Solving the Canadiens’ Defensive Puzzle

As the National Hockey League trade deadline approaches, the Montreal Canadiens have begun to assess their roster for a playoff run.

At this time of year, all playoff hopeful teams are doing the same. The unique thing about this season is that there are essentially only two teams completely out of playoff contention at the beginning of February: the Colorado Avalanche and the Arizona Coyotes.

With that, brings a plethora of teams competing down to the wire for playoff positioning. However, these next few weeks before deadline day should drop a few more clubs out of the race, which will loosen up the trade market.

As for the Canadiens, there is no doubt they are a playoff team. Their roster holes would suggest they need a centerman, winger and a defenseman. They would be lucky to fill two of these voids ahead of the deadline but I believe they are already half way there.

In my opinion, I don’t feel like they need to add another defenseman, but rather, shift their focus to the forward group. Hear me out.

Log Jam

General manager Marc Bergevin spoke a few weeks ago and outlined his desire for a puck-moving defenseman and a center. Shortly after that statement, he traded for Nikita Nesterov, a 23-year-old offensive defenseman from the Tampa Bay Lightning. With that trade, the Canadiens put both Zach Redmond and Mark Barberio on waivers. Redmond cleared while Barberio was picked up by the Avalanche.

Nikita Nesterov
Nikita Nesterov (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Going back to Nesterov, he isn’t going to solve all the issues on the backend, but he does fill a need. The trade puts the Canadiens in a better position to actually trade one of their defenseman instead of adding another. Nathan Beaulieu’s name has been thrown into the fire as a possible centerpiece in a deal for a top-six centerman and with the acquisition of Nesterov, that looks more and more like a possibility.

The bottom pairing for the Canadiens is proving to be the most difficult juggling act. The top-four are solidified with Shea Weber, Jeff Petry, Andrei Markov and Alexei Emelin. The others are Beaulieu, Greg Pateryn, and Nesterov. Not to mention Redmond, who is ready and waiting in St. Johns.

The problem with the bottom pairing is that the Canadiens have failed to find stability. For example, Pateryn has been unable to grab a spot in the lineup on a consistent basis, whether it be because of injury or being squeezed out by another player. The reality is when Pateryn is in the lineup, he has shown he can be a solid fifth or sixth NHL defenseman.

So that brings us to the Nesterov/Beaulieu debate. If you look at the statistics, they have a very similar offensive output. Also, they are both restricted free agents at the end of the season with Beaulieu destined to make more money on his next deal. So by bringing in Nesterov to essentially play the role of puck-moving defenseman, is it time to use Beaulieu as trade bait?

Odd Man Out

I’m not suggesting that Nesterov or Pateryn are better than Beaulieu and I am aware that Markov isn’t getting any younger. It’s also safe to say the young defenseman hasn’t reached his full potential yet and he needs more time to become the player the Canadiens think he will be. However, the Canadiens don’t have that kind of time.

If Bergevin is discussing a trade with a perspective team and they want an NHL top-four caliber defenseman as the centerpiece of any deal, then Beaulieu is that guy. I might be in the minority, but I think that the Canadiens can afford to lose him and still be okay for the playoffs. If they need him and more to get a Matt Duchene from the Avalanche, for example, then you do it. The Canadiens need at center far outweighs their need on the backend.

(Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)

Looking ahead to next season, the hope is that Mikhail Sergachev will be able to suit up in a full-time role. Even with trading Beaulieu, the Canadiens would still have young offensive defencemen in the system and if retrieving impact forwards takes the Habs to the Stanley Cup Final, would anyone complain about the price?

Summing It Up

To sum up my points, the Canadiens have an abundance of bottom pairing defenseman. The only way to sort out the pieces is to take away from the group. The Canadiens are in a situation where they can trade a young, controllable, top-4 caliber defenceman for much-needed help in the middle of the ice.

The Habs know what they have in Beaulieu, it’s time to see what they have in both Pateryn and Nesterov. Above all, as I said earlier, Beaulieu is the Canadiens best trade chip on the roster. You have to give to get as Bergevin always says.

In this case, it’s best for the team to give. Getting a high-end talent at the deadline to push the Canadiens his team forward offensively is exactly what they need. They have capable players to fill the void with Nesterov and Pateryn and will be in good hands next season with the hopeful addition of Sergachev.

We’re less than a month away Hab fans, let’s watch it all unfold.