Off-Season Analysis: The Defense

Breaking: According to the team, the Montreal Canadiens have traded AHL goaltender Cedrick Desjardins to the Tampa Bay Lightning in exchange for goaltender Karri Ramo. Ramo, a 24-year-old native of Finland who has played 48 NHL games since 2007, played for the Omsk Avangard of the KHL this past season, and has one more year left on his Russian contract. The 6th round pick of the Lightning in 2004 has never put up stellar numbers at the pro level, but recently broke out in Russia, where he was amongst the league’s best goaltenders.

The Canadiens, in turn, lose a solid, underrated, and undrafted 25 year old goaltender from New Brunswick who helped the Canadiens’ farm team, the Hamilton Bulldogs, reach the AHL’s conference finals this past season and proved to be one of the best goaltenders in that league.

Both will probably never rise to be anything more than back-up goaltenders, maybe 1Bs with some desperate team. But from the Canadiens’ perspective, the deal is somewhat baffling. With Carey Price still unsigned, and no proof that Ramo will return to North America this season, the move leaves the Canadiens some thin at the goaltending position. Curtis Sanford becomes the number one goaltender in Hamilt0n, and prospect Robert Mayer will likely back him up to start the season. Alex Auld is the only NHL goaltender signed.

Canadiens fans might not be unjustified in starting to get worried about Price’s contract situation, less than one month before training camp.

But more on that when we look at goaltending next week.

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Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve taken an in-depth look at the forwards of the Montreal Canadiens, coming out of last season and heading into the next.

First, we looked at the top-six forwards, ranking the Canadiens top 2 lines and looking at what they might look like come October. The answer, interesting enough, was that they would look exactly the same as they did last season and during the playoffs.

Next, we looked at the “best of the rest” of the forwards, meaning the 3rd and 4th lines, the extras, and anyone who might stand a chance of getting called up this upcoming season. In this case, the two forward lines that will make up the depth of the team next month actually looked fairly different from the group that started the season for the Canadiens in 2009.

And with the forwards out of the way, we move on to the defensemen. The group of 7 that will start the season for the Canadiens is pretty much set in stone, and has been since the Habs’ miracle run to the Eastern Conference Finals.

If you ask me, Jaroslav Halak was not the main reason the Montreal Canadiens were one of the final 4 teams in the NHL this past May. While his performance obviously saved the Canadiens from defeat and embarrassment many a time, I firmly believe that Halak could not have accomplished what he did if it wasn’t for the 8 defensemen that saw time on the blue line in April and May. From blocking shots, to contributing to the offense and simply being there for Halak and the team, the defense of the Montreal Canadiens is what defined this team in their achievements since the season closed out.

There are two defensemen that won’t be returning to the Canadiens this next season:

Marc-André Bergeron was signed as a depth player and powerplay specialist in October, after Andrei Markov succumbed to a severed tendon, thanks to a skate to the ankle. Obviously, no one was expecting Bergeron to replace Markov or be nearly as good as the Canadiens’ star defenseman, but you can’t say that Bergeron didn’t do what was asked or expected of him from the very beginning. Bergeron led all Canadiens defensemen with 13 goals (7 powerplay goals) and 34 points in 60 games. He was a -7 on the season, but if you thought that defense was Bergeron’s strong point, then I really don’t know what to tell you. Bergeron slowed down in the playoffs, contributing only 2 goals and 6 points in 19 games, and a somewhat disastrous -12, considering the 16 1/2 minutes of average ice time he was getting.

We found out after the playoffs that Bergeron was playing with a fairly severe knee injury. Moreover, it’s pretty clear that Bergeron was being stretched a little thin by the coaching staff, but that shouldn’t be considered his fault. Considering how known deficiencies on the back-end, and what was expected of him when he was signed, you can’t really ask for much more from a player such as Bergeron. With the emergence of PK Subban, he is no longer needed on the team, but he gets a B+ for what he accomplished in his role as essentially a depth defenseman.
2009-10 Grade: B+

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Paul Mara was signed in the off-season of 2009 to be a big body for the Canadiens as a 5th-6th defenseman, one who can pitch in offensively. But 8 assists, no goals and a -16 later, Habs fans quickly forgot about Paul Mara after playing just 42 games with the Canadiens, and missing the rest with a severe shoulder injury. He did come back to accompany the team during the playoffs, even though he couldn’t play, which saves him from a failing grade. But otherwise, there’s no way to describe Paul Mara other than a faile experiment.
2009-10 Grade: D

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If you forget about Marc-André Bergeron and Paul Mara – and I don’t think many Habs fans will lose any sleep over their departure – the defense for the Montreal Canadiens should look fairly familiar come October 7th in Toronto.

