The start of NHL free agency is technically July 1, but with the league moving into Phase 2 of the return, it will more than likely be pushed back to a much later date. This shouldn’t stop teams like the Montreal Canadiens from looking at what free agents they should be targeting to improve their team.
The Habs should also be taking a hard look at who they might want to sign to plug the holes on the team, especially on defense. Here’s a look at defensemen the Canadiens should target for next season.
Left Side Issues
Ever since the Canadiens parted ways with Andrei Markov, they have had a huge hole on the left side of the defense. Over the years, Marc Bergevin has tried to fill those holes with bottom-four-type players like David Schlemko, Mark Streit, Joe Morrow, and Jordie Benn. In 2017, they even signed top free agent (FA) defenseman at the time Karl Alzner, but none could fill the hole left on the top pair.
Alzner was far from the player they thought they signed and the others were basically bottom-pairing defensemen to begin with. Recently they have used fourth-round draft pick Victor Mete and Ben Chiarot — who was signed before the season started — to play alongside Shea Weber. Although both have had limited success, neither gives the top pair that one-two punch. Bergevin finds himself still looking to improve his defense this offseason, especially on the left side.
With Jeff Petry due to become an FA at the end of next season, the right side will need a slight improvement as well if he doesn’t return. The top line is solid with Weber, but behind Petry it’s quite thin unless Noah Juulsen returns and becomes the top-four defenseman he was drafted to be. If he doesn’t, the Habs have young developing defensemen in Cale Fleury and Josh Brook but both may not fill the void left be Petry. If the Canadiens pursue a top FA for both sides this offseason, they could kill two birds with one stone.
Brodie has been linked to the Habs on numerous occasions, so it won’t be shocking if he is linked here as well. He becomes an FA at the end of this season — whenever that happens — and could be a good fit on the left side for the Canadiens. He is a 30-year-old, 6-foot-1, 181-pound player who can move the puck, helping quarterback the power play and play a ton of minutes.
Early in the season, Brodie did have a strange episode where he collapsed during a practice and missed six games, but he then fully recovered and played solid hockey for the rest of the season. He could fit nicely with Weber and solidify the left side with Chiarot playing second pairing and newcomer Alex Romanov starting the bottom pair. Brodie’s numbers were relatively low this season with only 19 points, way down from his previous season of 34 points. This will be something the Canadiens would need to investigate before signing him. He made $4.6 million this season, and at 30 he might want a more expensive contract or longer term.
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The Habs may not want to go crazy on another defenseman over 30, especially since they usually have to spend a little more than most teams to sign FAs. We also know Bergevin seems to set a limit and not go past it when it comes to signing FAs, so any asking price too high could end this pursuit quickly.
Krug is the top left-handed defenseman going on the market, having everything a coach or general manger could ask for in a puck-moving defenseman. He is a solid top-four defender for the Bruins and power-play specialist —where the Habs need lots of help. Of Krug’s 49 points this season, 26 of them were on the power play.
Although he was a minus player for a strong plus team — minus-3 while the bruins were a plus-56 — his possession numbers were very good with a 6.5 Corsi For % relative. Krug is the key guy the Canadiens should focus on going into the offseason. Not having an interest in Krug would seem insane and Bergevin isn’t insane — well, maybe he is to some fans — so it seems like a no brainer that Krug will at least get an offer.
Forget about possibility. I would say it’s a probability the Canadiens — who still have plenty of interest in upgrading the left side of their defense, even with Alexander Romanov coming over — would go hard after Torey Krug.Eric Engels on the Habs interest in Torey Krug
The big obstacle for Bergevin here is would Krug leave Boston to sign in Montreal? It remains to be seen since not many Bruins players tend to sign with the Canadiens, but if the Habs can get him, they would need to offer a pretty good contract that he may not be able to refuse.
Gustafsson started last season in Chicago but was traded to Calgary at the deadline. He is a steady left-handed defenseman who was coming off a 60-point season. However, this season he didn’t quite keep the pace and fell to only 29 points. This could be due to a drop in ice time, or maybe the 60-point season was an anomaly. Either way, he showed big promise only to come up short the next season.
You may see this as another reach to get the guy the Canadiens need for cheap and they’ll fall short, and you may be right. However, you may also get the 60-point guy. Gustafsson will be looking to rebound from a disappointing season and what better way to do that then playing on the left side with Weber? He’s no Krug but he can play top-four minutes and is a good puck mover, which is what the Canadiens need on the left side.
Gustafsson may not be the optimal choice, but he could still be an upgrade to what is there now. With Romanov on his way, Gustafsson is a good stop-gap until the kid gets up to speed. Desperate times sometimes mean we make desperate choices — not that this would be that far-fetched or desperate — but not the top guy the team need.
Pietrangelo is probably the best defensive FA on the market and someone the Canadiens should at least think about. He is an all-star and a leader with the St. Louis Blues, and would give the Habs the best right-side defense in hockey. That’s the catch though: he’s a top-pairing, right-handed shot — with the team already fairly secure on the right side, a move would have to be made.
With Petry going into the last year of his contract next season, it’s not out of the picture that the Canadiens sign Pietrangelo and trade Petry. Having said that, they could just sign Petry for probably less money, but get a lower-quality defenseman. Either way you look at it this would be a good but strange signing. So, why put him on this list? Well, he’s the best defenseman on the market and would greatly improve the team while helping to steady Weber’s minutes.
The signing could also help the Canadiens make a deal for not only a left-handed defenseman, but a much needed top-six forward and a backup goalie as well. Of course, Petry won’t fetch all that in one trade, but the team would be trading from a position of strength and be able to ask for more in return. If they sign Pietrangelo and trade Petry, they could fill an area of need while also improving another area — a bit of a win-win situation, really.
As you can see, most of these guys are left-handed because that’s what the Canadiens need. Romanov will be playing next season but he shouldn’t be rushed, so filling in that top left side now should still be a priority. If I were Bergevin, I’d go all-in on Krug since he has played for head coach Claude Julien and they have a good relationship. That’s where they need to look the hardest and be prepared to spend, because getting another bottom-pairing defenseman would just be a waste of time and money.
Trege Wilson lives in Nova Scotia and is a member of the RCN. He is a life long Habs fan and is creator and co-host of the popular Canadiens podcast Habs Unfiltered.