Off-Season Rankings: The Defense
Over the last couple of weeks, we've been ranking and rating the players of the Montreal Canadiens. First, we looked at the top-six forwards before rating the lower-tier forwards, or, the best of the rest. The next logical step is, of course, the defense.
I toyed with the idea of presenting the defense rankings first this year, since, as we all know, coach Jacques Martin tends to go with a defense-first system. We may hate it more often than not, but in reality, that system has brought the Canadiens most of their success over the last couple of years. Of course, it's arguable that a more open system would bring the Canadiens even more success, but Jacques Martin's "evaluation" isn't until next week. All we do know is that the defense did exactly what was asked of them.
And, oh ya, they did it without Andrei Markov and Josh Gorges, for most of the season.
Read below to see where your favorite Habs defensemen ranked, based on their performance last season, and what will be expected of them in 2011-12. As always, check out last year's rankings for reference and context.
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Change: +75GP - +14G - +22A – +36PTS - (-9)
While the rest of the league was busy hating on P.K. Subban – and likely denying him a Calder Trophy nomination he probably deserved – Subban was busy being the Montreal Canadiens’ number one defenseman. As a rookie. With the added pressure of having to replace Andrei Markov and Josh Gorges.
Whatever expectations you had for the Toronto native were more than likely blown away. He may not have reached certain point totals we expected of him, but he more than made up for it by the fact that he basically replaced Markov for most of the season, and did a good job of it. He didn’t buckle under the pressure, he (mostly) kept his cool, and he made this team proud.
2010-11 Grade: A
2011-12 Expectations: 2011-12 is going to be a tricky year for Subban. Technically his sophomore year, Subban’s going to have to avoid the dreaded slump that will likely be expected. Not to mention the new dynamic on the back-end that will certainly be prevalent, with Markov and Gorges making their presumptive returns. Does Subban remain in his role as the team’s number one defenseman, or do the established guys bump him back down to the second pairing? More importantly, if that happens, how does he handle it? Does he focus more on offense now, or does Martin still ask him to play the way he did late last year? Believe it or not, Subban still has a lot to prove.
- Stay on same track/pace: 15G – 30A – 45PTS- Don’t stop pissing people off, but keep an eye on the attitude.- Benefit from Hal Gill’s experience and the re-addition to the team of Markov and Gorges.- Avoid sophomore slump.
Change: +7P - 0G – (-2A) – (-2PTS) – +1
A key factor in the abovementioned Subban’s rookie success was the mentorship provided to him by Hal Gill. In his late 30s, Gill’s still got what made him a regular NHLer, but he’ll be the first to tell you that his role has definitely changed since arriving in Montreal. In 2009-10, Gill blew us away next to Josh Gorges in the playoffs, blocking any puck that game in his director, stepping up and defending his teammates, and playing steady. He may be slow, and his best days may be behind him, but he’s still an invaluable asset to this team, as evidenced by the deal Pierre Gauthier gave him, instead of Roman Hamrlik.
2010-11 Grade: B+
2011-12 Expectations: 2009-10, Josh Gorges; 2010-11, P.K. Subban; 2011-12… Alexei Yemelin? Yannick Weber? Brendon Nash? Mark Mitera? Raphael Diaz? Hal Gill still has plenty to offer the Montreal Canadiens, and that much is evident with a quick glance at the team’s depth chart. Don’t think that Subban can’t stand to benefit a little more from Gill’s magic either.
- Keep evolving into the role of the team’s elder statesman.
- Continue to mentor P.K. Subban, hope it rubs off on Alexei Yemelin or another young Habs defenseman.
Change: (-46GP) – (-2G) – (-1A) – (-3PTS) - (-5)
After (allegedly) seven years of playing with a bum knee, Josh Gorges finally broke down and elected for surgery to repair the damage. It couldn’t have come at a worse time for the defenseman, either. Gorges was coming off a career year, expectations were high, and his contract was expiring at the end of the year, in his final year of restricted free agency. A season similar to 2009-10 would have brought him many benefits, and potentially a long-term deal with the team. Instead, because of 46 games missed, thanks to that injury, Gorges got the absolute raw end of the deal, settling for a one-year deal and the option to prove himself yet again. It may not be fair, but hey, that’s business.
2010-11 Grade: B
2011-12 Expectations: 2011-12 is a make-or-break year for Josh Gorges. If he doesn’t perform, he’s out. We already know that he’s probably not in the long-term plans of Pierre Gauthier and Jacques Martin. We also know that Yemelin and Weber will be breathing down his throat for ice time, and that Andrei Markov and PK Subban are (hopefully) not going anywhere. Gorges fits in somewhere in the middle of this, and I hate to say it, but when the season’s dust clears, he could be the odd-man out. It’s up to him to change that.
- Prove that you’re fully recovered from your injury.
- Go back to the player you were in 2009-10.
2010-11: 41GP - 1G - 10A - 11PTS - EVEN
Change: +36P - +1G – +10A – +11PTS) – +5
Yannick Weber is a trooper. Every time another defenseman went down with an injury during the season, the city of Montreal collectively thought it was finally Weber’s turn to shine. But every time, the Canadiens would trade for another defenseman. James Wisniewski, Brent Sopel, Paul Mara Mara; Weber saw them all move ahead of him and onto the Canadiens' line-up, while he toiled either in the press box or the fourth line. While the Swiss defenseman got a few chances to prove his worth on defense, the result was usually not as desired. But Weber did what he was asked of him, and still managed to get in half a season in a Canadiens uniform. Can’t blame him for not getting a chance.