Rating and ranking the seven defensemen that played for the Canadiens last season and will play for the Canadiens this upcoming season was a difficult task. While nearly all of those shined at various intervals during the season and, of course, the playoffs, the corps suffered many injuries and slumps that might make ranking one over another somewhat controversial.

Still, when looking at these rankings, and these grades, think about the roles asked of each of these players, their consistency in said roles, the amount of games they played and the effect their presence had on the team. Unlike forwards, you can’t rank defenseman based mostly on offensive production. That being said, I present to you the Montreal Canadiens defense, ranked 1 through 7!

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1. JOSH GORGES
2009-10: 82GP – 3G – 7A – 10PTS – +2
Playoffs: 19GP – 0G – 2A – 2PTS – -4

2009-10 Season: Josh Gorges was the rock on the Canadiens blue line this past season. He played all 82 games of the regular season, and 19 of the playoffs. He didn’t even miss a game after he was knocked out by a puck to the helmet in February. Gorges obviously isn’t a scoring machine, and with the additions of Bergeron and even Jaroslav Spacek, his offensive production fell by more than half of his career best 23 points from the year before, but it doesn’t matter. Whenever the Canadiens needed him, Gorges was there, ready to defend the blue line, head teammates, and to lead the team into the playoffs with his courage and determination.

The stats that puts him ahead of the pack? The 55 blocked shots that put him in second place on the team in the playoffs, behind Hal Gill (158 to lead the team in the regular season). The fact that he only gave up the puck 3 times. The 25 hits that weren’t the most on the team, but were well placed and effective for a player of his size and style. And the consistent 20 to 22 minutes a game he’ll give you every night.

Josh Gorges will never lead your team in any stat. He will never be a superstar in any regard. But he is a tremendous leader, one who leads by example, grit, determination and consistency, and a player who is invaluable to the Montreal Canadiens, no matter what the stat say. He is this team’s unsung hero, and gets the top stop on this year’s ranking of defensemen.

2009-10 Grade: A. Can you tell that I’m infatuated with this player? In case you didn’t know it yet, readthis article on who I think should be the Canadiens’ captain. In any case, Gorges gets the top spot, for his consistency, his toughness and his determination and leadership, qualities that are often looked over when it comes to pro athletes, thanks to the magic of statistics.

2010-11 Expectations: Keep doing what you’re doing. Oh, and to make room on your jersey for a big “C” to be sewn on.

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2. HAL GILL
2009-10: 68GP – 2G – 9A – 11PTS – -10
Playoffs: 18GP – 0G – 1A – 1PTS – -3

2009-10 Season: Ok, admittedly, I might lose some people here. But keep in mind what the requirements are. Determination. Grit. Consistency. Toughness. There aren’t many players who fit this mold better than Hal Gill. There aren’t many players who have overcome bigger odds to make it in the NHL. Hal Gill has been called many things over his NHL career, including dumb, clumsy, and traffic cone. But this past season, the big 6’7″, 250lbs 35-year-old proved once again why he continues to be a sought after player in the NHL.

Gill suffered two major injuries this past season. A broken foot that kept him out of the line-up for 14 games late in 2009, and a cut to the back of his leg in the playoffs. Despite taking 50 stitches to a fairly sensitive place on his body, Gill missed just 1 game, and knowing him, he would have probably played the game if they had let him. These injuries did not hold Gill back from doing what he does best. His 68 blocked shots put him at the top of the team, and despite his injury, the 150 shots he blocked during the season was the best per-game on the team as well. His 11 points and -10 plus/minus put his season in amongst his worst in his career, in terms of offense, but offense is the last thing that was asked of him by coach Jacques Martin.

