Our two part series on the Habs 2011-12 defensive pairings should have you well informed about how the defensive corp worked last season. Now we can take a look at how the group shapes up for the foreseeable future. Today we look at the established NHL players in the system, while tomorrow we look at the emerging defenseman and the Canadiens crop of defenseman prospects as well as how it could all fit together in the future.
The Top Three:
A hockey club’s top 4 on defense is often discussed, but in many cases its the best three blueliners a team can ice that are the difference makers. A top three would usually represent a team’s primary shutdown pair and the guy carrying the second pairing. For spots 4-6 its more important to have relative competence while its the top half of the group that really decides if the defense succeeds or fails.
For the current Habs, the elite group starts with PK Subban. Any way the results get broken down he’s the key guy in critical situations and the main driver of results on even strength and a critical component of both the power play and penalty kill. As I’ve discussed before, he is one of the top young defensemen in the league, and he and Josh Gorges very much looked like a top notch shutdown pairing the year before. At 23 years old he is the teams top young player and the keystone of the defense for the years to come. Defensemen tend to be their best in their late 20’s, so we can probably expect a lot more from PK in the future.
Gorges took a large step forward last season. In the previous three years he was either a passenger of Andrei Markov or the guy barely holding an inadequate 2nd pairing together saddled with Hal Gill. Last year he began to be a significant player in his own right, where he went, good things happened. Gorges is very limited offensively although he is competent at getting the puck out and moving forward. Its his solid defensive abilities that make him valuable, as one of the league’s premier shotblockers and a reliable defensive presence against top forwards. Gorges lacks the all-round game to be a top defenseman in his own right but he’s a solid compliment to star defensemen, the Jackman or Mitchell to Subban’s Doughty or Pietrangelo. At 27, he has a long prime as a defensive defenseman to look forward to, Montreal should be fine with him as a number 3 defender for the next 5 years or so.
Markov is the wild-card. Formerly a number one defenseman, one of the top offensively defensemen in the league and arguably the league’s best playmaker on defense. Markov hasn’t played significant time for 2 years and only a half season then. If he’s back to form next time the Canadiens play, the Hab’s 1-2 on defense will be the best in the conference. If he gets injured again Montreal won’t have anything resembling a 2nd pair to work with. Its anyone’s guess what the Habs will get from Markov. For long-term, if Markov has made a full recovery the team probably has a number of good seasons left in Markov, even though he’s 33. Top defensemen generally age gracefully, remaining effective towards 35-36 and being good in their 37-40 years is not uncommon. His knee is a concern, but on the other hand he’s avoided 3 years of the NHL grind on his body. Loosing seasons might have extended his career. If the Habs have good fortune they’ll have a top 3 defenseman in Markov for the next 3-5 years. If not they need to fill that whole as soon as possible.
The Veteran Depth:
The Habs have two other veterans under contract, Tomas Kaberle and Francis Boullion.
Kaberle is an interesting case. Like the little girl, at what he’s good at he’s very good, at what he’s bad at he’s horrid. Kaberle is a fine offensive defenseman, excellent at moving the puck and setting up plays. He’s also horrid at anything related to keeping the puck in the net. Under both Martin and Cunneyworth he was part of the team’s best regular powerplay defense pairing with Subban and he’s got a solid record as a powerplay quarterback. The main problem is that the Habs aren’t lacking for offensive blueliners and don’t have the quality depth to shelter him. Kaberle should be pretty good as a 5th defenseman next year for Montreal but in general the Habs probably will look to move him at first opportunity.
The only outside addition to the team’s defense is ex-Hab Francis Boullion. In general Boullion has played a fair amount of ES minutes in Nashville behind the shutdown behemoth that is the Weber-Suter pairing. His results are middling to bad during that time but he at least is NHL level. Next year he should be 3rd pairing or press box with no special teams time in Montreal. Boullion should only be a stopgap on depth until the club can find better internally or externally. The main reason to have him seemed to be that Coach Therrien liked him.
Projected Defensive Depth Chart in 2 years (Established Players)
|Left Defense||Right Defense|
In pretty much any scenario, two years from now Subban is the teams top right D. Markov is a pretty decent bet to remain the team’s best left sider. Gorges remains in the top six, likely as a right side/left side swing man, playing with one of Markov or Subban. Kaberle and Boullion are since jettisoned.
Tomorrow we continue this feature by looking at the team’s emerging talent on defense.