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Thursday, January 27, 2011

He Said: What Should The Habs Do With Their Defense Corps?

By Willey

Montreal Canadiens Defense, "Russian" to Success

At the end of the 2010-11 season the management team of the Montreal Canadiens will once again have to deal with a large number of free agents players.

Of particular interest is on the blue line with Andrei Markov, Josh Gorges, James Wisniewski, Hal Gill and Roman Hamrlik all without contracts for the start of the 2011-12 season.

With five of our top seven defensemen facing uncertainty the question then becomes, what should we do?

Who Comes Back?

I am sure it comes as no surprise to you all that I am personally drawn to the more physical players of the NHL.

If given the choice between a purely offensive player and a player with a little bit less offensive ability but with a physical side to his game, then I am almost always choosing the latter.

I also believe that when building a group of six defensemen you need an elite top-four with a bottom-two consisting of a grizzled veteran and rookie.

Ideally, both of the bottom-two players should be making $1.5 million or less.

Given these two fairly simple philosophies I would therefore decide to cut one of the five above mentioned players and ultimately retain the rights of Josh Gorges, Hal Gill, James Wizniewski and obviously Andrei Markov.

These four players represent the two main components to the power play and the two main components to the penalty kill; which given the current coaching staff’s dependence on special teams, are vital to the Habs' success.

Who Leaves?

In my ideal world I would love for the organization to somehow shed Jaroslav Spacek and his $3.833 price tag. Getting rid of such a salary would open the doors of possibility for the Habs.

Wanting something to happen and ultimately believing it could happen are two entirely different things however.

With Spacek almost guaranteed a roster spot at the start of next season, unfortunately, someone has to pay the price and that someone is Roman Hamrlik.

Hamrlik is a very good defensemen who can play at both ends of the rink. At 6’2 and 210 lbs, the former first overall pick of the Tampa Bay Lightning has been one of our most consistent and reliable defensemen since signing joining the Habs.

Like any true warrior the big Czech has always been there to fill in the minutes, and remain effective when one of the other players has gone down with injury. The problem with Hamrlik, however, is that he comes with a $5.5 million price tag in an era where every dollar counts.

Essentially Hamrlik is being paid top defensemen money for a player who is likely nothing more than a number three, at best, on any team. Certainly Hamrlik would be willing to accept a pay cut, however given the current needs of the team I would find it unfair to pay him anything more than about $3 million per season.

An amount that we likely can eclipse on the open market.

What does the Salary Structure Look Like?

Andrei Markov: Andrei is currently our highest paid defensemen at $5.75 million per year. Given the recent run of injuries coming off two back-to-back season ending knee surgeries, it is perhaps too big a risk to retain Markov unless he is willing to accept a pay cut in the neighborhood of $1 million per season.

The risk of losing him is far too great however. Negotiations will be tough.

Estimated Salary: $5 million per season

James Wizniewski: I think it is safe to say that the Wiz will not continue to rack up points at the current torrid pace he is on. What Wizniewski does do, however, is provide a steady offensive threat while being more than capable in his own zone. In addition, he brings an element of toughness to the back end, despite his 5’11 frame. He is playing extraordinarily well this season and will likely look for a substantial pay increase?

But how much?

Estimated Salary: $3.75-$4.25 million per season

Josh Gorges: Finding a comparible for Josh Gorges is not as easy as it seems. Gorges is reliable in his own zone and can chip in with the odd points here and there, but he is neither a stay at home nor a purely offensive guy.

Gorges is simply a good old fashioned, reliable defenseman.

A quick scan around the league and I see Gorges much along the same lines as a Steve Montador or an Andrew Ference, but more reliable defensively. When healthy, Gorges is used more than any other player on the team, with the exception of Markov.

He's an RFA at the end of the season, but locking him up long term is important.

Estimated Salary: $3.0 million per season

Hal Gill: Unlike most, the moment he was signed by the club I was ectastic.

He is big, he takes up space, clears the front of the net, excels on the PK and provides much needed leadership. Given his continued excellent play on the PK and in the playoffs, allowing him to walk away would be a tremendous mistake.

