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Discussing the Habs’ defence has become a popular topic in recent days, so
we’ve decided to give our take on some of the pending issues as well.  In
this edition of the mailbag, we discuss who the #7 should be when Andrei Markov
returns, how to distribute the minutes, and whether or not the Habs should begin
contract talks with Markov right away or if it’s best to wait.

Joining me to answer these questions are Louis Moustakas and Mandy P.

Question 1: Who would be your 7th defenceman (assuming all are
healthy): Alexandre Picard, Ryan O’Byrne, or someone from Hamilton?

Brian La Rose: Though Picard has played okay so far with the Habs, he
has shown over his career he isn’t very good for very long, which explains why
the Habs are his 5th organization already.  O’Byrne hasn’t played much
better though, but he provides a level of physicality that this team, and more
specifically Picard, lacks.  The capologist in me likes Picard’s cap hit
over O’Byrne though; if the team wants to bank some cap space for later on,
keeping Picard would be the way to go.  But, considering the Habs’
historical less than mediocre cap management, I don’t see that happening. 
Both players are likely to clear waivers if sent down, but O’Byrne requires
re-entry waivers while Picard doesn’t – the former would be stuck in Hamilton
for the duration of the year while the latter wouldn’t necessarily. 
Sometimes, it’s just best to (grudgingly) dance with the devil you know –
O’Byrne’s physical play (and right hand shot) is the best way to go for now.

Louis Moustakas: The battle between O’Byrne and Picard has not been a
titanic one thus far. O’Byrne is a more imposing specimen while Picard brings an
element of skating and puck-moving skill. However, with the return of Markov,
Picard’s abilities become less of a prized commodity. Conversely, O’Byrne’s grit
and physicality are a bit more of a rarity on the backend and he has shown a
propensity to throw his weight around, a fact illustrated by his 11 hits, good
for fourth on the team despite only playing half the games. Having said all of
that, Yannick Weber has 8 points in 4 contests on the farm and, if the powerplay
continues to be as dismal as it presently is, he could prove to be the best

Mandy P.: Picard. For one, he has more experience in the
NHL than O’Byrne. Picard has played 197 NHL games vs. O’Byrne’s 128. Alex Henry
is also an option; although he has only played about 20 fewer games, he is a
one-dimensional stay-at-home ‘tough’ defenceman. The Canadiens know, with Markov soon
returning from injury, he may not be in game shape right away. There is also the
fact that Spacek and Hamrlik would benefit from the odd game off in order to be
fresh for the playoffs. Therefore, the 7th defenceman would become the ‘6.5
defenceman’, with more ice time, which means a more complete defenceman like
Picard is needed.

Question 2: In a typical game, how much ice time should each each
defenceman get?

Brian La Rose: The Habs are in an enviable position in that, when each
one is fully healthy, all 6 defencemen are good enough to play major minutes if
necessary.  This means that no one should be sat down as the game goes on,
avoiding the need to have someone eat major minutes.  That said, we all
know Markov will get thrown to the wolves on many nights; I’d personally like to
see him max out at 25 (I’m sure we’ll see a lot of 27-29 minute ones though). 
Gorges has shown he can handle a bigger load, 22 minutes is as high as I’d like
to see him go, slightly less if he is pulled off the PP.  His linemate,
Gill, should be good for 18, while Subban should see no more than 20, at least
for now.  The remaining pairing of Hamrlik and Spacek should each get
around the same minutes, let’s split the remaining 35 minutes evenly between
those two.

Louis Moustakas: As far as I am concerned, Montreal’s blueline is a fairly
balanced group when healthy. While Jacques Martin may look for certain matchups,
it is seldom disastrous if he is unable to maintain his matchup throughout a
contest. I could easily see Markov, Gorges and Gill playing around 21-23 minutes
a game while the rest log between 17 and 19 minutes. No one needs to play half a
game and no one needs to be glued to the bench.

Mandy P.: My minute distribution:

P.K. Subban:
22 minutes – Young enough, and it would give him invaluable
Andrei Markov: 22 minutes – Power-play and penalty-kill minutes
Josh Gorges: 24 minutes – Workhorse on the defence, plays entire PK
Hal Gill: 18 minutes – PK and even-strength
Jaroslav Spacek: 17 minutes – second-wave PP
Roman Hamrlik: 17 minutes – second-wave PP

Question 3: Andrei Markov – would you offer him an extension right
away or wait until later in the year/offseason?

Brian La Rose: If the Habs were to sign Markov today, it’d be for market
value; otherwise, there’s little incentive for him to sign right away. 
It’s for that reason that you wait – if Markov returns and plays like the one we
all know, he’s not going to cost much more (if any more at all) but if he
falters, then management has a case for signing him for less (or if he’s a
shadow of his former self, which is doubtful but it could happen, letting him go
without being tied in to a new deal.)  There are certainly times where it’d
be beneficial to sign a player early, but this isn’t one of them.

Louis Moustakas: I would wait later in the year. He has his place on this
team moving forward, but given that the past year has been injury riddled, it
seems reasonable to see how he fares for a couple of months before throwing the
bank at him.

Mandy P.: I would offer him an extension the earlier the
better. It will be cheaper, and avoid the bad feelings that prolonged
negotiations can bring. It would also solidify the Canadiens’ top-6 for some
years to come, probably until the end of Markov’s career.

If you have questions you’d like answered in a future edition of the mailbag,
please feel free to e-mail me.