The last time we saw Francis Bouillon as an active Canadien, he was coming off the ice after aggravating an injury following a rushed comeback. This was in 2008-2009, the ill-fated centennial year, during the playoff sweep at the hands of the Bruins. The small-but-tough defenseman was then let go as an UFA as part of the Great Purge of the 2009 offseason (along with team stars Koivu, Kovalev, Tanguay and Komisarek as well as frequent defense partner Matthieu Dandenault). He did not find a contract for most of the offseason but tried out with the Nashville Predators, eventually signing a one-year deal there on September 22nd — just in time for the regular season. He proved himself enough to earn a two-year contract following that deal.
It’s perhaps not commonly known that this was actually his second stint with the Predators; Bouillon played four games for the Predators after being claimed off waivers on October 4th, 2002. Montreal returned the favor on October 25th, claiming Bouillon back off waivers.
On July 1st, Bouillon was one of Bergevin’s signings, agreeing to a one-year, 1.5 million contract. This was a raise over the 1.35 million AAV he was making with the Predators in absolute terms, but largely the same in terms of cap percentage.
What happened between then and now, what has Bouillon accomplished on the Predators blueline, and what can be expected from him as he returns to the Canadiens? We’ll quickly delve into the numbers to find out; all our numbers come from the venerable, terrifying Gabriel Desjardins’s behindthenet.ca site.
Let’s start with 5-on-5. Here’s a list of all defensemen used by the Predators 5-on-5 in 2011-2012 for at least 20 games:
|NAME||GP||TOI||CorsiRel QoC||Corsi||Corsi Rel||Zonestart|
Bouillon’s position in the time-on-ice list suggests that he has been a #4 D-man for Nashville. While technically true, this statement may give the wrong impression, because of the way the Predators have built and used their defense. Many teams try to build their defense based on a reliable top-four, and then use fairly interchangeable defensemen on the bottom pairing. But instead of a top four and bottom pair, the Predators had a top pair and bottom four.
Like the Habs with Subban-Gorges, the Predators relied heavily on the Suter-Weber pairing. Both pairings played significantly more minutes per game than their colleagues. Both of them faced much harder quality of competition than their colleagues. And both of them did managed to be possession-neutral on teams that had otherwise terrible possession numbers. (As an aside, the similarities between Subban and Weber’s advanced statlines should be kept in mind when considering his difficult contract negotiations. Simply put, #76 is a top-tier defenseman who is, at least, close to a peer to the likes of Shea Weber.)
One sizable difference, however, is that the gap between the Predators’ top-two and the rest of their defense is much larger than that between the Habs’. Bouillon, then, acted as a by-default “#4 defenseman” in the same sense that Raphael Diaz acted as Montreal’s #4 defenseman… and he did considerably worse than Diaz at it, at least in puck possession. In reality, he played like a bottom-pairing caliber guy. His possession numbers were very weak, but even though they made the playoffs the Predators were actually worse in possession as the Randypuck Canadiens, so he did not do too badly relative to his peers. His 46.5% offensive zone start may suggest a defensive role at first glance, but that was actually one of the more offensive-leaning numbers on the Nashville squad. The Predators spent a lot of time in the defensive zone and, therefore, took a disproportionate number of faceoffs next to Pekka Rinne. As a result almost every defenseman on the team ended up below 50% in this category.
The chart features another ex-Canadien, Hal Gill, which gives us an interesting point of comparison. Gill’s numbers include both his Habs and Preds numbers. As you can see, his quality of competition was marginally stronger, his zone starts a bit more defensive, and had a little less icetime, but otherwise he was used in a fairly similar fashion. Their possession numbers were equivalent, though Gill’s relative numbers suffered from spending time with the Habs early in the season when they were a strong possession club. Bouillon played more, but otherwise, he and Gill were roughly equivalent players across the board.
That was all 5-on-5. But we’ll skip the special teams, as Bouillon played less than a minute per game on either the power play or the penalty kill. While it isn’t surprising to see Bouillon kept off the man advantage, it’s somewhat more of a head-scratcher to know that he was never among the Predators’ four most-used penalty-killing D-men over the last three seasons. Expectations of his contributions to special teams should therefore be kept in check. Thankfully, the Habs have defensemen who are very capable on both special teams, so they should not need to call on Bouillon except as a stopgap. But that brings into question why the Habs would sign a player who is the equal of Hal Gill 5-on-5, but doesn’t bring his special team ability.
In short, Bouillon is a bottom pairing guy, and in many ways, he is similar to, if not outright weaker than, the players Montreal already had. He is more experienced than most of them. But allowing all caveats for cross-team comparisons, Diaz and Emelin both outperform him at even strength and bring more utility on special teams. Bouillon’s experience, as well as familiarity with new coach Michel Therrien, was probably why he was signed by the Habs, whose blueline has a number of players with limited NHL experience. He doesn’t otherwise add anything of note to the roster except depth. At 1.5 million for one year, he represents a fairly low-risk signing, but he represents another player the Habs didn’t particularly need while holes remain unfilled.
It’s unclear what Bouillon’s role will be on the Habs, should there be a season. In fact, it’s unclear whether he is even one of the Habs’ six best defensemen with Markov in the lineup. Obviously, his ideal role would not be as Subban’s defensive partner (though Subban is likely capable of carrying Bouillon much like he did Gill in 2010-2011). Once again, in these locked-out times, we’re left to wonder what the organization’s assessment of the team’s talent might be and what they think they have in Bouillon. Finding this out will go a long way into telling us exactly what kind of front office the Habs put together this summer.