Having gone over the team’s forwards, let’s continue our post-lockout look at the Montreal depth chart with the remaining players: the defensemen, and the goaltenders.
PK Subban: An elite defenseman at the age of 23, plain and simple. A true number one defenseman who plays in all situations. He is arguably the best player the Habs have, he’s certainly their best defenseman by a country mile, and he’s slotted in what I see as the most important position on the team, that of #1 defenseman.
There seems to be a reluctance to see him signed to a long-term contract, and suggestions by some media commentators that the Habs should make sure he’s able to be a core player and a 25-minute defenseman before they sign him to a long-term contract. Seeing as he led the team in icetime with 24:18 minutes last season, played the toughest opposition at even-strength with his partner Josh Gorges, started in the defensive zone more than any other Hab D-man save the aforementioned Gorges, and still managed to finish possession-neutral in those extremely difficult circumstances, one wonders what more he could possibly be asked to prove. His fancystats place him in a peer group that includes Shea Weber (and with all due respect to Josh Gorges, he isn’t Ryan Suter). Despite his reputation for “flamboyance” and his exuberant personality, he does the “small things” very well, and it’s the excellence of his two-way play at even-strength that makes Subban so valuable.
He’s a special player, and personally, I’m not worried for a second the Habs won’t sign him.
Josh Gorges: Defense-first-and-foremost blueliner may be a complementary player, but he’s able to complement the best. He formed an excellent first pairing on Subban’s left, but he has also been very effective on the right side, either with Hal Gill or (briefly) with Andrei Markov. A surefire top-4 defenseman, but he is probably best used as the sidekick to a puck-mover; thankfully, between Subban and Markov, the Habs have the personnel to accomodate this.
Andrei Markov: Markov’s game is beautiful, and it’s unfortunate that he was struck with repeated injuries over some of his prime years. We can hope he used his time in the KHL to shake off the rust, but sadly, he may never again be the top defenseman he was too briefly in the past. But he remains a smart, cerebral player with a good deal of hockey sense and should have little trouble anchoring a second pairing behind Subban, or even as his partner. He’s also effective on special teams and was (and may well still be) one of the best power play quarterbacks on Earth.
Andrei Markov’s performance is key to the fortunes of the Habs’ blueline. They have a high-end first-pairing thanks to Subban, and a number of bottom-pairing options, many of them inexperienced. Without Markov, the Habs’ blueline is much like last year’s, or the Predators: one truly good pairing taking all the toughs and holding the fort, and a gaggle of third-pairing D-men trying not to get plowed under too much. With Markov, they have a more than credible anchor man for their second pairing, and their blueline corps becomes well above average. As the lack of a second pairing was one of the root causes of the Habs collapse of last season (once they ran out of quality forwards to paper over it, that is), the importance of Markov’s ability to provide the team with a quality second-pairing at even strength cannot be overstated.
Alexei Emelin: A serious, heavy-duty physical player with a rare skill for hitting in open ice. And make no mistake, it is a skill. Look at this hit, for example, and notice how Emelin delivers the hit. At the time of impact he makes essentially no motion towards Pavelski, doesn’t jump off his feet, nothing of the sort. It’s all about planting his feet, applying leverage, and using Pavelski’s momentum against him — very much unlike the exuberant headhunting of some other players.
Perhaps more importantly if less spectacularly, he’s also rather mobile and positionally sound, making him a good 5-on-5 D-man. He was shuffled from left to right all year last season and he suffered as a result. He may or may not be able to be effective on the right side, but if the team wants him to play right, they should put him there and leave him there. Emelin may well develop into a true second pairing defenseman this season, something the team dearly lacked last year.
Rafael Diaz: Diaz spent the lockout lighting it up in the Swiss league. He’s a quality PP defenseman who’s often compared to Streit and may indeed have the ability to develop into a puck-moving second pairing sort of player (which is why the right-handed Diaz and left-handed thumper Emelin made for an obvious pairing). As a bottom-pairing defenseman, he’s above average, and could still climb a step. He’s also a player on both special teams, putting in significant time both on the PP and on the PK.
Tomas Kaberle: Once compared to Markov, Kaberle’s 5-on-5 game has deteriorated to the point where he’s been a third-pairing level defenseman at even strength. He can still run a power play, though. That skill alone is not worth his expensive contract, but it does justify keeping him in the lineup as a fifth or sixth defenseman. And in all honesty, I do wonder how well he’d do at even-strength in a system that emphasized passing and puck possession, and did not simply concentrate on chipping the puck out at every juncture, a style that certainly does not cater to his passing skills.
Yannick Weber: A bottom-pairing defenseman with a strong point shot. He struggled last year, but keep in mind he’s still only 23 and defensemen develop notoriously slowly. No, he’s not as good as Subban despite sharing a draft year, but this isn’t a knock on Weber so much as a demonstration of Subban’s exceptional talent. There is plenty of room for Weber yet to grow, but he may be hard-pressed to get the minutes he needs to do so in Montreal.
Francis Bouillon: I’ve made a piece about the diminutive but hard-hitting defenseman. At this point in his career, Bouillon is strictly a bottom-pairing defenseman and he is not a factor on either special team, which severely limits his potential impact. Frankly, I don’t see that he is one of the Habs’ best six (or even seven!) defensemen. His experience is nice and all and he’s certainly a good guy and an ally of the coach, but hockey-wise, it’s hard to argue he should be anything but a depth defenseman.
Carey Price: The jury is still out on whether he’s really elite, but he’s at least very good, so as long as he is healthy, the Habs do not need to worry about the quality of their goaltending. They may be paying more for goaltending than is wise given the performance differential between Price and a “good enough” goalie, but they also will not be one of those teams that suffers from goaltending uncertainty. Montreal was actually rather good defensively last season (for example they were middling in shots allowed 5-on-5, but lights-out 4-on-5), so contrary to the common meme, he shouldn’t need to be miraculous to keep the Habs in games; the Habs were 11th-best in goals allowed last season despite Price having an ordinary season. If he is miraculous, however, it will go a long way towards sending the Habs upwards in the standings… and he’s shown the ability to be miraculous before.
Peter Budaj: A competent backup. There isn’t much to say, except that he seems to get a lot of flak for a backup goalie who put in an average backup goalie performance last season. He’ll spell Price nicely enough and he’s good enough that he could start for a stretch if Price suffers an (hopefully minor!) injury.