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Normally in late July, we have a good idea about what the defence pairings should look like heading into the next season.  When it comes to the Habs though, that isn’t really the case.

The Canadiens have an established top three in Shea Weber, Andrei Markov, and Jeff Petry.  There are as many as six candidates to fill the other three spots in the lineup on opening night – Nathan Beaulieu, Alexei Emelin, Mark Barberio, Greg Pateryn, Zach Redmond, and perhaps Mikhail Sergachev if the talks about his NHL readiness are true.  How would our writers shape up those last three spots?

Gordon Black: In terms of filling out the top four I will assume it comes down to a choice between Beaulieu, Emelin, and Barberio. I would actually prefer to see Markov on the third pairing to manage his even strength minutes and keep him fresher for special teams duties where his experience and skill are arguably more valuable. I would then line up Beaulieu with Weber and Emelin with Petry freeing up Markov to pair with Pateryn and changing Barberio throughout the lineup to manage minutes and injuries.

That said, if Markov is in the top-4 then I would prefer to see a more balanced lineup with Weber/Beaulieu, Markov/Petry, and Emelin/Pateryn/Barberio. Given Markov’s age and the relative decline of his speed these last years, I think the worst thing would be to pair him with Weber, as players off the rush may tend to attack the left in order to avoid Weber’s physicality on the right. I feel Beaulieu’s mobility and speed getting back would be a much better fit on the top pairing. Markov and Petry would represent a very solid second pairing boasting good two-way ability with high offensive upside if they could take advantage of mismatches – especially during home games. The “bottom” pair would be a nice blend of mobility and physicality with the ability to shelter Emelin and Pateryn from expectations of anything other than playing solid defensively.

It seems that balance in lineups (both offensive and defensive) is becoming more popular in the new NHL as smarter coaches learn to spread out talent and create chemistry by using linemates that feed off of each other’s strengths instead of just overpowering a single line or pairing – which can then be negated through various strategies (especially in the playoffs). Therefore I can probably assume that Therrien will start the year with Markov and Weber playing a ridiculous amount of minutes while Pateryn and Barberio lose value on the bench.

Brian La Rose: I think this is the year that Beaulieu solidifies himself as a top four player and I’d like to see him ideally on the top pairing if he can handle it.

As for the bottom pairing, Emelin’s salary pretty well guarantees that he’s going to play regularly.  If you want to trade him, sitting him only makes that more difficult.  On the right side, I think Pateryn has done enough to warrant a full-time #6 role.  However, an Emelin-Pateryn pairing, two slow-footed physical blueliners that don’t handle the puck well, is asking for trouble.  Barberio showed he could play the right side a bit last year so I’d slot him in with Emelin even though he’d be on his off-side.

Redmond’s an interesting case.  They gave him two years so they may think he’s worthy of keeping around but I don’t really see a spot for him unless they keep eight blueliners (which forces another forward to the minors and/or the waiver wire).  As for Sergachev, he may be physically ready but he’s a young 18.  He still has a lot to work on in junior so I wouldn’t entertain even giving him his nine game tryout unless he’s the best blueliner in camp.

The Habs aren’t quite as loaded in terms of defensive depth as they are up front but a Emelin-Barberio third pairing with Pateryn and Redmond (as well as Philip Samuelsson in the AHL) behind them isn’t too shabby for a 5-9 group on the depth chart.

Alex Létourneau: With the top four 75% rostered up, who joins Markov, Weber, and Petry? My guess would be that Beaulieu gets the nod in training camp and to start the season. Assuming the R/L shot dynamic is maintained, a Beaulieu/Weber and Markov/Petry combo makes the most sense to me. You can’t have Weber/Markov together against speedy teams – they’ll get scorched. It’s also a great opportunity for a young 1st round talent to take the next step in his career and having Weber as your defensive partner isn’t too shabby. If these four guys are healthy during training camp and the beginning of the season, I’d think they partner up as described.

The third pairing is a tough one and there is going to be some serious competition. Left shooters are Barberio, Emelin, and Sergachev (I know, I’ll explain myself), while right side shooters are Pateryn and Redmond. While I’m not convinced that Emelin will be a Hab all season long, if he’s to gain or maintain value, he needs to play. Even with that line of thought, he’s been a regular NHL and KHL defenceman for years; he’ll start the season as one of the six d-men. On his right I’d think Pateryn has his work cut out for him. Redmond’s on a one-way contract and they gave him two years so he’s probably on the team and possibly joining Emelin on the third pairing. The Canadiens also extended Barberio this summer, so you’ve got four guys vying for two spots.  Add in the Sergachev wildcard, as he might earn a 9-game trial as he’s believed to be NHL ready – physically at least. Preseason should be fun.

Barring injury, you’re likely looking at Beaulieu/Weber, Markov/Petry and Emelin/Redmond with Barberio as your seventh guy, with the assumption that the R/L shooting dynamic is kept. Redmond and Barberio are interchangeable to me. Seeing that breakdown, I would think Bergevin is looking to move a player – likely Emelin with his modified no trade clause and $4.1 million salary. Markov’s tentatively off the books next season but I can see him signed for another year or two to help with Sergachev’s development once he makes the jump to the NHL. Anyhow, as we’ve seen, only Bergevin knows what the deal is. The depth on the back end does look good though.

Paul MacLeod: Given the decline in Markov’s foot speed and the need to limit his minutes he is no longer the team’s ideal #2 defenceman. Therefore, the Habs best options for defense pairings are:

Barberio – Weber
Markov – Petry
Beaulieu – Emelin

That gives a good balance of speed, puck moving and aggression. I would also consider swapping/alternating Pateryn with Emelin.

Norm Szcyrek: I expect Emelin will be deemed a 2nd pairing player due to his veteran status. Out of the remaining defencemen, I believe Beaulieu will be tabbed their #5 based on experience but also on merit. He’s proven to be reliable enough to be a full time player with the Habs this season. The remaining #6 spot will likely be shared between Pateryn and Barberio. Depending on the opposition, if a tougher defender is necessary then Pateryn will get the start. If the coaches decide they need more mobility then Barberio will get the nod. Unless Redmond is outstanding and another regular defenceman gets injured during training camp or during an exhibition game, it’s doubtful Redmond will make the pro squad to start the regular season. He may be useful as a veteran presence on the farm team, or in a call-up situation when Montreal is missing two or more regulars.

As for Sergachev, while he’s one of the most exciting prospects the team has had on the blueline, there’s no need to rush him into the NHL. He should get into a few exhibition games which will be beneficial for him to start to understand the pro game, and useful for the Habs brass to evaluate what they may actually have in him during a close to NHL pro match.