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After their struggles in the postseason, many fans are hopeful that Marc
Bergevin will find a way to improve the defence in free agency, particularly in
the grit department with Alexei Emelin expected to miss a couple of months and
Jarred Tinordi having only a handful of NHL games under his belt. 
Unfortunately for the Habs and any other team looking to upgrade the D in free
agency, the pickings are awfully slim.

Here are some of the top blueliners available and their ideal roles:

Offensive/Skill defencemen

Keith Ballard (VAN): After clearing regular waivers a couple of days
ago, it’s safe to say he won’t be picked up off of buyout waivers.  Ballard
fell out of favour with Alain Vigneault in Vancouver and really struggled,
failing to hit double digit points for the third straight year.  I do think
he can rebound elsewhere and get back to the 20+ point plateau but given his
declining stats and the fact he’s not overly tall for a d-man, he may be best
served looking for a one year deal.

Joe Corvo (CAR): After being a core guy for several years, Corvo’s at
the point where he’s trying to extend his career on a year-to-year basis with a
declining role each time.  With the Hurricanes, he actually led their
blueline in scoring and showed that he has enough left in his game to get a look
somewhere else for another year.  He has made between $2 and $2.75 M the
past seven seasons, it’s reasonable to expect another one year deal will come in
either within that range or a tad below.

Marek Zidlicky (NJ): I don’t think the Habs will be pursuing any
offensive guys but if they do, he’s the best of the bunch out there.  He’s
still a threat on the powerplay and also is defensively competent enough to not
require a ton of sheltered minutes.  At 36, he’s likely going to be looking
for a short-term deal but given that Zidlicky is one of the best of his kind out
there, it won’t be for a bargain basement price; he made $4 M the past three

Two-way defencemen

Admittedly, a couple of these names are a stretch to fit in this category
but the options are very limited.

Tom Gilbert (MIN): I’m going to assume he doesn’t get plucked off of
buyout waivers.  Before this shortened season, Gilbert picked up at least
22 points in each of his five full NHL campaigns and had a points pace to do so
again had it been a full 2012-13 year.  His size is also a plus although he
doesn’t use it to his advantage often enough.  Given that he won’t be
claimed with a $4 M cap hit, I expect that his new deal will come in below that
although I wouldn’t be surprised to see a multi-year pact around $2.5 M – $3 M. 

Ron Hainsey (WPG): If you’re looking for someone who can log top-four
minutes, this is probably the best option out there.  Hainsey hasn’t turned
into the offensive threat the Habs hoped he’d be when they drafted him but he
has turned into a serviceable #4/5 blueliner.  His bloated contract hasn’t
helped his reputation around the league and there may be some owners who shy
away given his role in labour talks but he still has a few good years left in
him and would help shore up the depth on a defence corps.

Ryan Whitney (EDM): 2012-13 was a nightmarish season for Whitney who
got in the doghouse early and never seemed to get out of it.  Clearly he
isn’t a top pairing player as he was for a couple of years when he was in his
prime but at 30, he’s far from being over the hill either.  He won’t come
close to receiving the $5.5 M he earned this past year but given that there was
interest from quite a few teams at the trade deadline a few months ago, he
should be able to get a decent sized and priced deal from his new team.

Defensive/physical defencemen

Andrew Ference (BOS): Ference isn’t going to overwhelm you with his
size but he plays a quality defensive game and as Montreal fans certainly know
well, he doesn’t shy away from the physical side of the game either.  He
isn’t the greatest in terms of offensive production but he’ll chip with a goal
from time to time and isn’t a terrible puck mover.  Given his reputation,
he should have several suitors and should get a deal somewhat close to the $2.25
M he earned with the Bruins.

Douglas Murray (PIT): A few years ago, Murray was thought of as a
defensive force, a player who could hit, fight, play well in his own end, and
give you good second pairing minutes.  Although that’s still his reputation
today, that’s not who he is now.  Yes, he can still hit and fight but his
defensive zone play is weakening, he’s extremely slow, and he can’t handle more
than third pairing minutes.  Despite that, the perception that he’s still
that player (or can still be that player) will get him a pricey and lengthy

Rob Scuderi (LA): In my opinion he’s the top d-man available that
could help the Habs.  He’s a smart, stay-at-home player with the size to
help clear the crease.  Scuderi would complement Josh Gorges well in the
penalty killing and shot blocking department and is strong enough defensively to
pair with an offensive-minded defender, enabling them to be more aggressive to
make things happen.  At 34, he shouldn’t get a too much of a long-term pact
but three years at money comparable to the $3.4 M he earned with the Kings is a
likely possibility.

Options for Hamilton

Since the Bulldogs are likely to lose Frederic St. Denis, they could be
facing a situation where rookie Magnus Nygren is the elder statesman of the
defence corps.  I don’t think that’s particularly ideal so I imagine
they’ll look to add at least one veteran.  Should they choose to bring in a
defenceman who would require an NHL two-way deal (instead of a minor league only
one), here are a few names that could be considered.

Chad Billens: At 24, there’s a bit of upside and he was one of the
higher scoring blueliners in the AHL last season.  Although he played with
Detroit’s AHL affiliate, he isn’t under contract to the Wings.

Nate Guenin: He has shown in recent years that he can be a reasonable
callup to the big club but whose best role is in a second pairing defensive role
in the minors.  He would be a good option to partner up with Nathan

Brendan Mikkelson: Has passed through waivers enough times to know
he’s likely to start in the minors next year.  He has enough offensive
ability to be a second pairing player and would be a passable recall option.

Matt Pelech: The former first rounder provides little in the way of
skill but would add some much needed toughness to the Bulldogs.  He also
has spent some time as a 4th line forward which could also come in handy.

Mike Vernace: A former Bulldog, he is being to look like a career
AHL’er but is still a #2/3 defenceman who can play a variety of roles.  His
offensive game went to another level in 2012-13 so his asking price (even on the
AHL side) won’t be cheap.

Nolan Yonkman: A long-time AHL veteran who is good in the room and can
help out defensively and on the penalty kill, albeit a 3rd pairing player at
this stage.