Friday, February 17, 2012

Habs in 2012: Is there a gameplan? Part 3, Defensemen

This section could also be titled, “Does Andrei Markov really exists?” or “With or without you: The Andrei Markov story.”

I mean let’s get real here.  If we knew at the beginning of the year that Markov wouldn’t play at all, would any of us actually have given the Habs a chance? Not likely.  And this isn’t just about the Canadiens.  There’s a reason the goalies look horrible in Philadelphia this year.  No Chris Pronger.  Do you remember the last time Zdeno Chara got injured? I don’t.  But if you did, you probably would also find a string of losses attached to it.

You can blame our current losing season on a number of factors, but at the end of the day, the fact that we don’t have Markov, and didn’t replace him with anything good, pretty much tells the story of the season.  Last season we didn’t have Markov for most of it, but at least we had Roman Hamrlik.  To add to that, we also traded for James Wisniewski, a player that we relied on heavily for minutes and PP goals. 

And this season? No Markov.  No Hamrlik.  No Wisniewski.  And who did we get in their stead? Tomas Kaberle.  Alexei Emelin.  Raphael Diaz.  No matter how you cut, these are all downgrades.  Sure Emelin and Diaz are good young players that will get better, but they are still just rookies.  As for Tomas Kaberle, I don’t even want to go there.  He’s not worth my time (edit: of course he scored tonight, jerk).

Now on to next season.  Here’s who we know will be back:

Andrei Markov (if we can find him), PK Subban, Josh Gorges, Tomas Kaberle, Alexei Emelin, Raphael Diaz

As it did with this season, next year will depend a lot on what happens with Andrei Markov.  His presence (or lack their of) will play the biggest role on the defense (and the team as a whole) going forward.  There isn’t a team that has ever won anything with a player of that caliber missing for the whole year.  Maybe the Flyers will win the cup this year and I’ll eat my words, but I seriously doubt it. 

As I write this piece, Hal Gill has been traded to the Nashville Predators.  So what does that mean for next year?  Well for starters, probably a heck of a lot more ice-time for Alexei Emelin.  Of all the players on this team (and not just d-men), Emelin has probably shown the most improvement since day 1.  He’s also a player that, despite being labeled a defensive, stay-at-home type defenseman, has a lot more offensive potential than one would think.  Is he PK Subban? No, definitely not.  But is he Mike Komisarek?  Far from it.  From what I’ve seen, he’s a smooth skater who’s not afraid of jumping up into the play and making things happen.  With a season under his belt, he’ll show off these offensive skills more next year.

With a number of interesting prospects probably playing in Hamilton next year, notably Nathan Beaulieu, Morgan Ellis, and maybe Jarred Tinordi, we’ll probably sign a veteran D in the mold of Roman Hamrlik next season.  Or at least that’s what they should do.

Frankly, the veteran element is really what the Habs have been missing all year long.  Having rookie D’s Diaz and Emelin playing big minutes, sophmore D Subban playing the most minutes, and having a guy like Gill playing probably 4-5 minutes more than he should a game, it really put the team in a tough spot. Here’s a shortlist of potential candidates for the position:

Bryan Allen, 31
Fedor Tyutin, 27
Brad Stuart, 32
Niklas Kronwall, 31
Willie Mitchell, 34           
Greg Zanon, 31
Ryan Suter, 27
Bryce Salvador, 36
Braydon Coburn, 26
Michal Rozival, 33
Barret Jackman, 30
Dennis Wideman, 28

There’s a few players on this list that are probably out of the Habs’ league financially speaking, such as Suter, Kronwall, Coburn and Wideman.  That might not have been the case if we hadn’t traded for Kaberle, but there’s nothing to do about that now.

What we should be in the market for is a veteran version of Josh Gorges, and there are a few interesting options out there.  Willie Mitchell, for instance, would be a nice option.  He can play big minutes, and he plays a smart stay-at-home style.  Brad Stuart would be even more ideal in that he also adds some offense to the equation, but I’m assuming he’ll either be re-signed or over-priced. In the price range we’re looking for (3m– 4m), Barret Jackman would probably be my first choice.  He brings grit, leadership and an overall intensity that the team desperately needs on some nights.  If he’s available (and if they can afford him) I think he should be a priority for the Habs.

As of today, it’s still hard to know just how much money the Habs will have to play with.  Will we re-sign Travis Moen and Andrei Kostitsyn? Their contracts combined are around 5 million $.  Hal Gill’s 2.25m is now officially off the books, along with a savings of 2.7m from the Michael Cammalleri trade, so Gauthier has created a bit of wiggle room for next year.  What’s unclear at this point is how much money will be put aside for Subban and Price, who are both RFA’s this summer.  Either way, it will once again be a tough nut to crack for whoever’s in charge of the Canadiens come July 1st

Next up I will address the Habs prospect pool, paying close attention to those closest to making the jump to the big leagues…

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