The blueline is an area that the Habs vary considerably in terms of their depth at different levels. They have a pretty full group of NHL’ers but their minor league and junior/college options are spots where there is room for considerable improvement.
Here is how Montreal’s organizational depth looks on the back end.
Signed: Nathan Beaulieu, Alexei Emelin, Andrei Markov, Greg Pateryn, Jeff Petry, P.K. Subban
RFA’s: Mark Barberio
UFA’s: Tom Gilbert
In terms of a left-right balance, the Canadiens are in good shape with three under contract on the left and right sides. Markov had his struggles in 2015-16 but also logged more minutes than anyone realistically expected. Similar issues are likely if he sees comparable ice time but if he is scaled back some, he can still be a difference maker. Beaulieu would be in line to see some of Markov’s extra minutes and many feel he’s poised to take a big jump next year. Emelin is overpaid for a third pairing role but brings some needed toughness to the blueline.
On the right side, Subban gives the team a legitimate #1 defender who can play in all situations. Behind him, Petry is basically Montreal’s #2 defenceman and it wouldn’t be entirely shocking for him to pick up some extra minutes if Markov gets scaled back despite playing the other side. That 1-2 punch is signed for the next five years at $14.5 million so that side of the blueline is taken care of for a while. Pateryn hardly played in the first half this past year but when the injuries struck, he took advantage of the opportunity and proved he should at least be able to handle 14-16 minutes a night in the #6 role.
In terms of the free agents, Barberio was one of the more pleasant surprises after being recalled midseason. The Habs should qualify him and bring him back in a bottom pairing/reserve role without much issue. I took a look at Gilbert’s situation in depth earlier; he could be brought back for added depth but most likely will be going elsewhere.
Needs Assessment: Medium – For 2016-17, it’s not all that high as assuming Barberio re-signs, they’ll have seven capable rearguards which is a good thing to have at this point of the offseason. It’s a pricey unit though so it wouldn’t be surprising to see them try to cut back some money there to use up front. If so, Emelin seems a likely candidate to move as he loses a lot of his no-trade protection in July.
Looking ahead though, there is a big need that needs to be addressed before long and that’s a top four option on the left side. Markov’s on the downside of his career and while Beaulieu may be capable of playing top four minutes, they still need someone to take Markov’s spot beyond 2016-17 (and as you’ll see below, that player’s not coming from the AHL or the junior ranks). If they like someone in free agency this summer, they could look to bring in that replacement a year early (which would pretty much force them to deal Emelin in the process). If they don’t sign someone in July, it’s a hole that GM Marc Bergevin will have to be mindful of throughout the season.
Signed: Ryan Johnston, Brett Lernout, Tom Parisi, Dalton Thrower
RFA’s: Mac Bennett, Darren Dietz, Morgan Ellis, Joel Hanley
UFA’s: Victor Bartley
AHL Free Agents: Travis Brown, Josiah Didier
There isn’t a whole lot of experience amongst the signed players. Johnston and Lernout just completed their rookie seasons and didn’t see a whole lot of ice time with St. John’s as they were mostly on the 2nd/3rd pairings. Lernout will just be officially kicking off his entry level deal in 2016-17 and is someone who could move up a couple spots on the depth chart throughout the year. Parisi was a late season signing who will start his first pro campaign next season and ideally would be in a third pairing role to start. Thrower, meanwhile, has struggled to get ice time in the ECHL the last two years let alone the AHL. I imagine Bergevin will be trying to include him in any offseason trade to free up a contract slot at this point.
As for the RFA’s, there is a bit more talent here. Ellis had an All-Star season to get himself back on the prospect radar although he surprisingly didn’t get much of a look with the Habs when injuries hit. Dietz did get a longer look and didn’t look all that out of place with Montreal although he struggled at times in the minors. Both of them need waivers to get back to the IceCaps next season and would provide them with two quality top four blueliners if they make it through. Hanley also surprised in ten games with the Canadiens and he may be their top left-shooting option on the farm at this point which isn’t a bad spot to be for a player who one year ago was a minor league free agent. Bennett has had two underwhelming years and is a strong candidate to not receive a qualifying offer at the end of June.
Bartley didn’t play a lot with St. John’s last year but gave them another top pairing option. It wouldn’t be crazy to think that the team would want to keep him around, especially since he has a bit of NHL experience if (when) injuries creep up next year. Didier had a decent year and earned Sylvain Lefebvre’s trust but I don’t think he did enough to earn an NHL entry-level deal. I could see them offering him another AHL pact if he’s interested in sticking around though. Brown was a depth signing and will probably be replaced with another young depth piece.
Needs Assessment: High – I don’t like to put anything in the AHL as a major need but this qualifies. If the IceCaps have any hopes of making the playoffs next year, at least one if not two quality veterans need to be brought in. Ellis and Dietz are nice players at this level but they can’t be the top guys on a playoff-calibre squad. Because it’s looking like the Habs are going to be tight to the 50 contract limit next year, at least one of those would need to be on a minor league deal. The other could be Bartley or someone like him in a role comparable to what Barberio started at in 2015-16.
The Habs finally attempted to shore up their prospect depth last offseason, drafting a pair of blueliners as well as signing Johnston while they also added Parisi late in the year. Despite that, the overall depth is still pretty weak.
Noah Juulsen is far and away Montreal’s top defence prospect. He’s a solid all-around defender and safely projects as an NHL’er down the road but he’s a few years away. Simon Bourque was also added last draft and had a strong season in 2015-16. He’s probably their best overall left shot defence prospect but still doesn’t really project as a top four guy down the road.
At the college level, the Canadiens have a pair of longshot projects. Nikolas Koberstein made his NCAA debut and struggled to stay in the lineup with any regularity. Colin Sullivan played in his third collegiate campaign and he too struggled to stay in the lineup with any regularity. Sullivan’s pretty much a lock to not be signed while it’s still too early to say much about Koberstein other than he’s a long ways away from being pro ready at the very least.
Magnus Nygren, though too old to really be called a prospect, remains in the organization. He has three years left on his deal with Farjestad of the SHL but has an NHL out clause. He’ll be an unrestricted free agent next summer so if they have plans for him still, they’ll need to act sooner rather than later.
Needs Assessment: Medium – In Juulsen, the Habs have a prospect that reasonably projects as a top four player in the future which is something they haven’t had since Nathan Beaulieu was still a prospect. They don’t yet have that on the left side and as you’ve likely seen from this article, it’s an issue at all levels of the organization. Bourque’s a decent prospect for a sixth rounder but he’s much more likely to be a depth player than an impact one. Knowing how low the talent pool is on that side, there is a strong case to be made to pick up a couple of left shooting blueliners fairly early in the upcoming draft or to acquire some via trade.