In the end, Gill delivered on his $2.25 million in different ways than other players would, but he proved a lot of naysayers and skeptics and earned his spot with hard work, toughness and a never-give-up attitude. For this, he earns spot number 2 on our rankings.

2009-10 Grade: B+. Complaining about Hal Gill’s performance this past season, and especially in the playoffs, would be totally unfair to him and to the team. Everyone knew what he was capable of, what he had done in the past, and in my opinion, Hal Gill delivered on those expectations, and in fact exceeded them, turning into a shot blocking machine when the Canadiens couldn’t keep the puck out of their own zone during the playoffs.

2010-11 Expectations: To expect him not to be injured or really exceed what he did last season would be unfair. At 35 years old, and considering the way he plays, Gill is probably in the twilight of his career. However, if he continues blocking shots, if he continues mentoring Josh Gorges, and if his ice time continues to be capped at under 20 minutes a game for the most part, Hal Gill should have no trouble satisfying fans. The only thing that could be asked of him is to reduce the number of giveaways, and to try and stay out of the box.

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3. ANDREI MARKOV
2009-10: 45GP – 6G – 28A – 34PTS – +11
Playoffs: 8GP – 0G – 4A – 4PTS – -3

2009-10 Season: It’s tough to hurt a player’s rating based on injury. But considering Markov’s topsy-turvy season, what he’s been through and what he’s put the team through, it,s hard to put him ahead of other players, even considering what he does for the team when he’s healthy. Frankly, placing 3rd on the team may even be slightly generous. But the truth is that when Andrei Markov is healthy, he’s one of the best defensemen in the NHL. When Andrei Markov is healthy, the team wins more. He’s unquestionably the on-ice leader of this team, and the closest thing to a star player the Canadiens have had in years.

But the severed tendon he suffered in the first game of the season, and the torn knee ligament he suffered in the playoffs should definitely be a cause for concern for Canadiens fans. Add that to yet another knee injury at the end of the 2008-09 season, and Habs fans will definitely be pulling at their own collars for Markov news as the season approaches.

In any case, Markov’s offensive and defensive contributions, when he’s healthy, speak for themselves. His 34 points still managed to tie him for the lead in points by a defenseman this past season, and, again, when he was healthy, this team had an easier time winning.

2009-10 Grade: B. Markov is unquestionably the best defenseman the Canadiens have. But questions of his health and his ability to play a full season have to come into play here. He still remains at a very generous B rating, but one that may have to include an asterisk.

2010-11 Expectations: No one knows when Markov will be ready to play. The severity of the injury he suffered in the playoffs pretty much rules out a return for the beginning of the season, but don’t be surprised to see Markov return in November, or early December, and play 50-60 games for the Canadiens. He also has a contract to earn for the season after this one, so if he hasn’t been signed before he returns, expect him to step it up even more, to add as many dollars as he can on his new contract. Assuming he manages to come back for 60 games and stays healthy, 10 goals and 40 assists should be the expectation for Andrei Markov.

On a side note, don’t forget to read this great piece on Markov by our good friend Kyle Roussel!

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4. P.K. Subban
2009-10: 2GP – 0G – 2A – 2PTS – +1
Playoffs: 14GP – 1G – 7A – 8PTS – +2

2009-10 Season: The best way to describe Habs fans attitude towards PK Subban is “hesitant enthusiasm”. While only playing 2 regular season games for the Habs late this past season, Subban had an immediate impact on the team, putting up 2 assists and electrifying fans with his incredible speed and energy. It was no different in the playoffs, where Subban’s unusually calm attitude made Canadiens’ fans nearly forget about Andrei Markov’s injury.

Subban finished the playoffs with 1 goal (his first NHL goal) and 7 assists, second behind Roman Hamrlik for the lead amongst defenseman. He also led the entire team in +/- in the playoffs, and was the source of much attention from the opposition when he was on the ice.

