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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2010-11: 77GP - 14G - 24A – 38PTS - -8
Change: +75GP - +14G - +22A – +36PTS  - (-9)
Last Year: B

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.

It’s hard to manage expectations when someone is this good.

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.


2010-11: 75GP - 2G - 7A - 9PTS - -9
Change: +7P - 0G – (-2A) – (-2PTS)  – +1
Last Year: B+

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.

Just like he brought Josh Gorges’ play to the next level two years ago, he did the same for Subban last year, at a time where the pressure was at an all-time high for everyone on the team. The result is more than evident above. Gill’s role may be evolving with every passing game, but the Massachusetts native is having no trouble adapting.

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.


2010-11: 36GP - 1G - 6A - 7PTS - -3
Change: (-46GP) – (-2G) – (-1A) – (-3PTS)  - (-5)
Last Year: A

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.

It’s hard to really rate the 36 games Gorges played with the team. They’re far off in our memories, and many of those games were played without the benefit of having Andrei Markov to withstand some of the pressure, not to mention the A-game of P.K. Subban that only emerged after Gorges fell to injury. Gorges had a lot on his plate, and in his own way, he delivered. Was it as good as what we saw in the playoffs the year before? Probably not. But keep in mind, he was probably playing on a bad knee for all 36 of those games.

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
Last Year: N/A

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. 

That said, we've yet to see what Weber is truly capable of. Odds are Jacques Martin knows something we don't, but from what we saw in Weber in 41 games, we can't really complain.

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.


2010-11: 59GP - 1G - 15A - 16PTS - +9
Change: (-15GP) – (-2G) - (-3A) – (-5PTS)  - EVEN
Last Year: C

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?

In all seriousness, and in every sense of the word, Spacek’s 2010-11 season was worse than his 2009-10. He continued to recede offensively. His defensive play was, at times, atrocious, and he played fewer games than any prior season since the lockout, thanks to injuries.

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.


2010-11: 7GP - 1G - 2A - 3PTS - +2
Change: (-38GP) – (-5G) – (-26A) – (-23)PTS - (-9)
Last Year: B

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.

If Markov is indeed healthy and in top shape, he could give us one of his best seasons on both sides of the ice. If not, the Canadiens will be in a whole lot of trouble (based on how they've fared without him two years running, maybe not). Management clearly has faith in him, or else he wouldn't have been signed to a brand new . That said, it's up to him to earn it.

2010-11 Grade: N/A

2011-12 Expectations:

- 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.


Last Year: N/A

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.

2011-12 Expectations

- Break into a regular role with the team.
- Be the tough, physical, mean defenseman that got you here.

- Make friends with Andrei Markov.



2010-11: 75GP - 10G - 41A - 51PTS - -14 (with Habs & Isles)
Change: +6GP - +7G – +14A – +21PTS – +9 (with ANA)
Last Year: N/A
James Wisniewski may have saved the Montreal Canadiens’ season. Acquired just days after Christmas, Wisniewski was brought in as much needed relief for the injured (you know who). Wiz had an immediate impact, putting up a total of 7 goals and 23 assists (matching his 2009-10 totals in Anaheim in just 43 games) and taking some pressure off the shoulders of PK Subban, offensively. While his short time with the Canadiens will be remembered as nothing but positive, the truth is that the 6-year, $33 million deal he signed with the Columbus Blue Jackets was WAY too rich for Pierre Gauthier’s blood.

2010-11 Grade: A

2010-11: 79P - 5G - 29A -34PTS - +6
Change: +4GP – (-1G) – +8A – +7PTS – +8
Last Year: B-
Roman Hamrlik often had a love/hate relationship with the fans in Montreal. I don’t think anyone would argue over the fact that he was clearly overpaid, with a salary of upwards of $5.5M a year, but despite the fact that he didn’t always have good nights, the guy brought everything he had to the table. Best suited as a 4th/5th defenseman, Hamrlik  could easily step up and play as a top 2 on any given night if needed. But the truth is, at 37-years-old, his best days were behind him. He had an up-and-down season with the Habs. To be fair, he had to carry Jaro Spacek and the fact the Canadiens were missing Gorges and Markov – a common theme in this blog – but if he was asking the team for multiple years, at the $3.25 he got with the Capitals, the truth is that the Canadiens were better off going in a different direction. Still, he was a good player, a good defenseman, and after four years with the team, he will be missed.

