The Habs need to upgrade on the back end. That much is a given. However, there aren’t many players available on the open market that would actually qualify as an upgrade.
Top of the Class
Jake Gardiner: While his miscues in the defensive end have drawn plenty of attention, there’s no denying that Gardiner is a quality offensive defender and would certainly add another weapon from the back end which is something the Habs don’t exactly have a lot of. He’s also a lefty and could be pencilled in alongside Shea Weber on the top pairing. However, the contract will be pricey and could actually wind up being pretty close to Weber’s AAV when all is said and done given the number of teams needing a left-shot upgrade and the dearth of those on the market.
Tyler Myers: Myers is the other blueliner that’s going to get paid a lot more money than he’s worth. He has been a serviceable piece in Winnipeg since they acquired him as part of the Evander Kane trade but as the top right-shot defender available, he’s going to get an even bigger deal than his previous $5.5 million AAV. Considering Montreal’s depth on this side, they won’t be involved in the bidding war.
Capable Depth Players
Jordie Benn: His strengths (and weaknesses) are well-known to Montreal fans at this point. His ability to play either side will be of interest to quite a few teams which puts him in line to get a big raise over the $1.1 million he earned with the Habs. It’s a big enough raise that he shouldn’t be in the mix to return.
Ben Chiarot: After being more of a role player in the past, Chiarot took on an expanded role with Winnipeg last season, logging over 18 minutes a night on the left side. He’s more of a throwback defender in terms of his physicality and shot blocking but that could be an interesting complement alongside Jeff Petry.
Ron Hainsey: He may be 38 but he’s still going strong as a capable defensive defender that can play both sides and help the penalty kill. If the Habs strike out on some more prominent options, they could do a lot worse than him as a Plan B and a one-year deal is probably all he’ll be able to get.
Ben Hutton: His arbitration case played a role in Vancouver non-tendering him but there has already been considerable interest in his services. He’s a decent skater with some offensive upside but his play in his own end can be spotty at times. Montreal is believed to have already touched base with his camp.
Niklas Kronwall: It seemed like he was okay with the idea of retiring heading into last season but he wound up logging a regular role in the top four and showed he may not be done just yet. That said, he’s probably only going to consider signing with Detroit.
Patrik Nemeth: Two seasons ago, he spent a lot of time in Colorado’s top four but was reduced to a lesser role in 2018-19 which should keep his asking price a little lower. I’m not certain that he’s an upgrade on what the Canadiens already have but with Benn leaving, they don’t really have anyone that provides the physicality that he does on the left side.
Anton Stralman: Injuries really derailed his 2018-19 season but before that, he was a fixture in Tampa Bay’s top four. If he wasn’t right-handed, he’d pretty much be the perfect short-term stopgap that the Habs could use.
Nathan Beaulieu: He was better with Winnipeg than he was with Buffalo but his high qualifying offer led to a non-tender from the Jets. However, the Habs have a similar player in Mike Reilly already.
Michael Del Zotto: He’s still a decent puck mover but he doesn’t bring much else to the table at this point of his career.
Dan Girardi: A lesser role seemed to suit Girardi who held his own with Tampa Bay after getting bought out by the Rangers. He’d be a nice fit on a third pairing but as a right-hand shot, that fit isn’t with the Canadiens.
Andrew MacDonald: At $5 million, he was a terrible contract. But now that the Flyers have bought him out, he can sign a more reasonable contract. I could see Marc Bergevin kicking the tires at the very least with the thought of him potentially complementing Petry if other plans fall through.
Marc Methot: Montreal fans are certainly familiar with him from his time with Ottawa but he has slowed down a lot since then and missed most of the season with a knee injury. Can he still hold his own as a stay-at-home player? Someone will give him a shot.
Derrick Pouliot: He reminds a bit of Beaulieu. There are some nights where he’ll play like a legitimate top-four player and others where he looks completely lost. There will be a market for him but I’d be surprised if the Habs were among the interested teams.
John Gilmour: Nearly half the league has reached out to him already and he may be this year’s Matthew Peca. Gilmour lit it up with AHL Hartford (54 points in 70 games) last season…and he’s a lefty…and he’s from Montreal. He’s going to get a one-way deal from someone.
Andy Welinski: Welinski held his own in 26 games with Anaheim in 2018-19 and has been fairly productive the last couple of years in the minors. He’s a right-hand shot which probably takes him off Montreal’s radar but he’s someone that is probably receiving comparable interest to Gilmour.
There is reasonable defensive depth in this free agent class on the left side but if there’s one thing the Habs have a lot of, it’s defensive depth on the left side with players like Karl Alzner, Xavier Ouellet, and Gustav Olofsson all in the mix. Beyond Gardiner, there aren’t a lot of players that qualify as upgrades so expect the Habs to go hard after him at the very least. If they’re not successful there or with someone like Hutton as a Plan B, they’ll probably be looking to the trade market (or running the same crew out there that wasn’t quite good enough in 2018-19).