HabsWorld.net -- 

At the present time, you would probably be hard pressed to find anyone who
says the strength of the Habs’ roster right now is their blueline, there are
just too many question marks.  Having drafted a lot of defencemen in the
past few years though, brighter days are ahead for the defence corps and those
days will be coming sooner than later.


Signed: Andrei Markov, Josh Gorges, Tomas Kaberle, Yannick Weber
RFA: P.K. Subban, Raphael Diaz, Alexei Emelin
UFA: Chris Campoli

Of the signed blueliners, the more offensive-minded they are supposed to be,
the more questions there are.  With Gorges, you know what you’re getting –
strong defensive play and tons of blocked shots.  It gets iffy from there
though.  If Markov can stay healthy, he should prove to be a stabilizing
force on the powerplay while being reasonably useful in his own end.  Or he
could get hurt again, something that has happened the past two years. 
Kaberle at this stage appears to be an expensive PP specialist but if paired
with the right defensive guy could still bring some value.  Assuming Gorges
is on another pairing though, the question is whether that right partner for
Kaberle is on the team.  As for Weber, he remains consistently inconsistent
but his shot from the point has to be an intriguing option for Michel Therrien.

Things get a little better for the restricted free agents.  Subban,
though often criticized last year, really improved on his defensive game (at the
course of his production, however) and remains an integral part of Montreal’s
core.  Emelin got better as the year went on and showed he may be able to
play closer to 20 minutes per game moving forward while Diaz was one of the
steadiest (and in my opinion, one of the most underrated) defencemen in 2011-12
despite being a rookie.  Both have earned new deals for sure.  Campoli
won’t be back, I don’t think anything more needs to be said there.

Needs Assessment: Medium – Assuming the RFA’s sign, the Habs have
their seven defencemen that most teams try to carry during the year.  GM
Marc Bergevin would be wise to look for another stay-at-home defenceman, one who
can take some of the shot blocking pressure off Gorges while allowing the
offensive guys a little more freedom to push the play.  There are a handful
of those players on the UFA market but there will likely be bidding wars on them
due to the small crop of free agents; the trade route may be the best way to go.

Minor Pro

Signed: Nathan Beaulieu, Jarred Tinordi, Morgan Ellis, Joe Stejskal,
Greg Pateryn
RFA: Frederic St. Denis, Mark Mitera, Brendon Nash
UFA: Garrett Stafford, Joe Callahan, Alex Henry (signed in the DEL)

There is lots of upside to this group as both Beaulieu and Tinordi are highly
touted first rounders that should be able to play important roles in Hamilton
fairly early in the season.  In particular, I can see Beaulieu being
counted on to quarterback the powerplay while Tinordi should step onto the top
PK unit.  Ellis may need a bit more time to step into an important role but
barring injuries should step into the top-4 before the end of 2012-13. 
Pateryn, the fourth of the rookies, should be a favourite of new coach Sylvain
Lefebvre as he will likely need the least attention.  He will likely slot
in as a bottom pairing defender who will focus primarily on his own zone. 
That’s as low maintenance as it comes for a rookie.  Shockingly Stejskal is
the ‘veteran’ right now with all of 67 games of experience.  Despite this,
I could see the organization preferring him to go to the ECHL as they’ll likely
prefer the rookies to be with the Bulldogs.

St. Denis played a very important role last year and assuming he makes it
back to Hamilton, will start off the season as their top defenceman.  He’ll
get all the tough assignments and as much as people will want to see Beaulieu/Tinordi
with the Habs, he should be the first player recalled if there are injuries. 
Of all the players over the five parts of this series, Nash is one of the most
interesting.  He is forgotten by many having missed all of last year but
the season before that, his first as a pro, he earned a brief stint with
Montreal.  If his shoulder is fully healed, he too will be one to watch. 
If not, he may be released next week.  One player who likely will be let go
is Mitera.  Despite his first round status (interestingly enough, he was
HW’s guess at who the Habs would draft with their top pick in 2006) he has
failed to be more than a depth defenceman in three seasons.  With all of
the newcomers taking up spots on the 50-man roster, some of the incumbents will
be losing their spots and he is a prime candidate to be one.

Needs Assessment: Medium – There are two holes that I think should be
filled.  One is to find another veteran to let all the rookies ease in at a
more reasonable pace.  If Stafford was willing to come back (highly
doubtful), he’d be the perfect fit.  There are other options on the UFA
market that will present themselves as we proceed into August though.  The
other is to add some extra depth but because of the 50 contract limit, that
likely will have to come via minor league deals. 

Unsigned Prospects

Although there aren’t any big names in this group, there are some intriguing
prospects.  Mac Bennett is a mobile player whose stock continues to rise
(and I had high expectations for him to begin with) but he is several years away
at this point.  The same can be said for Josiah Didier whose raw skill is
noteworthy but he’s still putting it all together.  One player who is
looking like a bit of a steal is 2011 5th rounder Darren Dietz.  He already
logs heavy minutes and possesses a good scoring touch for a blueliner and should
only get better.  Magnus Nygren, who will stay in Sweden after declining an
offer to come to North America in late May, is an interesting offensive-first
player but will need to improve his play in the defensive zone.  Colin
Sullivan will just be starting his college career this upcoming season and at
this point can’t be counted on to be part of future plans although his raw
skills make him worth monitoring.

Needs Assessment: Low – Even though there isn’t a bluechipper in the
bunch (that’s what happens when two years of first rounders move on at the same
time) there are still a few players that have some legitimate upside.  The
defensive cupboard is well stocked and shouldn’t be a must-fill priority as it
was for Trevor Timmins and company a few short years ago.  Of course, on
the other hand, you can never have too much of a good thing and with the premium
being placed on defencemen lately, it wouldn’t be the worst thing to keep
loading up here.