The Montreal Canadiens are officially mathematically eliminated from playoff contention in 2016. This nightmare of a season is just about over. Once the season is in the past (something that many Habs fans have wished for since January), team management will have a lot to look over in terms of what to do in the offseason. The team will certainly discuss whether to target a high-profile scorer, whether to sign certain roster players, whether to discuss trades and more. One thing that the team likely won’t need much time to discuss is the plan for their defence in 2016-17. The plan for the 2016-17 team defence is clear though it may need some creativity to pull off. Which of the Habs’ defencemen should stay and which should go?
The Clear Plan
The ideal lineup for the Habs’ defence to start the 2016-17 season is as follows:
Andrei Markov – P.K. Subban
Nathan Beaulieu – Jeff Petry
Mark Barberio – Greg Pateryn
The notable omissions from the top-six are Alexei Emelin and Tom Gilbert. Emelin, who has played on all three of the Habs’ pairings this season due to injuries, is still under contract with the team after this season, while Gilbert, who plays mostly on the third pairing when healthy, is an unrestricted free agent.
TSN’s Bob McKenzie reinforced lots of speculation by saying that he wouldn’t be surprised if the Habs were to trade Emelin this offseason. Why? Well, it makes sense. Emelin gets paid over $4 million, and with the emergence of Nathan Beaulieu as a top-four defenceman, the Habs can save Emelin’s salary and use it to address more pressing issues. The fact is, that the team needs to score more goals. They’ll likely look to the open market to solve this issue during the offseason, but they’ll need some extra cash to make themselves more appealing to free agents. If Emelin was to be inserted in the team lineup to start the 2016-17 season, he’d likely be inserted on the third pairing. Paying a third pairing defenceman over $4 million isn’t a good way to spend limited team money. The Canadiens should make room for younger, less expensive players like Beaulieu and Barberio on their defence while they use the money that the Russian defenceman would have otherwise received on a scorer.
The defenceman’s no-trade-clause will become limited this summer, which simplifies a potential move of this sort. Teams could look to acquire Emelin from the Canadiens though the salary may be where they lose interest. The Habs may have to retain a portion of the defenceman’s salary if they are to unload him.
The situation is pretty simple for Gilbert, as the American native has effectively been replaced on the Habs’ blue line. The defenceman went down with an injury about a month ago, and since being out of the lineup, 25-year-old Greg Pateryn has taken his place. Pateryn is most fit for the bottom-pairing, right-hand slot on the Habs’ blue line, which is where Gilbert was playing. Pateryn has proven that he is NHL ready and that the team can entrust him with the ice-time that Gilbert would have got. He is not only younger, but also more inexpensive than the 33-year-old Gilbert. If the team needs more evidence as to whether Pateryn is ready or not, they’re getting it now that half of the team is out with injuries. Amidst these injuries, Pateryn has been called upon to play more serious minutes, and he has handled the situation well. It can be predicted that the team likely won’t be offering Gilbert another contract after this season.
Passing of the Torch
Habs fans and management will look back on this season as a transition period. No, the team won’t start a rebuild this offseason,
but they’ll continue a movement from old to young that has already been started. The passing of the torch from veterans who have been with the team for a long while will likely take place this summer and over the next year or so. Yes, Andrei Markov was still on the Canadiens’ first pairing, but that’s simply because he can be effective there if used right. Markov shouldn’t be playing 20-plus minutes per game. That said, if used sparsely, Markov can bring the experience and general calm demeanour to an otherwise fairly young group of defencemen.
The 2016-17 season should see the passing of the torch from Markov to someone like Beaulieu. The former first round pick has shown flashes of brilliance over the last two seasons, and while filling Markov’s shoes won’t be easy, it’ll be something that helps further the defenceman’s career. Beaulieu won’t be doing it alone, as the rest of the young Habs’ defencemen will help pick up the slack too.
This youth movement won’t only be seen on defence, as someone like Tomas Plekanec will likely be passing the torch to a younger player like Alex Galchenyuk over the next year. But let’s stick to defence. Having the aforementioned Emelin and Gilbert be replaced by Barberio and Pateryn will make the team defence younger. As of now, the team has one of the highest paid defence core’s in the league, though with this youth movement, the team will free up some salary to bring in players that will help solve recurring team issues.
If the team is able to go through with this offseason plan, they’ll set themselves up to address more pressing needs this offseason. Marc Bergevin will look to free up cap space and further with his team youth movement. Don’t expect any major additions to the Canadiens’ defence over the summer, though some key subtractions could prove to be very beneficial to the team in the long run.