July 28th is typically not an important date on the NHL calendar but it represents the start of free agency. With the frenzy about to begin, here’s a look at some of the notable blueliners set to hit the open market.
Hamilton gets a class of his own and deservedly so. He is the lone top-pairing defenceman available this summer and he just so happens to shoot right-handed which happens to be the gigantic area of need that the Canadiens have with Shea Weber out for the year and likely longer. He’ll need a bigger commitment financially than Weber’s $7.857M cap hit but he’s in the prime of his career and would certainly add another dimension to Montreal’s back end offensively which also happens to be a gigantic area of need.
Tyson Barrie, Alec Martinez, Ryan Murray, David Savard, Ryan Suter
These are all players who would fit on the second pairing for most teams. Barrie is the most notable of the group and returns to free agency on the heels of leading all NHL defencemen in scoring; playing on a power play with Connor McDavid has a tendency to inflate production. He’d immediately be Montreal’s top threat from the point but his defensive weaknesses will also be costly at times.
Martinez is on here because he’s a legitimate top-four piece but it looks like he’s going to re-sign in Vegas; it just hasn’t been made official yet. Suter was bought out by Minnesota and should have considerable interest but given Montreal’s depth on the left side, they’re probably not going to be strong suitors. The left-side depth takes Murray out of the equation as well.
Then there’s Savard, someone who has been heavily speculated as likely to sign with Montreal. He can help replace Weber’s physicality and shot-blocking while taking a big role on the penalty kill but he has just one goal in the last two seasons. He should cost around the $3.5M that Ben Chiarot and Joel Edmundson make and if he wants a lot more than that, the Habs should look elsewhere.
Anthony DeAngelo, Jason Demers, Alex Edler, Derek Forbort, Alex Goligoski, Travis Hamonic, Jake McCabe, Brandon Montour, Mike Reilly
These are players that can take shifts in the top four where needed but whether they’re inconsistent or just getting too old, they’re better off playing on the third pairing most nights.
For the sake of keeping this simple, let’s just focus on the right-shot defenders which takes Edler, Forbort, McCabe, and Reilly out of the equation. They’ll get considerable interest but barring a trade where Montreal moves a lefty, it’d be surprising if they were among the teams asking about those players.
DeAngelo is the name that stands out for a few reasons. The first is his checkered past and the second is that Montreal was among the teams interested in signing him at the trade deadline had he agreed to terminate his contract with the Habs allegedly offering to make him whole for the money he’d have lost on the termination. Clearly, there was legitimate interest before Weber was hurt. The other factor is that he had 83 points between 2018-19 and 2019-20 and few other defenders can say that. There’s a very good on-ice case to make for signing him but it comes with some off-ice reasons to stay away.
Montour was viewed as a legitimate top-four piece just a couple of years ago but his stock has dropped since then. Still, he’s one of the younger blueliners to hit the market (27) so there could still be some upside in a new environment. Goligoski is on the other end of the spectrum (he turns 36 on Friday) but still logged 23 minutes a game last season. That’s a bit much at this stage of his career but on a third pairing playing 18 minutes a night, he could be a nice complementary player with someone like Romanov who wants to jump up into the play. Demers has fallen off the last couple of years but can still log above-average minutes on a third pairing. Hamonic is someone the Habs were reported to have interest in before training camp and he now appears to be willing to leave the West Coast. He’s another stay-at-home player but checks a few boxes in terms of what the Habs value from their blueliners.
Erik Gudbranson, Erik Gustafsson, Jon Merrill, Sami Vatanen, Chris Wideman
Just looking at these players, you know who these guys are – players who can contribute when called upon but in a perfect world, they’re not in the lineup every night. You already know enough about Gustafsson and Merrill. There are lots of others that qualify for this category but I’ve limited it to a trio of non-Hab righties that could draw Montreal’s interest.
Gudbranson is who he is at this point, a stay-at-home physical defenceman who has a positive reputation in the dressing room. Someone will give him a contract to play 16 or so minutes a night and if the Habs bring in some more mobile blueliners, balancing that with Gudbranson is something I could see them considering. On the flip side, Vatanen – who has really seen his stock drop the last two years – fits as a complement if some physical players are brought in. He can still move the puck well, an element the Canadiens don’t have much of. Wideman gets a mention here since he has already been linked to Montreal. He’s not the best in his own end but is coming off a strong season offensively in the KHL which could earn him a power play opportunity. The question is whether or not his defence will be good enough to keep him in the lineup which is what played a big role in pushing him out of the NHL in the first place.
If the Habs want to sign someone for Laval, here are a few names to consider. Again, I’m focusing on players who play the right side as it’s a big area of weakness for the Rocket as well.
Alex Biega – A taxi squad piece for Detroit last season but would be a dependable top-pairing piece for the Rocket and a capable emergency recall.
Brogan Rafferty – Great offensive numbers in the minors but a defensive liability.
Matt Tennyson – Veteran has spent the last few years in a reserve role splitting time between the NHL and AHL.
Ben Thomas – Always has played well against Laval over the years, got his first taste of NHL duty late in the season.
Andy Welinski – Strong two-way defender in the AHL and has held his own in 46 career NHL contests.
(There are plenty of others in this category as well but those are some of the notables.)
Shea Weber’s departure has created a big hole for the Habs to try and fill and with the top names off the trade market, Marc Bergevin will likely have to look to free agency to try to replace him. Accordingly, it wouldn’t be surprising to see more than one of these players sign with the Canadiens in the coming days.
Who will they sign? Make your predictions by entering our UFA pool.