2010-11 Grade: B

Alex Picard, Brent Sopel, and Paul Mara did exactly the job that was expected of them this past season. In Picard’s job, sit in the pressbox half the year, fill in for injuries the rest of the time. In Mara’s and Sopel’s case, come in late in the season to make sure the team had enough bodies on defense. In certain terms, they were cannon fodder. You can’t really complain about their  play, because, simply put, the expectations placed on all three were that they simply be there.

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!


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Marco Perruzza's picture

Nice article. I think the backend is full of question marks this season. Having watched many Habs games last season it was obvious Carey Price's unbelievable year cleaned up many mistakes that the D committed. However, that was without Gorges and Markov. As you said above, if those two can come back healthy and play at the level they're capable of than the Canadiens defence will be fine. The fact of the matter is that Markov has proven to no be able to stay healthy, and Gorges' lack of mobility will only be worse after reconstructive knee surgery. Subban is a good player on his way to being great. Your faith in a 36 year old Hal Gill is not shared by me, but I also thought Hamrlik was done and he gave the Habs two good seasons. If Price can keep playing at all-star levels then the Habs should be competitive again this season.

George Prax's picture

Your concerns are fair but I think a little misguided. Two years running, the Canadiens have had major injures both on the back end and up front and they still managed to do well. A major part of that was team defense. Some fans may not like it but Jacques Martin's system is what kept this team floating for a large part of two years, and people have yet to really see what this group can do healthy, and hopefully they'll get a chance to do that here.

Markov may be at risk of another injury but if he's healthy I honestly don't see a reason why he can't be a great defenseman again.

Gorges was playing immobile, as you put it, because of his knee injury. I think he'll be better coming back now.

Subban was already great last year, he'll be even better know especially with less pressure.

Gill was great at 34 and 35, there's no reason why he shouldn't keep fulfilling his role at 36 as a bottom pairing defenseman, so I don't really get what the problem is here.

And there's still Yemelin coming in, as well as Weber who could get a bigger role. If there are injuries, then the Canadiens could be in trouble, but if there aren't really aren't that many question marks for the Habs on defense

Marco Perruzza's picture

Yes, they have had injuries for the past two seasons and played well, but they have also had two great seasons by Halak and then Price. Now, you may be right the goalie seasons could have been a direct result of Martin's system, but I don't believe it. The Canadiens in 2009-2010 struggled mightily when Price provided average goaltending. That version of the Habs thrived only when Halak stood on his head. Being a fan of a team that has had terrible goaltending for awhile you realize how good a defense looks in front of a great goalie.

Gorges from his San Jose days has always been considered a poor skater. Great character and heart, but poor skating abilities. I find it hard to believe that major reconstructive surgery will make him a better skater. Yes, he may have been playing with the injury for a long time, but generally rebuilt knees take at last two years to get back to normal, if ever.

A lot of pressure on Subban this year. Can a player heading into his second NHL season run the power play and log 24+ a night over 82 games and the playoffs? Personally I don't have as much faith in Hal Gill as you do. In his two "great" seasons he was a minus player both times, and as a 36 year old you should expect the decline to continue.

On another note, speaking of mediocre defenseman I'm going to go write about Mike Komisarek.

George Prax's picture

Such a defensive system definitely requires great goaltending, but the Canadiens have that, so I don't really understand what your issue is here. At this point there really is no reason to question Price anymore, but that's a subject for my next "rankings" lol. At the same time, Price or even Halak wouldn't look as good if it wasn't for the defense in front of them. I really don't want to take anything away from what Halak did two years ago, but just look at Gorges and Gill's stats (and even the rest like Hamrlik, Subban, Markov for the first few games, even Spacek). Many of them are among the leaders in many categories. In many cases goaltending can make defense look better than it is, but it's a two-way street. The goaltending changed over 2009-10 and 10-11. The defense and coaching didn't.

As for Gorges, skating is irrelevant. He's a stay-at-home defenseman and that knee or skating hasn't stopped him from being great in the past. It may not be fair to say that he'll be better after surgery, but it isn't fair to say that he won't be either. Like I said, he had been skating on a bad knee his entire career, so the jury's still out on what he can do now after it's been fixed. So, we'll see, and if it doesn't pan out, that's why he has a 1-year deal. As for Subban, if he has pressure on him this year, he can handle it, because he had it last year, often playing 30 minutes a night and without Markov, Gorges, even at times Spacek and Hamrlik, and he did great. I don't think he's your typical rookie, so I don't think he'll go through the typical sophomore slump, even if there is a minor risk.

