Thursday, October 02, 2008

Canadiens Depth Preview: The Defence (Part 1)

Following on from the preview of the forwards in the organization, I'm moving on to defenders (again, based on the list of those who have progressed as far as a training camp invite). As before, Part 1 will be big-team guys, Part 2 will be the farm system as it stands now.

Based on team lists, prospect lists and my evaluations, here is the list of defencemen in order of importance to the team:

  1. Andrei Markov
  2. Roman Hamrlik
  3. Mike Komisarek
  4. Josh Gorges
  5. Francis Bouillon
  6. Ryan O'Byrne
  7. Yannick Weber
  8. Patrice Brisebois
  9. Shawn Belle
  10. Mathieu Carle
  11. Pavel Valentenko
  12. Alex Henry
  13. Chad Anderson
  14. PK Subban
  15. Conrad Martin
  16. Philippe Paquet
  17. Joe Stejskal

The top-line defenders

Andrei Markov

The keystone.

key·stone (kstn)
1. Architecture The central wedge-shaped stone of an arch that locks its parts together. Also called headstone.
2. The central supporting element of a whole.

Without Andrei Markov, this is a very different team. Suddenly we have players straining to play above their level on the depth chart at the back. The orchestration of the powerplay is out the window and the other team doesn't have to worry about any seeing-eye passes from the back boards to a rushing Kostitsyn.

Such are Markov's skills that when he's out our team goes to pot defensively and offensively. Fortunately for the Canadiens, the team now has Roman Hamrlik and a bit more depth. Even so, lose an elite defender like Markov and you'll notice.

But let's not harp on what will happen when he's not there. What happens when he is there?

Offensively, I pointed to the powerplay as one area of his influence. I would say it goes much further than that. I am not sure if you all remember the days when Brisebois was pretending to be our number one defenceman. During those dark days, the Canadiens were not a team be reckoned with going forward – not at all. One of the primary reasons for this was the fact the team needed three or four cracks to get into the offensive zone – teams like New Jersey never let us in. Markov has chaned all that. He does it in two ways. First, he can and does carry the puck himself (a critically important skill for gaining the zone). Second, thanks to the fact he can carry it opens up passing options for him, which he uses with exquisite efficiency.

Defensively, he's near as good. Though he gets some tough assignments, one rarely feels nervous to have Andrei manning the back lines. His bodychcking is not well-known around the league, but is proficient enough. His poke-checking and player ushering must be talked about in all pre-game talks.

Finally, Markov's a very good team man. He will play in all situations and will play with many different partners. Importantly, his partners seem to get better at his side – and he has made Komisarek over the last three seasons.

Andrei's 2007-08 Review

Roman Hamrlik

Hamrlik was a great acquisition last summer. In fact, looking back now, it looks even more sound. Consider for a moment how much Ron Hainsey is getting paid and be glad we had our top three defencemen assembled before July this year.

I think this year will be a good one for Roman. At this point in his career, one kows what to expect form Hamrlik on the ice, but this season (with a year under his belt) he will be able to assert his personality and 1000+ games experience on the young blueliners. Even by conservative estimates, our blueline will include one player with a mere 2 years cumulative experience and another with half a season, so a veteran like Hamrlik will be invaluable. Should Weber make the jump at his young age, Hamrlik will no doubt be able to regale him with tales of his early 20s in Tampa and show the youngster the ropes of life for a young European in the NHL.

It's been a while now since Hamrlik's name has been on the radar in the upper rounds of a hockey pool, but this year (should he inherit the right point position), he could turn back into powerplay anchor. He certainly has the stature and particularly the shot to make it happen. I can already see him keeping the puck alive in the zone with regularity.

Having Hamrlik around not only benefits the youngsters he can tutor, but also the workhorses Markov and Komisarek. Because he was also a number one guy, and is stil an outstanding athlete, Hamrlik can play 20 minutes or more with ease. And, because of his skil and poise, those 20 minutes become a whole third of the game where quality defence is played.

