While there’s no doubt that the Habs need to upgrade their offence, their defence corps as things stand is also looking thin. As a result, it’s a position they’re likely to be going after when free agency opens up this weekend. Here are some of the players to watch.
Kevin Shattenkirk (WSH): Shattenkirk has long been the crown jewel of the blueliners in this free agent class. He’s a major point producer and can log big minutes. However, he’s a right handed shot and with Shea Weber and Jeff Petry already on that side, he’s not really a fit for what the Habs need.
Andrei Markov (MTL): Fans are quite familiar with what Markov can and can’t bring to the table. While he was okay alongside Weber on the top pairing in the playoffs, that’s far from an ideal spot for a player who will turn 39 next year. In a perfect world, he’s no more than a second pairing player in 2017-18.
Karl Alzner (WSH): Alzner has a reputation for being one of the top shutdown defenders in the league. However, he’s far from a possession driver while he doesn’t contribute much in the way of offence to the table. He’d be a better fit with Petry on a second unit but his reputation is likely to land him the type of money that’s usually reserved for top pairing players.
Trevor Daley (PIT): As the league continues to transition towards a more mobile back end, Daley becomes that more intriguing of an option. He’s a good secondary option when it comes to his offence but he needs to be insulated in the defensive end. Daley has a skill set that could complement Weber but is he capable of playing the minutes that anyone partnered with Weber would have to cover? What GM Marc Bergevin thinks the answer to that is will determine what type of interest the Habs have.
Dmitry Kulikov (BUF): Kulikov is coming off a year that can only be described as horrific, a terrible spot for any pending UFA to be in. However, before 2016-17 he had shown himself to be a quality top four defender that can eat up some significant minutes. It will be interesting to see if he pushes for a long-term deal or wants a short-term one to rebuild some value. If it’s the latter, Montreal would present a pretty good opportunity for him.
Michael Del Zotto (PHI): Another player that had a walk year to forget, Del Zotto is another player who could very well be looking for a short-term cushion with an eye on a bigger pay day down the road. He has had productive years offensively in the past and as much as it seems like he has been around for a long time, he just turned 27 on the weekend. Like Daley, the complementary skill set to Weber is there but after struggling to handle notable playing time in Philly, it’s hard to imagine him thriving with a much bigger workload in Montreal.
Michael Stone (CGY): Continuing the trend, Stone also had a walk year to forget. A knee injury delayed the start to his season and he couldn’t get it going offensively after that which is particularly disappointing considering he was coming off a 36 point season. As a right handed shot, it’s hard to imagine he’s under consideration for a top four spot with the Habs and while he would be a great third pairing player, he’ll cost a lot for someone in that role.
Johnny Oduya (CHI): The Habs have had interest in him before and while he has slowed down a couple of notches, Oduya is still a stable defensive zone presence. He’s not really capable of handling top four minutes at this stage, however.
Cody Franson (BUF): Franson is another player Bergevin has tried to acquire before (he had him before Josh Gorges invoked his NTC). He’s a right handed shot but after a down season with the Sabres, his price point may be low enough where it would be worthwhile to bring him in and shift Jordie Benn back to the left side.
Francois Beauchemin (COL): Montreal had interest in him two seasons ago but only for one year (did that ever turn out to be prudent). His shot blocking prowess is well known but the fact he was bought out from the team with arguably the worst defence in the league says a lot.
Mark Streit (PIT): The fact that he didn’t play much in the playoffs despite Pittsburgh’s injuries is a bit concerning but he can still help a power play. Asking him to do more than that at this point would be asking too much of him, however.
Dan Girardi (NYR): While his reputation has taken a big hit in recent years, the veteran should garner a lot of interest in a third pairing defensive role. He’s a righty which would force Benn over but if the Habs are looking for another stay-at-home player, Girardi is someone they’ll likely show interest in.
(I’d like to put Chicago’s Brian Campbell here as well but he has suggested in the past that he’ll either re-sign with the Blackhawks or retire.)
Fringe Options/AHL Depth
While you may wonder why this is relevant, consider that Laval’s left side defensive depth shapes up as follows: Rookie Simon Bourque, second year pro Tom Parisi, and rookie AHL signing Stefan Leblanc. (Jakub Jerabek has a European Assignment Clause so he’s not going to the minors.) Suffice it to say, they need someone to cover a top pairing role which means they’ll be looking for someone that can cover in a pinch at the NHL level as well. Here are some players who are likely heading for two-way deals that would fit the bill.
Jordan Oesterle (EDM): After getting into 17 NHL games in 2015-16, Oesterle saw just two games of NHL action this past season and was non-tendered by Edmonton. He put up some impressive numbers in the AHL (32 points in 44 games) and at 25, there may be a little bit of upside left.
Brad Hunt (NSH): An undersized offensive blueliner, Hunt spent a good chunk of 2016-17 in waiver purgatory – too good to risk losing for nothing but not good enough to play. He has a track record of putting up strong numbers at the minor league level and that alone should make him a target to be a top threat in Laval.
Brian Strait (WPG): The 29 year old only played five games with the Jets in 2016-17 but before that, he had played in at least 47 contests in three straight seasons. He can hold his own playing 15 minutes a night in the NHL while he would also serve as a stable top pairing option alongside rookie Noah Juulsen in the minors.
David Warsofsky (PIT): The undersized defender is coming off a breakout season offensively at the AHL level, finishing seventh in points among all blueliners. The NHL upside isn’t as high here (though he has seen 39 games of action over the past four years) but Warsofsky would provide a nice boost offensively to a back end that’s likely going to struggle in that regard.
Cameron Gaunce (PIT): While his days as a top prospect have come and gone (he was highly touted at one point with Colorado), Gaunce is still a solid top four in the minors and held his own in a dozen games with the Penguins in 2016-17.
Eric Gelinas (COL): Everyone knows he has a cannon for a shot and is big but has provided little else which is why the worst team in the league waived him and then non-tendered him this week. All of the names here are low-risk but Gelinas has a shot at yielding a slightly higher reward if he was to rediscover his New Jersey form. It wouldn’t be surprising if he has to start in the minors wherever he lands though.
Mat Bodie (BUF): Bodie is a bit of an unknown having yet to play at the NHL level. He has been a steady point producer over several AHL seasons though which is why he’s on here. He has done enough down there to land an NHL contract with a nice guaranteed portion but probably wouldn’t be pegged to do much with Montreal (but he would fit in quite well with Laval).