If I've reached one conclusion by watching the Olympic men's hockey tournament, it's that a team can go very, very far on the back of a great defenceman.
As much as I can't stand him, Zdeno Chara has been outstanding for Slovakia. He's playing huge minutes and looking like the defensive beast who won the Norris Trophy last season. I really like Jaro Halak and I think he's played a very large part in Slovakia's surprising advancement to the semifinals, but even the most ardent Halak supporter can't deny Chara's had just as much to do with it. The man is blocking shots, hitting, clearing the goalcrease and launching the forwards' attack with some nice passing. He's also got the cannon from the point which helps the Slovaks' power play potency.
Another example of a team that rallied behind a strong defensive performance is the Swiss. Mark Streit had a brilliant tournament. Unlike Chara, Streit isn't the biggest guy out there, but he might possibly have the biggest heart. He played nearly thirty minutes in losing to the Americans in the quarter-finals, including twelve minutes in the second period alone. At one point the camera showed him on the bench, completely soaked in sweat with his head hanging. The trainer was trying to feed him some Gator Aid, but Streit looked too tired to drink it. That was hardly a surprise. He was strong in his own end and skated miles in leading his team's offensive rush to compensate for its lack of firepower. What he lacked in size, he made up for with hard work and brains, and he made a huge difference in his team's fortunes. Without him, there's no way Switzerland would have had such a strong showing.
I think this is what the Russians were missing last night. They have good defencemen, but nobody stepped up to control the game like Chara and Streit were doing for their teams, and Brian Rafalski has been doing for the US. Markov can do it, but he looked terrible against Canada. I'm convinced he was definitely hurt before the tournament, and he was playing hurt during it. As a result, nobody took charge in the Russians' own end and it hurt their breakout and their defensive coverage. Canada, on the other hand, saw Drew Doughty and Shea Weber step up and take control of their zone. Dan Boyle contributed on the offensive side of things and the defence as a whole outplayed their opponents.
We see it in the NHL too. Gonchar wasn't outstanding for Russia, but he helps the Penguins immeasurably. When he was missing from the lineup last year, the Pens were in tenth place in the conference. On his return, the team went on a great run to make the playoffs and, of course, bring home the Cup. Detroit with Lidstrom in his prime was a champion team. Now that he's aging and less effective, they're on the bubble. Boston won the conference when Chara showed his Norris form, but now they're struggling as the big guy struggles.
A really good defenceman can be the axis on which a game turns. He can prevent goals by shutting down the opposition's best forwards and he can produce them for his own team with strong passing and a good shot. He can dictate the speed at which the games moves and he can set the tone by his play.
This is what the Canadiens now need most desperately. Not a big centre or more offence on the wings or a veteran goalie or a checker or a goon. They need a dynamic, powerful defenceman who can change the flow of a game from his own zone. If there's going to be a trade, I hope it's for a prospect that might become a D like that, or a draft pick that will allow the Habs to pick one, since there's no hope of trading for an established player who fits that role.
Markov can do it when he's healthy, but he's 31 and he's been hurt a lot lately. I think P.K.Subban has potential to be that kind of defenceman, but you can't have too many of them. The Habs need to focus on adding another to the prospect pool. After watching the Games, I'm convinced a great defenceman can win you games you shouldn't win, just as much as a great goalie can. I'm equally sure a team won't go far without one.