Like Markov, Hamrlik is key to the defensive lineup. When he and Markov are there, the two defencemen playing with them are better, the forwards are asked to do less on defence and the 5th and 6th defencemen can play a manageable and sensible role in the game. No one is overstretched, everyone is relaxed and comfortable.

Roman's 2007-08 Review

Mike Komisarek

I think it was in February that I declared Mike Komisarek to be the pleasant surprise of the season. By the end of the season, I had significantly downgraded that assessment. He had an excellent few steps forward, but seemed to stall and even struggle at the close.

To be far to Mike, it is worth explaining how his progress last season made him the standout of a pretty outstanding group of Montreal Canadiens for me up until the last 20 games. Firstly, he started to get it. He learned what defending effectively at the NHL level was all about. He stopped taking retaliatory penalties almost altogether, no longer made hits just to make hits (he slipped back to that vs. Lucic) and used his partner more effectively. Andrei and Mike were feeding off each other and were quickly becoming one of the best pairings NHL-wide. Secondly, he became elite at both hitting effectively and shot-blocking – leading the league at points in both categories. Finally, he was becoming a silent leader on the team.

This season, it sounds like Mike is primed and ready to go. And that's all we need from Mike really – concentration, efficiency and some crushing body checks. Playing with Markov, there is no reason to believe he would regress. If anything the precedent he has shown is that he will come into the season even better than we remember.

You can talk about Gainey building this team all you want, but Andre Savard' picking Komisarek in 2001 was brave, and in retrospect perfectly timed. Defensive defencemen of this stature take time to develop (much more than forwards), because they need to learn the game. Now that Mike has learned, it seems the team around him is also ready to blossom.

Mike's 2007-08 Review

Josh Gorges

Pleasant surprises are the best thing, aren't they? Josh Gorges comes in from the Rivet trade with a draft pick as what most thought was spare part. Following a full season with the Habs, he is firmly ensconced at number 4 on the depth chart.

Of course, we should have known better than to be surprised. Josh had NHL experience at 22, he had a Memorial Cup as a captain of the Kelowna Rockets in 2004. He was also drafted by the canny Doug Wilson who knows the WHL very very well.

Isn't it funny though how in a trade where you think you are losing a certain known quantity that it can work out that you receive the same in return. If I had to liken Gorges to a recent Canadiens player, I don't think I could find a better parallel than Rivet. Early Rivet that is. Josh is a proficient skater with a responsible and anticipatory aspect to his play. Like Rivet, he has potential going forward and can fill in occasionally, but it's not what he does best.

Again, the timing of this trade was well chosen. Now, instead of Rivet, a large salary and a massive personality on a growing young team, we have Rivet Jr. (Gorges) who will grow and learn with the rest and be ready to thrive at the same time. I look forward to watching Josh reprise his role with the Canadiens form the playoffs very soon, as it is very satisfying to watch his efficient and intelligent plays.

I should note, it will come with some relief to myself (and probably to Josh) that Gainey signed big Georges Laraque. Not because Gorges will fight any less, but because now the French commentary team will have to figure out how to pronounce his name so as to distinguich him form Georges.

Josh's 2007-08 Review

Filling out the NHL roster

Francis Bouillon

Can you believe this will be Francis' 11th year with the Canadiens organisation? We make such a fuss over that other defender being around so long, things like this slip right by.

An 11-year NHL career, much less 11 years with the Canadiens and their farm system, was probably beyond even Frank's wildest dreams after he finished the 1997-98 season with the IHL Quebec Rafales. At the time, like a few of the guys signed this summer, I'm sure Bouillon was signed to be an AHL defenceman. But in what was a dark dark time for the Canadiens farm team, he shone. 3rd on the team in points (behind Martin Gendron?? and Eric Houde??, can you believe any of it?).