Gill as your No.5 D-man will help to build a successful team.

Estimated Salary: $1.75 million per season

Who else do you sign?

As I had mentioned earlier, I'm an advocate of a defensive line-up that has size and an element of toughness to their game.

With the likes of Markov, P.K. Subban, Wizniewski, Gorges, Gill and Spacek this would certainly seem to contradict my earlier sentiments. Of the above mentioned six defensemen, only Gill measures in at more than 6’0 and none of the above are prototypical physical defensemen; so what gives?

Truth be told, a team is only as good as the depth of the players on the roster. With injuries almost a guarantee in today’s NHL, the seventh defensemen is certain to be getting ice time.

With such certainty in life, Pierre Gauthier basically has two options: obtain the services of a veteran or give a roster spot to a rookie. So do we sign a player or give a chance to someone in the organization?

In my opinion there is only one answer to this question: give the job to a rookie.

Look within the organization and no further than Alexei Yemelin; the Russian defensemen who has been rumoured to be arriving in North America for two to three years now. Yemelin is not a big bruising player at 6’05 and 190 lbs, but he plays a very physical game while being more than dependable in his own zone.

According to recent reports on RDS, the only thing holding him back from coming to North America is a small clause in his contract which would allow him to return to his Russian club in the event that the highly touted Russian does not make the big club.

So there you have it folks; a seven man defensive unit which I believe can be considered among the Eastern conference elite.

A unit which combines the physicality of Yemelin, Gill and Gorges with the offensive prowess of Markov, Wizniewski and Subban. A mix of grizzled veterans with NHL experience and the youthful exuberance of players making their mark in the NHL.

Essentially, a seven-man unit which can lead this team to a deep playoff run!

Check out the She Said counter-piece.

(Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images North America)

Willey was the shinning light among the wicked growing up as the lone Habs fan in Toronto. Pray to Holy Ghosts of the old forum and all shall be answered I was told, and just like that my family was transferred back to Montreal and away from the damned. Olé Olé Olé.


  1. Hey Willey! Excellent analysis too!

    You guys really knocked this one out of the park!

    Gill at $1.75 mil per as the 5th/6th dman? That's too much, imo.

    That being said, I think he might be worth it if for no other reason than to play another season with Subban and help him to continue progressing.

    I know that Gorges and Gill were paired together but I'd keep Gilly with PK going forward.

    Not so sure about the Hamrlik move though, since he is showing that at 36 he is still able to play in this league.

    That being said, you are right in that there is only so much money to go around and the Habs have to make choices.

    I think a lot of what might happen in the off season has to do with what Gauthier does between now and the trade deadline.

    He WILL be active, I just don't know if he is going for a forward or a defenseman or both.

    Hopefully he doesn't go in the "rental" direction as I feel that those kind of players are only good if you are on the cusp of winning....which the Habs are not.

    It will be interesting to see how it shakes out!

  2. Uhm,
    nice analysis except Alexei Emelin does really not reach the height of 6'5. He'S a 6feet guy that is not big either. He just plays big ;)

  3. I think, if I'm not mistaken, Willey was trying to say that he is 6 feet and 1/2 an inch, not 6'5! I could be mistaken though.


    As for Yemelin himself, well, I think it's highly unlikely that he will ever come over to Montreal.

    He has told the Habs that the only way he'll come is if they allow him to go back to Russia if he doesn't make the NHL team.

    He's happy being in Russia right now and I don't know of many NHL teams who would make that kind of deal.

    That being said, you never know and maybe Gauthier gives him a chance. I just don't think he'll be able to make the jump from Russia to the NHL without some time in Hamilton.

    We'll see what the future brings!

  4. Tom

    My apologies if that was not clear. I did intact mean 6 foot and a half inch. Ive wanted this kid as part of the roster for a couple of years now. Strong, likes to hit and has a cannon of a shot despite little offensive abilities.