And plus/minus is irrelevant. I hate how people misconstrue that stat so much. It's just as much an offensive stat as it is a defensive stat, so when you play big minutes and don't put up any points, obviously you're going to be a minus player. Nick Lidstrom puts up 60 points a year and he was a -2 last year. Is your faith in him wavering too? Gill had 9 points last year, I believe all 5-on-5, possibly one or two shorthanded, which means that generally speaking he wasn't on the ice for very many goals. And I don't understand where you get the idea that he's been "declining". He won the cup 3 years ago as a key member of the Pens, so he was clearly better the than when he was with the Leafs. He was a key member the next year in Montreal going to the ECFs, and started transitioning into a mentor role this past year, and played fine defense. I'm sorry to say this, but your lack of faith in Gill doesn't seem to be based on anything concrete.

Marco Perruzza's picture

I think you and I have different interpretations of the word "great". I am just saying that a shut down defenseman (as apparently Gill is) cannot have had two "great" seasons if he is on the ice for more goals against than scored. I think the fact that he has difficulty transitioning the play from defense to offense is an indicator in his limitations as a player. Granted that was never Gill's area of strength, but an average to above average player can make that first pass. His job is to solely prevent the opposition from scoring and let's argue that he had a "good" season, but "great", seriously?

When Gill won the cup with Pittsburgh he was fifth on the depth chart behind Gonchar, Scuderi, Orpick and Letang. As a fifth or sixth defenseman (as Pittsburgh utilized him) he was a good NHL'er. When the Canadiens went to the ECF they were outshot 292-191 by the Washington Capitals in the first round and 220-173 by the Penguins in the second round. All the credit justifiably went to Jaro Halak. Halak had a phenomenal playoffs. The Habs defense were not "great" they were bailed out by unbelievable goaltending. I'm sorry, but the stats don't lie. In 09-10' Gill finished fifth in blue line minutes played behind Spacek, Hamrlik, Gorges and Markov (Markov played 45 games that season compared to Gill's 68). Last season Gill finished fourth behind Subban, Wisniewski and Hamrlik.

Whether you choose to ignore the numbers is one thing, to call my lack of faith in Gill void of concrete facts is another.

George Prax's picture

"Great" by definition is a subjective word. Clearly, your interpretation of plus/minus is what's wrong here. I'll say it again, using it as a purely defensive stat makes absolutely no sense. If your role is to be on the ice in defensive situations, you're not going to be on when the team scores the bulk of its goals. Every defenseman is on the ice for goals against. I'm not the type to go into detailed statistics but you'd have to look much further into it to get a real grasp of what kind of defensive contributions Gill makes to the team. Basing that seemingly solely on plus/minus makes absolutely no sense, not because he can't make a first pass, but because he's simply not put into situations where he's able to contribute offensively, because that's not his role. There are plenty of great defensive defensemen around the league who have poor plus-minus stats because it's simply not their role to be there when the team is scoring. Not to mention that it also needs to be looked at versus team stats, versus what kind of game the team plays and the fact that the Canadiens are a defensive team who rely on many one-goal leads (not defending that, it's a mere fact), which hurts a lot of players individual plus/minus statistics.

I'm not ignoring stats, I'm taking them for what they're worth instead of blindly following them to false conclusions. Gill's spot on the depth chart is irrelevant, you don't have to go further than any Pens fan or frankly anyone who actually watched the Pens during that run to know that his contribution to that cup win was large. Same for what he Canadiens did the next year. If you actually watch those games against either one of those teams, you'll notice that many of the shots Halak faces were perimeter shots, on the outside, seldom in the slot or down the middle because the defense was actually doing their job of keeping the opposing teams players on the outside. The shots would have been even more lopsided if it wasn't for all the blocked shots players like Gill and Gorges were contributing. Halak deserves plenty of credit, I already said that, but the people who put that run all on his shoulder are completely misguided. Hockey is a team sport, and the 5th defenseman is often just as important to the puzzle as anyone else.

Again, it's not about ignoring stats but rather actually analyzing them and placing them in the proper context, instead of taking them at face value. Just regurgitating stats is meaningless in most cases. These are examples of relevant stats: In the Habs 2010 playoff run, they ranked 3rd on the PK with 84.5%. They were the team that was shorthanded most often per game. During that run, Gill played 3:47 a game with a man done, second to only his usual partner, Josh Gorges. In the process of 19 games he also blocked 68 shots, more than any other player on the playoffs per game.

All this coming off breaking a foot and playing into June as one of the slower players in the league the year before.

But no, he only played okay bro.

You need to get over your obvious bias for player who didn't have a great time in Toronto and realize that he actually is a great defensive defenseman.