All in all it's been pretty well uncelebrated over the years - Bouillon's accomplishment, that is. He pulled a bit of a Josh Gorges himself, back in the day, albeit the competition for NHL defenceman positions was not the hottest its ever been (Brisebois, Dykhuis, Laflamme).

Nonetheless, since that season, barring a brief stint in Nashville and Europe, Bouillon has provided the Canadiens with reliable defending. And, slated as the 5th defenceman, I wouldn't want much more than that. In fact, looking through the league as I currently am for my hockey pool, I don't see more than a handful of 5th defenders that could compare to Bouillon.

This season should be a good one for Bouillon as he will start knowing his place is with the final pairing. he will not need to attempt too much going forward, though any little will be much appreciated. His role is certainly diminishing with the team. But, unlike Dandenault who can't keep up with the improvement around him and Brisebois who has no excuse to cash an NHL paycheque, Bouillon holds a niche. He hits better than most, including Komi, most nights, he can skate and even sticks up for teammates when he needs to. He has deficiencies too, but that's why he's #5.

Frank's 2007-08 Review

Ryan O'Byrne

Ryan impressed a lot last season. It has been noted that he had a bit of a rough start, but that after a certain point (when he learned what the heck was going on) he was a plus player the rest of the way out.

He is still 6th on the list because of his inexperience. As the season goes on, the Ivy leaguer (gosh we have a few now), should learn and assure himself a permanent place for this season and into the forseeable future.

The reasons to like O'Byrne are numerous. First, he is a big boy - sometimes listed 6'5", other times 6'6", always 230+ lbs. Second, he plays a solid game. Soid and uncomplicated. Unlike Komisarek when he came up, O'Byrne doesn't seem to feel the need to rattle the glass every 10 seconds. He focuses on defending the net and uses his body efficiently. In that way, he sort of seems smaller than he is, but that is a mere function of expectation. Big players have been gentle and effective before (Uwe Krupp), and I get the feeling Ryan can turn on the nastiness if he absolutely needs to.

Ryan is likely going to be in the fortunate position of inheriting a place with Roman Hamrlik. Largely due to the efficacy of Josh Gorges on his own and with Bouillon, Ryan is the one who needs the big hand to hold. This should benefit O'Byrne greatly should it last, because Hamrlik is precisely the right role model (defensively that is) for him - efficient and intelligent. If Ryan puts his Ivy league education to learning Hamrlik's ways, it will be very big indeed for the Habs.

Ryan's 2007-08 Review

Yannick Weber

The week began with a bit of Weber mania. As it ends, the fickle horde have already moved on to Max Pacioretty. In my opinion, though, Weber is very much the better fit for the current team than Pacioretty. That's to take nothing away from Max.

Yannick enters the final days of camp as the lone offensive defenceman among the pledges. Markov is the boss. Hamrlik can pull weight. and Brisebois is the massive pretender, but Weber can slot right ahead of Patrice.

I am aware that in all likelihood this will not happen. The management of the revered franchise do not share my same pragmatic take on Patrice Brisebois and feel that having a defensive liability with very limited offensive awareness and 16 years of losing to pass on to the younger generation, is much better than taking a chance on someone who might actually be what everyone has promised Brisebois should be for decades. But the fragile one, who's probably banking on another free ticket to playoff hockey is likely to injure his groin so many times this season that the 7th defender position should open right up.

Weber, really, just has to get down to Hamilton and do a Sergei Kostitsyn down there. Be ready for the time, and then come up and show the bosses that the veteran taking his place is old news. When will this happen? I'm not sure, but I trust Weber will be ready. His skills will be even more exceptional in the AHL where offensive defencemen are rarer than a shutout in the Q.

Patrice Brisebois

He shouldn't be here. Not again.

Gainey is the scientist who keeps trying to get the watermelon and the apple to fall at different speeds. Brisebois's play is like gravity, unavoidable and holding down the huge weight around the Canadiens necks.

I have nothing more to say.

Patrice's 2007-08 Review

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