Despite a very important 2-1 win against their division rivals on Saturday at Bell Centre, the Canadiens lost a key element of their defensive brigade when bruising defensemen Alexei Emelin left the game midway through the first period. He sustained a left knee injury in a thunderous collision while taking a run at big Boston Bruins forward Milan Lucic in the neutral zone.
The injury forced the team to play newcomer Davis Drewiske more than 23 minutes, something he was not accustomed to doing with the Los Angeles Kings. Drewiske finished the game with four blocked shots, two hits and a minus-1 rating. Following Emelin’s injury, Therrien had to deploy the remaining five defensemen in various combinations, and the rearguards rose splendidly to the challenge.
After the game, head coach Michel Therrien said that Emelin had a lower body injury, and unfortunately for the Habs, the news got worse Monday, as it was announced that Emelin would be sidelined for the rest of the season.
With that blow to the lineup, there are numerous factors that have to be examined.
Who will replace Emelin Boom?
As a result of the injury, the Canadiens called-up puck-moving blue liner Nathan Beaulieu from the AHL to fill the void left by Emelin’s untimely injury. Beaulieu played two games with the Habs earlier this season, notching his first NHL point, an assist, to go along with a +2 rating. The left-handed rearguard has 7 goals and 21 assists for 28 points with 56 penalty minutes in 64 contests with the Hamilton Bulldogs this season.
While Raphael Diaz has resumed skating, he has yet to participate into a full practice with his teammates, so we still don’t know when he will be able to return to the line-up. As for Tomas Kaberle, the team does not want to play him as they don’t want him to suffer a major injury which would prevent the organization from buying him out this summer. The other option would be Swiss defenseman Yannick Weber who has only played two games this season, more often relegated to the healthy scratch sheet and sustaining a lower-body injury that sidelined him for a few weeks.
The problem with the right-handed defenseman is that Michel Therrien doesn’t have any confidence in him or he would have used him more often after the injury sustained by Diaz. According to Renaud Lavoie reporting on RDS, the Blue Blanc Rouge, who were shopping Weber at the trade deadline, was asking a 2nd or 3rd round pick for Yannick Weber… no wonder they didn’t find any takers! This was the first mistake by GM Marc Bergevin as he should have let Weber go for a lower draft pick as he doesn’t seem to fit into the organization’s long-term plans.
Bergevin’s other mistake at the trade deadline was to be very passive and only acquire a journeyman defenseman who didn’t play a single game last Spring during the Los Angeles Kings’ magical playoff run. Drewiske was the team’s eight defenseman after the acquisition of veteran Robyn Regehr. While Drewiske can do the job in a short period of time, he is not a top-four defenseman by any means. With Andrei Markov, PK Subban and Josh Gorges all playing great hockey this season and Francis Bouillon being paired with the team’s sixth defenseman on the third pairing, whether it is Drewiske or a youngster called up from Hamilton, the Habs are left with a gaping hole in their top four slots.
Montreal could also decide to call up a more physical rearguard for the playoffs, namely Jarred Tinordi, but the way they will use that defenseman is still a mystery to most fans and journalists. The problem with Tinordi is that he was very soft during his first six-game stint with the Habs earlier this season, recording a paltry three hits despite his big 6’6”, 205-lb frame. Tinordi will have to be more physical if he gets the nod in order to replace Emelin’s physical presence on the Habs’ blue line.
Bergevin should have acquired more than a journeyman defenseman at the deadline, and his inertia will come to bite him in the behind as injuries to key players always happen during the season. With Rene Bourque close to return to action and a lot of depth at forward following the waiver-wire pick-up of Jeff Halpern, I understand that Bergevin didn’t want to pay a premium to acquire a rental forward before the deadline. The team’s general manager had already made his move, acquiring Michael Ryder and a third-round pick in exchange for disgruntled forward Erik Cole. Ryder has been terrific for the Habs, notching 10 goals and eight assists for 18 points in 18 games with the team. Ryder’s acquisition has improved the power play drastically, with him scoring half of his points (6 g and 3 a) on the man advantage.
The team better pray Drewiske is the next Josh Gorges and turns into an efficient shutdown defenseman able to log more than 20 minutes a game every game, playing alongside Andrei Markov. The Canadiens are only three points behind the Pittsburgh Penguins with one game in hand for the Eastern Conference lead, so they have a great chance to go very deep in the playoffs this season as they could begin each series on home ice where the team has had great success in 2013.
The problem with Bergevin looking at the parade, is that the team might struggle mightily and suffer serious injuries next season, pushing the team outside the top eight teams in the East, making them miss the playoffs… The window of opportunity was open wide, but Bergevin decided to close the shutters instead of looking at the bigger picture and add more depth to his blue line!