2010-11 Grade: B
2011-12 Expectations: Is 2011-12 finally Weber’s year? It seems as if the stars are finally aligning for the 22-year-old to start the season with the Canadiens, but with Yemelin coming in, not to mention Gorges and Markov returning, it might only be as a seventh defenseman. This makes it hard to really define any expectations for Weber, but lets hope for step 1: Earn a regular shift on the defense’s top six.
- Earn a full-time spot in the top 6 defensemen.- Take advantage of every opportunity you’re given- If you play a regular shift, 5G, 20PTS.
- Stay away from 4th line.
Change: (-15GP) – (-2G) - (-3A) – (-5PTS) - EVEN
In the grand scheme of things, Jaro Spacek is sort of irrelevant. The only time the Czech defenseman is in the news is when he plays especially bad, or someone makes up a retirement / injury rumor. He provided little of what was expected of him in his first two years with the Habs, despite a few great performances defensively when he was absolutely needed in 2009-10. At the moment, however, he’s kind of just taking space. He’s taking Yemelin’s and Weber’s space, maybe even the space of a few hungry prospects down in Hamilton.
I guess that’s why they call him the Spaceman?
2010-11 Grade: D-
2011-12 Expectations: At this point, Spacek is just riding out his contract until (likely) retirement. Unfortunately, this is something that Jacques Martin likely won’t understand, opting instead to play him a regular shift instead of, you know, people who deserve it. Let’s hope he has the judgement to keep him in the pressbox unless absolutely necessary. Spacek's had his chance in Montreal, and his time is just about up.
- Ride out last season with the team.- At least match last year’s offensive numbers.
- Pass torch and spot to a younger defenseman.
Change: (-38GP) – (-5G) – (-26A) – (-23)PTS - (-9)
Seven games played, another major injury, and a status that’s quite frankly uncertain. It’s impossible to rate Markov’s season, or frankly, even give him proper expectations, without seeing how his knee is going to hold up at training camp and pre-season. There’s no doubt that opposing players are going to test him and his resistance, and if the Canadiens ask of him what he brought to the team when he was healthy, that could spell trouble.
2010-11 Grade: N/A
- For the love of God, don’t get injured.- Minimum 10 goals, 50 points.
- Return to All-Star, top 10 defenseman form that this team requires.
Alexei Yemelin has long escaped the Montreal Canadiens. Drafted 84th overall in 2004, the young Russian defenseman has steadily grown into a force, across the Arctic in his home country. He has come to be known as a big, ugly, mean defenseman the likes of which haven’t been seen in the NHL since Darius Kasparaitis. In short, he’s exactly what the Canadiens need. The status of his one-year deal with the Canadiens is, however, a little muddy. Will he start the season in Hamilton? Will the coach trust him enough to give him a regular top-four shift? Will he even be able to play on North American ice? There are more questions than answers right now, which makes the job of setting expectations for Yemelin difficult, but one thing’s for sure. His imminent arrival in Montreal has people buzzing.
- Break into a regular role with the team.- Be the tough, physical, mean defenseman that got you here.
- Make friends with Andrei Markov.
Change: +6GP - +7G – +14A – +21PTS – +9 (with ANA)
2010-11 Grade: A
Change: +4GP – (-1G) – +8A – +7PTS – +8
2010-11 Grade: B
Collective 2010-11 Grade: C
Other/Incoming: Jeff Woywitka, Brendon Nash, Raphael Diaz, Mark Mitera, Alex Henry, Frederic St. Denis, Joe Stejskla.
The Canadiens are deep on defense in two places: at the NHL level, and in the long-term prospect level. As you can tell above, the Habs will have no trouble icing six defensemen a night to start the season. Thanks to a good draft that saw several defensemen enter the system this past summer, the Canadiens are also deep on the back-end two, three, even four or five years down the road. Unfortunately, things could get a little dicey, should injuries begin to pile up again. The names above could present some interesting options for the Canadiens, should they need to call anyone up, but the list is hardly awe-inspiring.
Jeff Woywitka is likely the top player on the Canadiens Hamilton depth chart. With 250 games NHL experience with Dallas and St. Louis, Woywitka should have no trouble stepping into a vacant spot on the blueline, if needed. His signing is very similar to that of Brian Willsie’s on offense, despite being six years younger than Willsie.
Brendon Nash and Alex Henry would be next on the list. Both have played short, two-game stints with the Canadiens and have the benefit of plenty of experience with the Bulldogs. Both are big-bodied and can hit, and are proven leaders in the AHL. Nash is likely the better choice at 24, but either could see time in Montreal, with a good start in Hamilton.
Finally, Raphael Diaz and Mark Mitera are two summer acquisitions by the Canadiens. Mitera was acquired from Anaheim and is a former 1st round pick with two years AHL experience. Hard to say whether he’s NHL ready, but keep an eye on him at training camp. Same goes for Diaz, who signed out of the Swiss league shortly before Yemelin.
And before you ask, the odds of Jarred Tinordi making the team this year are slim-to-none.
So, while the Canadiens have some interesting options down in Hamilton, nothing is really a sure thing. Next year, Diaz, Mitera, and Nash could be good, NHL-ready players. But if they have to play a regular shift in the NHL this year, the Canadiens could be taking a risk. And frankly, the team is running out of low-round picks to plug the holes.
How do your 2010-11 Habs defensemen rank? Let us know in the comments below! Tune in early next week for a look at Carey Price and the goaltending!