Thursday, October 06, 2011

Notes from Camp (Part 2 of 2) - The Defence

After looking at the forwards in part 1 of this series, we now shift our focus over to the defence. As you’ll notice, I tried to address more of the issues or concerns that stood out rather than do a complete man by man analysis.

Yannick Weber

Although I was disappointed with Weber’s performance this preseason I do believe it’s premature to write him off. I love Yannick Weber’s versatility (even though he might not - simply meaning he’d rather just be a defenceman) but that being said, I truly believe that he should be given a proper and fair shot at playing on the blue line. I don’t blame him for not being able to replicate the intensity and drive he showed during the playoffs. It’s not his first preseason and he clearly understands the concept of turning it up a notch or two. Considering injuries and/or slumps, I’m sure that he will get another showcase his talents on the back-end. But it is ultimately up to him to demonstrate that he can be a legitimate NHL defenceman.

Alexei Yemelin

We’ve been waiting for him to come to Montreal for years and now that he’s here, every Habs fan is almost unfairly dissecting every aspect of his play. From being overly physical at his first scrimmage to shying away from the physicality as training camp progressed, all I can preach with regards to Yemelin is patience. He has to be given the opportunity acclimatize himself to the North American game and more importantly the North American sized rinks. Imagine playing pool all your life on a pool table that’s 50% or so larger than the one you now have to play on against the very best players in the world. His angles, his positioning, cut-off points along with how he manages his gap all have to be adjusted not to mention the power he puts on his breakout passes. This is the problem that Alexei Yemelin is now facing and having to adapt to.

Ideally this would be done over a season or at least half a season in Hamilton versus weaker competition but we are all aware of his special status. Yemelin has proven himself in the KHL and on the international stage as well representing his native Russia in World Championships and in the Olympics, the guy can play. So we can’t send him down to Hamilton because if we do, he bolts to Russia to play in the KHL. So how do you deal with this dilemma? In my opinion, you shield him. Ideally, Andrei Markov would have been an ideal partner for Yemelin because he would have been capable of correcting a lot of Yemelin’s shortcomings and allowed the time for him to mature into a bone-fide NHL defenceman as occurred with Mike Komisarek (before he contracted blue & white disease and regressed).

We all saw what happened to Mike once he lost his pairing with Markov. It’s not unreasonable to believe that Markov could have been the perfect mentor to bring Yemelin into the NHL. Since, Markov is now injured and that situation is not possible, the next solution is to buy time until it’s possible to have such a pairing. So, in my opinion, Yemelin should be allowed to stay with the big club and play limited minutes on the last pairing. My gut tells me that he will adapt and be a very useful defenceman for the Habs for years to come.

And what about his physicality or apparent lack of it after that first scrimmage.

Well, my hypothesis on that is simple, he had proven his physicality and was told to concentrate on his positioning and his adaptation to the angles of a N. American rink. He’s been told that the hits and the physicality will come in due time once he’s had the chance to become comfortable on the new ice. So, don’t fret my fellow Habs fans, if it’s hits that you desire and a mean attitude that you want to see, it will come but let’s be patient with this project as it could prove to be very rewarding for those that can have the patience.

Raphael Diaz

Diaz is a real flip of the coin for me. By that I mean that I’m not sold on him as a full-time NHL defenceman...yet. He has shown flashes of adeptness to the NHL game but also demonstrated moments of complete and utter futility (especially in the defensive end). That being said, he has improved throughout the camp and that in itself is a terrific sign. Diaz like Yemelin also needs to be given the opportunity to adapt to the North American game and rink and unlike Yemelin he has been signed to a 2-way contract that does not have an ‘out’ clause. I feel that Diaz would strongly benefit from a stint in the AHL where he can hone his game and optimize it for the style of game played in this part of the world. I understand why he was signed and I strongly feel that his time in the AHL will be the strongest indication to us on whether or not he can achieve success in the NHL. Although I understand why he has remained with the club till now I urge Pierre Gauthier to send him down to Hamilton where he will be given top minutes on the 1st or 2nd defensive pairing and major minutes on the PP as well as PK in order to round out his capabilities and properly assess his attributes going forward. This goes hand in hand with my desire for Weber to be given a fair shot on the PP at this early stage of the year.

Andrei Markov

Considering the contract given to Markov one would be foolish not to be worried by his latest setback. However, considering that this is his 2nd ACL reconstruction he would have been ahead of schedule had he been ready to lace up the skates on opening day. Therefore, fans need to look at the big picture and that is that this premier defenceman has been signed for 3 years. We need Andrei to be relatively healthy for those 3 years so if that means sacrificing even 2 months off of the start of that 3 year deal then so be it. In reality, the focus should be on getting him strong, recuperated and fully recovered so that we can enjoy his skills for most of this year (including a deep playoff run) as well as another 2 years.

The Rest

With regards to the other defencemen, I really didn’t see enough of them to make me feel differently from what we’ve come to expect of them. However, I suppose it would be prudent to remind Habs fans that Hal Gill usually plays pretty poorly through till December when he begins to warm up and then rounds into form about a month before the playoffs start.

Alright, let the games begin!

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