One of the Canadiens' biggest weaknesses for the last several years, once you get past the gaping hole at centre, is the defence. Andrei Markov has been the only elite player on the back end for the Habs for ages, and the rotating cast around him has varied from "excellent PP guy" to "what the hell is he thinking?" Throughout it all though, the one constant has been the crappy style the D plays generally, regardless of personnel. The way they give up the blueline like Sean Avery gives up IQ points is frustrating and ineffective. And the way they get caught in the opponent's cycle with no solution for clearing the puck is just pathetic.
So the first thing the Habs have to do with their defence is change the style they're playing, and to do that effectively, they need to hire a D-coach who can teach the players a better way of doing things. I've mentioned Chris Chelios as a candidate, but no matter who it is (and I contend it must be someone), it should be a person who's both played the position and played a system he understands well enough to teach. Chelios certainly has the experience on the ice and the knowledge of a good system. So does Guy Lapointe. Larry Robinson allegedly might be interested in coaching again. There are others. I'd like to see the Canadiens hire a good D coach before development camp in July.
Once a coach is in place, the team has to decide what kind of style the D should be playing. Since management seems to want a team based on speed and skill, the defence needs to be mobile and good with the puck to complement that team philosophy. The defencemen don't need to necessarily be the biggest guys available, but they should be able to challenge oncoming forwards in the neutral zone and at their own blueline. They should be strong enough to win the puck on the boards, even if they don't always make the big hits and crush guys.
The style the team wants to play needs to be the first consideration when it's time to assess current assets and decide which to keep and which to winnow out. Obviously, Andrei Markov is a keeper. He's a legitimate all-star and the only elite player on the Habs blue line for the last several years. He's also skilled enough to be able to adapt to any system. I'd keep Josh Gorges as well. He's young and still makes some mistakes because of inexperience. But he's also hard-working and smart and comes out with the puck more often than not. I remember when he first came to Montreal, he commented on the fact that the system he'd learned with the Sharks was much more aggressive than the one played in Montreal. The fact that he knows the difference and is able to play the "good" way makes me want to keep him. Mathieu Dandenault is a keeper too. He offers veteran experience, heart, great speed, versatility and decent D learned in the good Detroit system. He should be able to adapt to any coach's style and perform well in a sixth/seventh role. If he chooses to go elsewhere, however, I'd re-sign Francis Bouillon as the spare. He's a warrior who's still got speed and can hit, but I think the team can keep only one of him or Dandenault. I'd keep Ryan O'Byrne, if only because he's a great skater and has good reach with his size. And if Don Lever is somehow associated with the coaching staff, I think O'Byrne will bloom. He played a much better game in Hamilton under Lever than he played in Montreal. In any case, it's too soon to give up on a guy who could be on the brink of getting it all together, especially one who's signed to a cheap deal for the next two years.
Those decisions are the easy ones. Now the tough: what to do with Roman Hamrlik and Mike Komisarek? My first instinct is to keep Komisarek if possible, particularly if he can be placed under the tutelage of a defence coach who can help him with his puck handling. Komisarek's bread and butter has always been his physical play, but after he got hurt this season, he shied away from the hitting he's got to do to earn his money. Without that, his awful decisions with the puck and over-reliance on Markov became glaringly painful to watch. But if he can improve his ability to move the puck and also get over his fear of getting hurt again, he can be an asset. The problem is, that's an "if" we can't answer until after he's already been either signed or let go. In any event, even at the peak of his abilities, a player who brings what Komisarek does is worth about four million a year, maximum. More than that goes to stars like Lidstrom and Niedermayer...and Markov. When Gainey looks at what Komisarek wants, I think we can safely assume the GM is not going to pay Big Mike more than his partner's getting. So, if Komisarek is willing to accept a four-year deal with a cap hit of four million or less, and is willing to work hard with the D coach to improve his all-around game, he's a keeper. If he's not, then he'll walk.
Hamrlik is another problem. He's making five and a half million bucks a year, but had far from a stellar season. He's still got two more years on that deal and there must be concern about whether this season was a fluke or if it marks the beginning of a career decline. I like what Hammer brings when he's playing well, but when he's not, the big minutes he plays hurt more than help the team. The brutal giveaway on the first Boston goal in the last playoff game is the kind of thing you just can't have your veteran shut-down defenceman doing. My inclination would be to trade Hamrlik and his contract to a team like the Kings that has a strong young defence in need of some veteran guidance. Hamrlik still has a good reputation as a mentor after his time partnering Dion Phaneuf in Calgary, and the Kings have tons of picks and prospects that could benefit the Habs. The problem is, who replaces Hamrlik, especially if Komisarek walks?
This summer the UFA defenceman everyone covets is, of course, Jay Bouwmeester. I think Gainey should make a token offer to J-Bo, just in case, but shouldn't spend much time courting him. I think Bouwmeester will end up being another of the "we almost got him but..." free agents who sign anywhere but Montreal. A better bet to replace either Hamrlik or Komisarek might be Francois Beauchemin. He'll be in demand too because he's won a Cup, and plays a solid, mostly mistake-free game on the back end. He can also handle the puck well enough to contribute to a lively offence and has a hammer of a point shot. Beauchemin has said he would consider playing in Montreal and could likely bring a lot of what Hamrlik provides for less money. I think he's gettable and would make a nice replacement for Hammer if Komisarek is re-signed before July 1, or for Komisarek if he decides to leave.
On the PP, Mathieu Schneider's bullet from the point saved the Habs' season from being a complete playoff-less disgrace. But he made way too much money for just a shot. And that's what he is now. He's forty and can't keep up on the defensive side of things anymore. Yannick Weber has the shot as well and can battle on the boards. For the PP, I think the Habs need to give Weber the chance to develop at the NHL level.
So in the end, I see the Canadiens' defence corps most realistically consisting of Markov, Beauchemin, Gorges, Weber, Dandenault, O'Byrne and one of Komisarek or Hamrlik. The wild card(s) in the mix are the two Russian defencemen, Alexei Emelin and Konstantin Korneev and rookie PK Subban. Both Emelin and Korneev have played out their contracts in Russia and both have made at least small noises about being open to moving to North America. The Canadiens are in negotiations right now with Emelin. Of those two, I think Korneev is the better fit for what the Habs would like to be on defence and is the one who'd need less adjustment time before being able to contribute in the NHL. If Gainey can sign one or both of those guys, it could impact who plays in the Canadiens' top six. But of course, nobody knows how their games will translate in the NHL even if they sign with Montreal, so they can't be counted in the big picture yet. As for Subban, common sense says the nineteen-year-old needs a year or so to adjust to the pros. But Subban has surprised at every level he's played and has stated his determination to crack the Habs' lineup next year. At this point, if any of Emelin, Korneev or Subban turns out to be better than the top seven I expect to be on the roster in September, it would be a big surprise and a bonus. As it stands, that top seven isn't a bad lineup and I think it may be the best one Gainey can cobble together while waiting for the rest of the prospects to develop.
And that's how I see the defence lining up for next year.