    I hope the team and player come to an agreement. Realistically what is the difference between using him as the #7 like Picard has been used. Guarantee h the roster spot and bring him along slowly when paired with Markov

  5. ThePenaltyCall said..

    You have got two minutes in the penalty box for tripping.

    You have got to be kidding me with this analysis of the Canadiens defensemen. Who is going and who stays, you sure do alot of guessing. You should always pair your defensemen together, by having 1 offensive defensemen with a more stay at home defensive defensemen. I don't know what games you have been watching.

    James Wizniewski is simply a rental, he is worse than M.A. Bergeron defensively and gives away the puck to the middle of his defensive zone. He doesn't look, to soft on the puck, and he is making mistakes in defensive zone coverage that most good Bantam age minor league kids don't make. He won't even score as much Bergeron, at a much higher price and he is missing opportunities to shoot on the powerplay.

    Young Weber is showing he is better defensively but Weber has to start scoring more when on the powerplay.

    Spacek is done, buy him out, place him on waivers or get real lucky with a trade but he is not all but guaranteed a job next year. He is always a step too slow defensively and he pinches at the wrong times on offense.

    Hamrlik is good but not at the present pricetag, he is slowing down. Hamrlik won't be back without a big cut in salary.

    Gorges is just what the Habs need but not with a long term contract. He is just coming off major recontruction of his knee, sign him for just three years with incentive clauses for games played and plus /minus.

    Markov could be also signed at much lower price with incentive clauses for points and games played. If not they will have to let him go. He has not played that many games the last 3 years and he has been out in the playoffs. The habs are showing they can play without him. He is, however a very good defenseman (if he can stay healthly) both offensively, defensively and he loves Montreal.If the Habs need to choose, it will be him over James Wizniewski.

    Picard, Weber and Subban will only get better. Forget the Russian, Alexei Yemelin maybe leaving the KHL, not going to happen.

    You did get it right with Gill, he will be back for 1 year with an option for another. He is teaching Subban how to be better defensively just like he helped Gorges. He might be the next assistant coach for the Canadiens to help the defensive side.

    The Habs only need a big, scrapping, tough defenseman, who is good defensively. They might be trying to pick up a guy like Chris Phillips and a big offensive forward (rental) for the playoffs.

  6. @The PenaltyCall

    Two minutes for tripping.......no way. It was embelishment.

    I am glad you disagree because it makes for a great debate. Certianly we are all entitled to our opinions but I fail to see your logic with this one.

    Let me first say that yes I would love to sit here and say forget Wiz, Gill, Hamrlik and Spacek and let's go out and sign Kevin Bieksa, Chris Phillips, Tomas Kaberle and Andrei Markov or whoever else is UFA at season end however how often have we been able to do this?

    Remember offering big money to Ryan Smythe, Daniel briere, Brendan Shanahan and many many more? Ultimately these guys all played elsewhere. Wanting to sign someone and ultimately singing them is two completely different issues.

    Jaroslav Spacek is far from done. He is a +17 in his past two seasons playing in a position that he is not familiar often against the oppositions best. Remember he is +17 for a team which struggles mightily 5 on 5.
    LAst year he was the 3rd most used player and this year has slid into a comfortable 20 minutes per game? Is this how someone who is done is used? No he is not racking up the points but the defensive side of his game is still excellent.

    Furthermore I beleive his contract was signed after the age of 35. This means whether he retires, is placed in the AHL or whatever is determined, it counts towards the cap.

    In regards to Gorges you may be right but remember he is a leader on this team who despite his surgery has eben playing on a bad knee for more than a year. If he excelled playing with the injury then what of it after the surgery. I decline in play with hardly be noticed but his loss from the team is felt. When Gorges went under the knife the Habs were #1 on the PK and since that time have been clicking at a 77%. This is horrible. He is crucial to this team.

    In regards to Picard unfrotunately if you think he will get betetr then you are unfrotunately not familiar with the player.

    He is 26 years old and aleady playing for his 5th NHL team. He was a good offensive defensemen in Junior who lacks that extra abuility to succeed at the NHL. H is one year year younger than Wiz so has seen his potential plateau. If he returns he will be in the AHL and nothing more.