To say that PK Subban had an impact on the team may even be an understatement. But considering this team’s treatment of rookies and young players in the past, Canadiens fans have remained tempered towards Subban, and await to see what he can do over the course of a full NHL season. Still, for his immediate contribution to the team, his attitude and modesty, Subban receives a B to tie with Andrei Markov and take 4th place.
2009-10 Grade: B.

2010-11 Expectations: Subban will start the season on the team, probably on a duo with either Roman Hamrlik or Jaroslav Spacek. We can only hope that he will remain with the team the entire season and lead all defensemen in points with 10-15 goals and 40-50 assists. Maybe these expectations are a little high, but frankly, he’s brought it on himself. Just be happy I didn’t put “Calder Trophy” as an expectation.

Oops.

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5. ROMAN HAMRLIK
2009-10: 75GP – 6G – 20A – 26PTS – -2
Playoffs: 19GP – 0G – 9A – 9PTS – -1

2009-10 Season: Roman Hamrlik has always had a love-hate relationship with Habs fans, since his arrival in the city three years ago. To me, his work has always been underrated. While he’s no longer been able to put up some of the offensive numbers he used to, he’s held up rather fine at a fairly advanced age for a hockey player, he’s been fairly consistent in being this team’s go-to guy when injuries or slumps required him to step up.

This season, he was only slightly behind Andrei Markov in ice time per game, and while he pretty much had one of his worst seasons in terms of production, without Roman Hamrlik, this team does not make the playoffs. He, along with Jaroslav Spacek, kept this team afloat during Andrei Markov’s absence, and despite a fair amount of stupid delay-of-game penalties and turnovers, they did the same in the playoffs.

I’m a supporter of Roman Hamrlik, and although his contract status at $5.6 million a year, his age and some of the lost defensive prowess push him down to 5th in the rankings, he still has the ability to be this team’s #1 defensemen, when the people that are supposed to be in that position are injured.
2009-10 Grade: B-.

2010-11 Expectations: About the same offensive production, maybe an extra 10 points if he’s paired with PK Subban for a large portion of the season. Hamrlik’s role needs to turn into that of a teacher, a mentor, in the last year of his contract. If he can have a positive effect on PK Subban and/or Ryan O’Byrne, I can see Pierre Gauthier bringing him back in 2011-12 at a highly reduced salary.

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6. JAROSLAV SPACEK
2009-10:74GP – 3G – 18A – 21PTS – +9
Playoffs: 10GP – 1G – 3A – 4PTS – -2

2009-10 Season: When Jaroslav Spacek was signed to a 3 year deal by Bob Gainey, the expectation was that Spacek would become the team’s powerplay specialist. The result, unfortunately, was one of Spacek’s worst years, offensively. But what he lost in terms of offense, he managed to make up in defense. As mentioned above with Roman Hamrlik, Spacek’s heroics in Markov’s absence, and in the 10 games he played in the playoffs (he missed 9 with a very odd inner-ear infection), Spacek and the Canadiens’ season was saved.

He played a bigger role in this team’s success than he will be given credit for, and his grade just has to be reduced based on his lack of production, but he definitely deserves some credit for really a surprising defensive performance in this past season.

2009-10 Grade: C.

2010-11 Expectations: With Markov nearly guaranteed to miss the start of the season, Subban in a rookie year, and Roman Hamrlik receding offensively, Spacek simply has to step it up and put up more points. 40 points, however he gets to him, is the minimum.

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7. RYAN O’BYRNE
2009-10: 55GP – 1G – 3A – 4PTS – -3
Playoffs: 13GP – 0G – 0A – 0PTS – +1

2009-10 Season: I almost feel bad ranking Ryan O’Byrne 7th amongst defensemen. But the truth is, this past year, he was just that, a 7th defenseman. The 6’5″ 230 pounder was supposed to break out this year, and after Andrei Markov suffered his injury in the first game, he was all set up to get his shot. But surprise, surprise, in game 2 of the regular season, he suffered a knee injury that would keep him out for nearly 20 games. Add another 7 missed games due to personal reasons, and O’Byrne never really found his stride on the team, falling out of favor with the coach.

