Well, the old adage that wonders never cease may have some truth to it after all. Reliable sources, including the almost-always-right Bob McKenzie, say Alexei Yemelin is finally (most likely) coming (almost surely) to Montreal.
McKenzie and other half-reliable media sources say Pierre Gauthier is in Slovakia now, at the World Championships (where, incidentally, Plekanec and Jagr look like the second coming of Gretzky/Kurri) to watch and/or negotiate with Yemelin. Reliable Bob even goes as far as to say that unless things go completely off the rails, Yemelin should be in the Habs top-six D next year because he's that NHL-ready.
So. The question for Gauthier is, if he signs Yemelin and the guy needs to be either in the NHL or go back to Russia, as is rumoured, what does the GM do with the rest of the Habs' defence?
Some things are set in stone. P.K. Subban will be back, will be a top-two D and will play at least 20 minutes per game. Jaro Spacek will be back. He will come to camp slightly overweight, struggle with speed and most likely be in the bottom pair. In between those two, the lineup's open.
Don Meehan has confirmed talks with Andrei Markov will get serious next week. So we can assume Gauthier will do what it takes, and it shouldn't take too much when you consider the depth of his injury issues, to get Markov back. He, likely then, will take up at least 5.5 million in cap space.
Josh Gorges also will be back. He won't demand primo money, but whatever Gauthier pays him will be worth it. In Gorges you know you get a shut-down guy who'll kill himself to win, and who'll support Carey Price to his own detriment. That means four spots, plus Yemelin, are taken.
So, the sixth spot is the question. Yannick Weber isn't the most physical guy in the world, but he has definite offensive ability and a talent for angling wingers out of the play. He's like a younger Mark Streit. A lot of Habs fans regret letting Streit walk, but you should remember Streit didn't make the NHL until he was 29 years old. Weber is 22. He's got a long way to go, but, although he's been outpaced by Subban's mercurial rise to prominence, he's already very competent in his own right.
Then there's the Wisniewski question. He's a points machine, but not always steady on the defensive side of the game. That's a question in itself, but added to that is the fact that opposing GMs tend to see only the points and jack up the price accordingly. So Gauthier has to ask himself whether a lot of points is worth the inflated price Wiz will command. It's a question that will have to be answered quickly because a guy with Wisniewski's numbers won't sit around much longer than July 1.
Added to that is Hal Gill. Gill isn't a speedster by even Anne Shirley's imagination, and he handles the puck like it's made of nitroglycerin, but he's smart and experienced and carries himself with a foreboding sort of leadership that appeals to Subban. His PK ability is also an addition to a defensive lineup that's shaping up to be more offensive-minded than last year's.
Roman Hamrlik is willing to come back for a major discount because he wants to finish his career in Montreal. That can't be disregarded. Hammer has stepped up in each of the last two seasons when Markov went down to injury. He's old, but he was once a number-one-overall draft pick for a reason. Given reasonable minutes in the 15-18 range, Hamrlik could be more than serviceable.
That's eight possible defencemen in the mix for the Canadiens top-six next season. Of the eight, Subban, Markov, Gorges, Spacek and Yemelin, if he signs, are in unless things go terribly wrong with contract negotiations. That leaves the sixth man and the spare. Weber is young and promising and the Habs have spent a lot of time and money invested in his development. He's also performed pretty well in the playoffs at the NHL level. One would have to think the Canadiens are committed to giving him a full year to prove himself.
If Weber is to make the team, assuming he's not traded, it leaves only one extra spot, to be decided between Wisniewski, Hamrlik and Gill. Wisniewski, based on his stats this year, is likely to ask for a raise on his 3.25-million salary. He'll get it, too. For the Canadiens, it depends on where they want to spend the rest of their money. If they cough up four or 4.5-million for Wiz, it means they might not be able to upgrade at forward. Investing in Wisniewski means the team has to expect a whole lot more offence from the backend, which might not be a chance Gauthier is willing to take.
Gill and Hamrlik are the other in-house options, and Gauthier knows very well what each of them can bring. Hamrlik, while not the recognized leader Gill is, is a more well-rounded player with better skills. He's also faster than Gill, which, in the interest of improving the overall speed and mobility of the defence, would make him the better choice.
Of course, there are several things that could happen to shake up the current thinking on defence. Spacek's contract makes him the least-useful potential candidate for a top-six role when it comes to value for money. If there are any takers, Gauthier could trade him and keep both Hamrlik and Gill instead. There's also a chance Weber could be traded for another piece of the forward puzzle, creating room. And there's always the possibility that Gauthier could be eyeing another type of defenceman altogether, which would mean bringing in someone entirely new and dropping a couple of this year's team. Any or all of those "if" factors could happen, which would change the landscape of the defence altogether.
The decision about how to fill those last two spots will depend on where Gauthier sees the biggest team need. Does he think any extra money needs to go up front? If so, Wiz will probably walk. Does he think a mobile, offense-minded D is the way to go? Then, he might keep Wiz and hold on to Hamrlik as the extra man. Or, does he think the D needs to be bigger and stronger, as well as cost-effective? If so, he might let Wiz go and keep Gill along with bringing in another stay-at-home type of steady defenceman with a low-paying contract who hits.
There are lots of possibilities for tweaking the construction of the D for next year, but the news of Yemelin's contract negotiations answers a lot of questions. The news that talks will soon start with Markov, and, we can assume, Gorges as well, answers several more. If all parties sign, we can see the picture start to form.
That's if everything goes as expected. However, if there's one thing we've learned from years of waiting for this or that guy to sign, it's that you can't expect anything.