The subtraction of goaltender Carey Price from the line-up was the single-biggest factor to why the team lost its mojo during the 2015-16 regular season, but one aspect of the team that showcased its strength was the depth of the Montreal Canadiens blue-line.
It’s not easy getting by with one of your top-four defensemen sustaining significant injuries and missing time, let alone two, but the Canadiens were dealt this hand when P.K. Subban suffered a neck injury late into the season, while Jeff Petry was forced to undergo season-ending surgery to repair a sports hernia, finishing off his season by missing 31 games. Tom Gilbert also saw his season come to a screeching halt when he collided with a goal-post and needed knee surgery, putting his season to a halt as well. All this said, it allowed general manager Marc Bergevin to give a chance to the youth in his prospect pool to put on a display of their own abilities in a season that had already been lost.
Morgan Ellis (24), Ryan Johnston (24), Joel Hanley (24), Darren Dietz (22) and Morgan Ellis (20) all played some time with the big club, while 23-year-old Nathan Beaulieu and 25-year-old Greg Pateryn both took on more responsibilities as the season dragged on. Only four of the defensemen that were iced during the season were above the age of 25, including newcomers Mark Barberio (26) and Victor Bartley (28), the often-criticized Alexei Emelin (30) and veteran Andrei Markov (37), who clearly lost a step or two during the season and looked like a shell of his former self for a brief stint.
While the depth was tested furiously in a lost season, many of the young prospects received a baptism by fire when they were exposed to the NHL speed, and it served as a learning experience for a bright future in the NHL, whenever that may be.
Looking into the Depth of the Montreal Canadiens Blue-Line
Leading the charge is Subban, the high-profiled, often-criticized top-pairing defenseman that makes $9 million per season until the year 2022. The 27-year-old is hitting his prime and continues to improve at all facets at the game. The Montreal Canadiens are in good hands when Subban is on the ice, but for some reason management isn’t completely sold on the Norris-winning blue-liner. Whether it’s Marc Bergevin holding out on a long-term contract or Michel Therrien pointing fingers at Subban for a costly turnover, Subban has often been under fire and his name is often involved in trade rumors. However, trading him would ultimately hurt the team the way trading Patrick Roy in 1995. In the last three seasons, only Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators has scored more points than Subban, and his average of around 26 minutes would be a difficult task to replace.
Veteran Andrei Markov is at the age where you’d expect him to be more injury prone, especially when you take into account that he has had his problems in the past, but the 37-year-old has managed to remain relatively healthy in the last few seasons. Unfortunately, there was a window of doubt last season, when it became evident that his age was starting to show through the cracks. He managed to recover and finished strong, but turning 38 in December and heading into the last year of his contract, this may be Markov’s swan song and his final chance at capturing a Stanley Cup before he retires.
Jeff Petry missed a good chunk of the season due to injury and his absence was felt through the line-up. Signed through the 2021 season and only a year older than Subban, Petry is a solid fixture in the Canadiens top two pairings and presents a stable presence in all three zones. When paired with one of his defensive partners, Nathan Beaulieu, Petry’s possession results were beyond satisfactory. Beaulieu showed he was deserving of a top-4 role with his ability to move the puck up the ice in quick fashion and putting on a display of smooth skating. He’ll be ready to take the jump and has all the tools to be successful, if he is allowed to do so.
The 5th, 6th and 7th spots
Here’s where things get interesting. Only two defensemen who held regular roles in the NHL last year are under contract for at least one more year; Greg Pateryn and Alexei Emelin. Pateryn, who saw a career-high 38 games last year and increased ice time due to the injuries that plagued the team, looked like he belonged in the NHL, making all the little plays look effortless and being consistent at his job. Not the flashiest player or a defenseman that does anything big offensively, Pateryn is the perfect candidate for a permanent bottom-pairing role with the Canadiens,due to both his skill-set and his cap-friendly hit of $800,000 for the next two seasons.
Emelin, on the other hand, is trending downwards and to the point where a trade may be required to free the team of a salary that is too rich for what he brings to the table. His extension, signed before he had returned from injury and before he could even demonstrate the injuries he suffered would hinder his play, has been one of many strikes on Bergevin’s rapport. When you factor in that Beaulieu may bump him down on the depth chart, Emelin’s role with the team is expendable. The only problem is; Who is going to take on his contract? A team that may need physicality on their back-end may take the risk, but a trade won’t come without a salary dump returning to Montreal.
Then there is the pair of cost-efficient defensemen acquired last season in Victor Bartley and Mark Barberio. Bartley is an ideal candidate for someone who can play in the AHL and provide leadership to an otherwise young blue-line in St. John’s, but he can also provide some work as a 6th/7th defenseman to a team that is suffering from the injury bug, much like he did last season. He’ll likely see the same pay, or not much more than his $666,666 contract from last season, so his purpose to the team may serve well regarding the budget.
Barberio, a free-agent signing last off-season, came into camp looking like he could be a regular in the NHL immediately. While the 26-year-old did spend some time in the AHL, his call-up proved his worth to the Canadiens, as he tied his career-high in points with 10 in 30 games, 19 less games than his 2013-14 season with the Tampa Bay Lightning. If the Canadiens can manage to shed Emelin’s salary without taking too much back as a dump, Barberio could earn himself a spot on the bottom-pairing on a more permanent basis, all while possibly earning under a $1 million per year.
In the pipeline
Ryan Johnston – 24 – $860,000 (1 year left)
Brett Lernout – 20 – $656,666 (2 years left)
Noah Juulsen – 19 – $925,000 (2 years left)
Tom Parisi – 22 – $717,500 (2 years left)
Dalton Thrower – 22 – $646,666 (1 year left)
Joel Hanley – 24 – RFA
Darren Dietz – 22 – RFA
Mac Bennett – 25 – RFA
Morgan Ellis – 24 – RFA
Nikolas Koberstein – 20 – NCAA
Colin Sullivan – 23 – NCAA
Magnus Nygren – 25 – Europe
Simon Bourque – 19 – CHL
Potential defensemen draft targets (with full scouting reports)
Main Photo: ANAHEIM, CA – MARCH 02: P.K. Subban #76 of the Montreal Canadiens looks on during a game against the Anaheim Ducks at Honda Center on March 2, 2016 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)