Montreal’s defensive depth varies greatly by level. They have a few big names with the big club and some quality junior prospects but the group in between is lacking. Here’s a closer look at their organizational depth on the back end.
Signed: Jordie Benn, Brandon Davidson, Alexei Emelin, Jakub Jerabek, Jeff Petry, Shea Weber
RFA’s: Nathan Beaulieu, Nikita Nesterov
UFA’s: Andrei Markov
The Habs are locked into a pair of big ticket deals on their back end. Weber had a solid first season with Montreal while logging plenty of ice time on their top pairing. He’s a safe bet to resume his place as the number one once again next season. They’ll be counting on him for a long time yet as he has nine years left on his contract. Petry had an up-and-down year but will slot in behind Weber on the second pairing. He has shown flashes of being an above average point producer which is what the team expected when they handed him $5.5 million per season on a deal that still has four years left.
It seemed like Marc Bergevin was hedging against losing a defenceman to Vegas in expansion with his deadline additions. Benn made a very strong first impression as he helped solidify the third pairing after being acquired for Greg Pateryn. He’s signed for two more years and assuming he’s still around after expansion, should reprise that role next year. Davidson has shown flashes of being a quality blueliner in Edmonton but has yet to put it together. With one year left on his deal, he’ll get a chance to change that in Montreal but could be earmarked for a 6/7 role to start the season. As for Emelin, he had a nice start to the season but completely fell apart down the stretch. He’s entering the final year of his deal and it feels like he could be a trade candidate this summer if they try to shake things up. Jerabek is an intriguing addition after a strong KHL campaign but he’s more likely to fill a depth role than an impact one, at least at the start.
Beaulieu’s case is a very interesting one. He’s coming off his bridge deal and will earn a big raise from the $1 million he earned this year. He has shown the potential to be a top four player but has also made some repeated bad mistakes in his own end. Is the organization willing to commit to him long-term? If not, he becomes a prime candidate to be traded, potentially before the expansion draft. As for Nesterov, he was brought in to fill a depth role and didn’t really impress much after a few decent games to start. He’s a candidate to not be qualified; it wouldn’t be surprising if the team was hoping he’d sign a KHL deal before they have to make a decision to qualify him. (That way, that could give him the QO and retain his rights.)
Markov had yet another strong season and is slated to become one of the better blueliners available in unrestricted free agency in what is a fairly weak market. There’s still a big need for him in Montreal and Markov has said he’d like to return. After earning $4.25 million in salary last season, it will be interesting to see if his next deal is closer to that amount than the $5.75 million cap hit. If they do bring him back, it’s likely that the deal will be announced after the expansion draft.
Needs Assessment: Medium – With Weber, Petry, and Benn on the right side, things are looking pretty good there. The left side is a whole other story. Markov could walk for nothing and even if he returns, he’s a short-term option at this stage of his career. Beaulieu’s future is very much in doubt while Emelin wore down as the season went on with the bigger minutes they were asking him to cover. Davidson and Jerabek have some upside but don’t project to be top four options either. There are a whole lot of question marks on that side of the back end that need to be addressed.
Signed: Brett Lernout, Tom Parisi, Zach Redmond
RFA’s: Joel Hanley, Ryan Johnston, Keegan Lowe, Dalton Thrower
AHL Free Agents: Julien Brouillette, Josiah Didier
After the team lost Mark Barberio, Redmond capably filled the void vacated on the top pairing. He was able to log heavy minutes and was the one above average option they had. He’ll be a big piece for Laval if he makes it through waivers in training camp and is entering the final year of his deal. Lernout took some small strides forward in his second pro season. They’ll likely count on him to be a second pairing player more often, a role he’ll need to improve in if he wants to stay in the running for a call-up. Parisi sat a lot early on and never really got going. He’s not likely to be more than a depth option to start the season (a trip to Brampton wouldn’t be a bad idea either).
In terms of the restricted free agents, Hanley hasn’t shown a lot of upside but he’s a passable top four option. However, he’s soon to turn 26 which is a bit old for someone who is basically a filler player. Lowe played pretty well after joining the team midseason and should be worthy of a longer look next season. Johnston played a lot early on but was a regular scratch down the stretch as his defensive woes continued. He could go either way; do the Habs give him one more year to see if he can harness it together or move on? As for Thrower, he missed most of the year in the ECHL and was a depth player when he was down there. He won’t be back.
The 30 year old Brouillette was a nice addition on a minor league deal and found himself on the top pairing some nights. He counts against the veteran limit but considering the indifference Bergevin has showed towards adding a lot of veterans to the minors over the years, that really shouldn’t be too much of a concern. Didier was in and out of the lineup and at this stage of his career, he’s someone that’s better suited trying his fortune elsewhere over staying in a depth role for Laval.
Needs Assessment: Medium – Between the returning players and some players coming in from junior (more on them shortly), there’s a decent core to work with as things stand. They could stand to add a top pairing option on the left hand side as they don’t have anyone that can really fill that role and beyond Redmond, there really isn’t anyone ready for a recall on a longer-term basis either so they could stand to add some more NHL-ready depth. Beyond that, a lot will depend on the decisions for Hanley and Johnston – if they’re back, they’ll have a full blueline but if not, they’ll have to go outside the organization to replace them.
There was a mandate to add defencemen at the 2016 draft where the Habs really shored up that part of their prospect pool. At the top of the list was 9th overall pick Mikhail Sergachev. He’s expected to push for a roster spot with Montreal next season (I’m not sure he’s ready to be honest) and projects as a top pairing defender down the road, something they haven’t had in the system for a while now.
Noah Juulsen had a nice bounce back season with Everett and is set to turn pro next season. He’ll be a very nice addition to Laval and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him take on a bigger role as the season progresses. The upside isn’t as high as it is with Sergachev but he’s a much safer player and could fit in nicely on a second pairing down the road.
A pair of other junior rearguards had strong years as well. 2016 4th rounder Victor Mete had a big year with London, earning himself an entry-level deal in the process. He’s undersized but his mobility is fantastic for a blueliner which makes him an intriguing option. He’ll be back in the OHL next year. Simon Bourque had another strong campaign that was highlighted by a Memorial Cup appearance. He is also Laval-bound next year but shouldn’t be put into a top role at least to start.
At the non-pro level, Casey Staum had a decent season at the USHL level. He’s now set to go to the University of Nebraska-Omaha starting next year making him several years away from contributing. The same can be said for Arvid Henrikson. He spent most of the year at the Swedish U20 level and is still a very raw player. He was a project when they drafted him and he still is one year later. Nikolas Koberstein got some good news when his program survived getting cut but that was pretty much the highlight of his season. Halfway through his college eligibility, he has yet to show much. Colin Sullivan is still technically property of the Habs but they gave up on him a while ago. He’ll become an unrestricted free agent on August 16th.
Needs Assessment: Low – I’m of the mindset that one or two defenders need to be drafted each year but if there was a year where they could go light on the back end, it’s this one. They have two players with top four upside and a couple of mid-to-late round picks who at least have been well above average in junior. All in all, it’s one of the best crops of defencemen the Habs have had in a long time.