He still managed to provide 119 hits in 55 games in the season, and 32 in 13 playoff games to lead all defensemen in both instances, but for some reason, the coach just seemed to prefer other players, even in a 6th spot. O’Byrne definitely benefited from other injuries, drawing into the line-up more often than he would if the team was healthy, but with the depth at defense heading into next season, O’Byrne future as a Canadien might be in jeopardy.

2009-10 Grade: C-.

2010-11 Expectations: O’Byrne has to find a way to keep himself in the line-up. Hit, block shots, fight, even try and put up some points if he has to. He’ll likely draw in on Game 1 thanks, again, to Andrei Markov’s injury, but if the group is healthy when Markov returns, he’ll be the first to find himself in the press box. A pace of 3 hits per game, a fight every few games and 2 or 3 blocked shots of game might be what it takes for O’Byrne to stay with the team.

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NEW ARRIVALS

The Canadiens are kind of thin on defensive prospects, at least in terms of who could see action with the team this season. David Fischer is officially done with the team. Jarred Tinordi’s development recently promised to speed up with his move to the London Knights, but he won’t see pro action this season. Mac Bennett is still at university and Alexei Emelin may never come to North America.

What’s left for the Canadiens if someone (else) gets injured?

Alexandre Picard Will be the first call-up, that is, if he doesn’t stay with the team out of training camp. While Sens fans don’t have much to say about the namesake of a certain Starfleet captain, Picard brings to the Canadiens nearly 200 games of pro experience, secondary scoring ability. Plus, he can’t be as bad in his own zone as Bergeron.

- Expect Yannick Weber to continue his Hamilton / Press Box duties this season.

- Every year, it seems like we’re talking about Mathieu Carle’s last chance with the Canadiens, and every season it seems like something comes in the way of him getting the shot. This year, he’s low on the depth chart and probably won’t get called up unless he has an incredible start in Hamilton or the Canadiens suffer more than a few injuries.

Alex Henry returns to Hamilton in his defensive – captaincy duties, and might see another game or two with the big club if needed.

Other than that, that’s pretty much it folks. Habs fans can only hope the team can stay relatively healthy on the back-end, but with 3 defensemen over 35, one who’s suffered 3 lower body injuries in the last calendar year, and another two young defensemen who can’t be guaranteed to have good years, there could be a lot of cringing for Habs fans during this upcoming season.

Still, as it stands, a healthy Montreal Canadiens defense corps doesn’t look half bad:

Spacek (Markov) – Subban
Gill – Gorges
Hamrlik – O’Byrne (Spacek)
Picard (O’Byrne)

In the next few days, we’ll take a look at the Canadiens goaltending (if any), and close it out with a nice little chat about coaching and management.

Until then, please leave your comments, grades and rankings!

Prax
TheCheckingLine.com
Twitter.com/GeorgePrax

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About the Author: George Prax, born and raised in Montreal, offers a unique point of view when it comes to blogging. A devout Montrealer, Quebequois and Canadian, Prax is and always be a die hard Habs fan, one who feels it necessary to offer his view on the Canadiens, the NHL, and hockey happenings in general. Expect many articles on the Canadiens, some from the point of view of a fan, some from the point of view of a blogger and some more distant, but expect them often, and expect them full of passion. Prax, who has somewhat of an infamous reputation around the online hockey community, also has interests in music, movies, television, as well as politics, and they are nearly as deeply rooted as his love for hockey. Prax is the senior content editor at The Checking Line, a website devoted to offering the best hockey discussion around the net, one that features bloggers from all over the league, and one that's constantly growing. Visit www.thecheckingline.com for more of Prax's work.

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  1. Tejus Govindjie says:

    Great analysis George. I didn’t realize how solid the Canadiens defense looks till you wrote this. Especially if Subban banks on even half of his potential.

    I agree about Gorges being a great candidate for the captaincy. Loved his game even early on when he was with the Sharks. Likened it to Marc-Edouard Vlasic’s defensive game with more grit, heart, and leadership.

  2. George Prax says:

    Thanks for the comment Tejus.

    When Gorges came over, no one really thought of him as the centerpiece of the Rivet deal. Truthfully, he might be the best acquisition Bob Gainey ever made. I don’t think I noticed him making an error the entire season. And frankly his lack of offensive production doesn’t bother me.