    Weber is not a bad player. But he is a very disappointing player. He is an offensive player who is getting PP time but not producing. Furthermore because of his lack of size he is often out muscled. Is he an NHLer...I would say yes but when Gorges, Markov, Wiz, and Subban are all 6'0 or small then having a 5th player is problematic. He has to be dealt IMO.

    As for Yemelin, perhaps it is a pipe dream to want him here however Yemelin himself was interviewed and said he wants to come to North America. This game lies in the court of management. If they are willing to give a little bit then he will be a Hab, if they refuse then he will remain i Russia. He is the type of player who I beleive would excel here but whether he comes is the ultimate question.

    Remember that this was a reminder of what we'd like to see next season. As for the balance of 2011 here's a little etaser to my next blog......Phillips is the guy I would target as well.

  7. I agree that debate is always good. As a referee never changes his call, he sometimes will add another penalty on a play. I agree with your embellishment call on the article.

    I do agree we would all love to be able to sign whatever free agents we would like but it is simply not possible. In today's NHL, the equality of the teams and the salary cap issues make it more difficult to make those multiple big signings of past years.

    I do not agree with you about the signing of big free agents like in the past. those guys wouldn't have come because the canadiens were not the team or organization that they are today, thanks to Gainey. Look at the record of the AHL Hamilton Bulldogs in last 4 years. The canadiens' call ups have shown they can step in and do the job necessary to keep the team in the playoff hunt.

    You are wrong about Spacek just look at his +/- ratio stats of the last 2 years, +9, +8 and the year is not finished. He is +8.5 average but this year the Canadiens have reduced shots on goal and goals against so his number should be higher. He is no longer playing against the other teams best lines and if you look at his last 10 games, he is averaging 14 minutes per game. It is clear that his coaches are protecting him and they are seeing that he's a step too slow and he no longer plays on the powerplay. Buying out his final year's contract could be a smaller hit against the cap like Laraque's was and Laraque's finishes at the end of this year.

    I disagree about the effect of the reconstruction knee surgery on Gorges performance. It will takes him 6 months to be back to the way he was playing before the surgery. It is way more difficult for the defensemen because they have to pivot both ways going backward and push back against on rushing forwards, this puts more stress on the knees. He will have to adjust his skating style to compensate for the fact that the knee was injured for over 7 years(since his junior days). Gorges is a true warrior, leader and I would have on my team any day.

    You are a little off about Picard. You really need to look at his stats since he has been in the NHL. Early in his career, they used him as an offensive defenseman but his playing time was reduced because he was a defensive liability. You have to look at the teams that he played on, Phil., Tampa, Car., and Ottawa, they were not very good defensively either. Look at the last 2 years, his +/- ratio have improved into a plus player. He is becoming a better all round defenseman but he could improve even more with a veteran partner or Gill. Gill has done a great job improving the defensive play of Gorges and Subban.

    Weber has improved defensively every year and is becoming more comfortable physical in the NHL. I agree that he could be move to a team who needs help on the powerplay or who have big tough defensemen. If not, he will continue to get better and he is a cheap easy signing.

    I agree that Yemelin would excel in the NHL but it's not going to happen. The Canadiens have been burnt twice already by Perezhogin and Valentenko and there is no transfer agreement between the NHL and the Russian Ice Federation or the |KHL.

    I would also target Phillips because he is good rental player who fits what the Habs need for the playoffs. If he doesn't work out this year then the Canadiens just don't have to try to resign him. They won't have to give up much to get him. I expect Gauthier to make some of his moves soon not at the trade deadline. He doesn't want to change too much the team chemistry too close to the playoffs as this has proven not to work.

    I still see Gill & Subban, Gorges & Markov(right price), a new veteran & Weber, Picard 7th defenseman. The big changes could come if Markov is a problem to sign or they trade Weber. I can't wait to see Jared Tinordi next year as he has improved into a big physical both ends of the rink defenseman.