The Montreal Canadiens put the finishing touches on which defensemen will begin the season on the roster yesterday, when they signed Douglas Murray, formerly of the Pittsburgh Penguins. There is a lot of potential among this group of defenders, but a major question hovers over each of them.
P.K. Subban is the defending Norris Trophy winner as the NHL’s best defenseman. He had an excellent breakout campaign, scoring 38 points in 42 games this past season. Subban delivered on his oodles of potential, and proved he can be a brilliant number one defenseman in the NHL. The question is, can he repeat his performance over an 82 game schedule, and prove he is one of the best in the business?
Andrei Markov regained his form after two and a half injury riddled seasons, and finished with 30 points in 48 games. Markov was once among the best offensive defensemen in the NHL, and showed that at age 34, he is still an elite power play quarterback. Markov began running out of gas down the stretch of the season and into the playoffs. The question with Markov is, does he have enough left in his aging legs to be effective for a full year?
Raphael Diaz joined the Canadiens two years ago as an unheralded signing from Switzerland. He’s had a fair share of ups and downs during his two NHL seasons with the Canadiens, combining for 30 points in 82 career games thus far. Diaz began this past season on fire, scoring 13 points in 19 games before suffering a concussion. He returned in time for the final four regular season games and playoffs, but was a shadow of his former self, combining for just one assist and a minus 5 in those nine games. The question for Diaz is, can he return to a solid puck moving and point producing defenseman like he was pre-concussion, or is he destined to be a defensive liability with sporadic bursts of offense?
Alexei Emelin has quickly developed into a physical force that had been sorely lacking on the Canadiens blue line. His penchant for throwing enormous hits, kept his opponents on their toes, and had them second guessing whether they should drive the Canadiens net or shy away from Emelin altogether. Emelin was having an excellent breakout season playing alongside Markov, until an awkward hit on Milan Lucic resulted in Emelin tearing his ACL. He will miss the start of the season due to this injury, and the question becomes, when he returns, can Emelin be the top four, physical, shutdown presence that he was before the injury?
Josh Gorges was nothing more than a throw-in to a deal that sent Craig Rivet to the San Jose Sharks in 2007. He has developed into much more than anticipated. Gorges is a shot blocking specialist, who is an excellent penalty killer. A year ago, he was widely regarded as the next captain of the Canadiens, once Brian Gionta moves on. Many fans felt he had a bit of a down year, and his 0 points and minus four in five playoff games, show he was not at his best when the games mattered most. Can Gorges bounce back from a sub-par postseason, and be an excellent shutdown defender once again next season?
Jarred Tinordi was the first round pick of the Montreal Canadiens in 2011, and got his first taste of NHL hockey last season, suiting up for eight regular season and all five playoff games. He is a huge defender, at 6’6 and over 200 pounds, and showed he was not in over his head playing against the best players in the world. The question for Tinordi is, can he play better than several veterans, and prove he is ready to be a full time NHLer this season?
Francis Bouillon returned to the Montreal Canadiens a year ago, and suited up for all 48 games in the shortened season. The undersized, yet tenacious veteran proved to be a valuable mentor, being paired with Nathan Beaulieu, Greg Pateryn and Tinordi when they were called up from Hamilton. Bouillon has defied the odds throughout his career, playing as a physical, 5’8 defenseman. The question for Bouillon becomes, does the soon to be 38 year old, have enough gas left in the tank for another effective 82 game season?
Douglas Murray was signed yesterday to a one year contract worth 1.5 million dollars. He is an enormous, physical player, who will be the biggest Canadien at 6’3 and 245 pounds. He was an excellent shutdown and penalty killing defender during his 400 plus game career with the San Jose Sharks, but has begun to lose a step, and was never lightning fast to begin with. Can Murray balance his lack of speed with his physical game, and be an effective presence on the Canadiens blue line this season?
Davis Drewiske was surprisingly given a two year contract extension last month, and will battle Bouillon, Murray and Tinordi for playing time, as all of them are similar type players. Drewiske is 6’2, 220 pounds and not about to score many points. The biggest question for him is, can he establish himself as a full time NHL player by beating out other physical defensemen for ice time?
Nathan Beaulieu was the Canadiens first round pick in 2012. He is an offensive minded defenseman who is a silky smooth skater, and possesses an exceptional first pass. Last season was his first as a pro, and he got better as the year went along with the Hamilton Bulldogs. Beaulieu got his first taste of NHL action, playing six games with the Habs, getting two assists and was an impressive plus five. He will in all likelihood, play some games in the NHL again this season, but is pegged to play a significant portion of the year in Hamilton. Can he be so good in Hamilton that he forces management to bring him up, and push aside Diaz for power play time?
There you have it, ten Montreal Canadiens who are all going to see action on the Habs blue line at some point this season, and ten burning questions yet to be answered.
If some of these questions go unanswered, the Canadiens could be in trouble. However, if all of these questions go right, the Habs will have an impressive group of defenders fighting for ice time.