpaid defender who chews up too much cap space.

Roman Hamrlik

Hamrlik has proven to be the go-to guy for the Habs in the wake of Markov's repeated lengthy absences, but he's 36 and is brutally expensive. He's 6'2" inches and 207 lbs, but he lacks grit, gets caught flat footed and has rare glimpses of a point shot.

That he's been able to hold down the fort and provide the bulk of the stability for the back end is appreciated and impressive, but the Habs desperately need his cap space to buy younger, faster and better.

Prediction: He's currently making 5.75 million and Gauthier has to be prioritizing new contracts and more money for Wisniewski and Gorges. Even if Hamrlik is willing to take a serious pay cut, I expect this to be his last season with Montreal and that's just fine by me.

Yannick Weber

At 5'11" inches and a too slight 193 lbs, Yannick Weber's point shot is probably his only true asset. He's learning but the fact remains that he's small and can't defend against power forwards or clear the blue paint effectively.

He'd slot in well on a team with bigger defenders who lack only some offense, and I'd try to get a pick or a prospect for him and look for something bigger to shore up the blueline.

Prediction: I expect that before the next season starts, Weber will be offloaded in some sort of package deal. If the Habs make a push for the post-season and Gauthier can get his hands on either a winger or another defender, the time frame for Weber's exit will likely be moved up.

Based on the above arguments, I have to assume that the Habs will be keeping Subban, Wisniewski, Gorges, Markov, Spacek and Gill.

My greatest concern for next year resides largely with Spacek, whom I see as an immovable object. Shove him in the press box and he can ride out his last season in Montreal scarfing down free hot dogs.

I still need one more defender, and I'd prefer a bit of grit to protect the smaller forwards and also hit them with a pass once in a while.

Barring the invention of cloning for Wisniewski, Subban or Gorges, I have no choice but to make a trade or sign a UFA. This is easier said than done, but I'd try to make a play for at least one of the following.

Tomas Kaberle

At 6'1" and 214 lbs, the 32 year old Kaberle will provide a veteran, puck-moving presence on the blueline.

Since he has a no trade clause and Leafs' GM Brian Burke has repeatedly stated he won't ask Kaberle to waive it, any chance to grab this guy will have to come in the off-season once he becomes a UFA. That said, the competition for his services is sure to be pretty tight.

Assuming I could even find the cap space to do it, I'd make a solid offer and hope his buddy Tomas Plekanec can sell him on the merits of moving from a perpetual basement dweller into the barn burner that is Montreal.

Robyn Regehr

I'm loathe to the idea of giving up picks and prospects, but if the team's in a position to make a strong Cup run near the end of the regular season I'd probably make a play for Regehr.

Regehr is a solid 6'3", 225 lbs and should have no trouble clearing Price's crease. He's got a sizable cap hit, but he's also locked up for another two seasons, assuming the Flames can get him to waive his no trade clause.

Jim Vandermeer

Listed as having the exact same measurements as Kaberle but a full two years younger, Vandermeer is reliable and cheaper and perfectly capable of clearing the paint.

Since some of the current Habs fail to do even that, this is good enough reason for me to target the Oilers defender.

So there you have it - my take on the current state of the Habs blueline and how it will likely look next season. In a nutshell, I see only Hamrlik, Picard and probably Weber being cut loose.

If I were Jacques Martin, I'd not only have better ears and ties, my defense pairings would look like this:

Markov - Gorges
Gill - Subban
Kaberle - Wisniewski

Press box regular: Spacek

Check out the He Said counter-point.

(Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images North America)

Tyg used to frequent the Old Forum during her early childhood when he father held corporate season tickets, and she fell in love with Larry Robinson. So her lifelong obsession with the Habs is entirely his fault.


Good stuff Tyg!

Excellent analysis and perspective on the mess that PG has to clean up this year!

I agree wholeheartedly on the Picard jettison...I wouldn't be surprised if he was gone before the end of the season.

Not so sure about Hamrlik, though....I think it is 50/50. This guy can still play in the league and if the Habs don't sign him he will surely find a job somewhere else.

For me, I'd rather keep Hamr for one more year if for no other reason than to insulate his Czech compatriot, Spacek.

Shedding Spacek would be excellent but HIGHLY unlikely, imo.

His age, slowness and $3.83 million mean that he ain't going anywhere!

I like the Regher idea, but I don't think that either he or Iginla will move, considering that Calgary has recently come to life and are only 2 points out of a playoff spot now.

I'd rather we spent Hamr's 5.5 on younger & faster. He can do fine for someone else in the meantime. Just wish he could take Space Check with him.

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