For a team that's spent most of this young season dealing with a depleted roster, the Canadiens now have an interesting dilemma. By all accounts, Andrei Markov had some successful tests on his knee in the last couple of weeks and is now skating in Montreal. If all is well, one might imagine he'll be cleared to play sooner rather than later, which is wonderful news for the Canadiens as a whole. It may not, however, be good tidings for whichever defenceman has to sit out to make room for him. Similarly, a forward will have to take a seat with the imminent return of Scott Gomez from a minor injury.
Neither of these decisions will be easy to make. Up front, it's tough to argue that either of David Desharnais, who's got 7 points in eleven games, or Lars Eller, who's been using his size to great advantage and just scored his first goal, should be bounced to the wing to make room for Gomez. The veteran had just one assist and was minus-one in the six games he played before his injury. The Canadiens have won their last three games without Gomez and, it could be argued, haven't missed him at all. Considering the performance of the team's young centremen in his absence, a case could be made that the Habs, as a team, function better without him. However, unless Pierre Gauthier is willing to trade or demote Gomez, he will be back in the lineup, and getting significant minutes as well.
So, one forward will have to sit, and the easy choice from Jacques Martin's position is Mike Blunden. The big winger got called up from Hamilton to bring some size and sandpaper to the fourth line in place of Aaron Palushaj. His arrival, together with the trade for fourth-line centre Petteri Nokelainen, helped solidfy the bottom trio. Those guys won't be a huge risk to score, but they can withstand a pounding from the other team's fourth line, and they, especially Nokelainen, can kill penalties and take faceoffs. If Blunden sits, Mathieu Darche and presumably Travis Moen would flank Nokelainen.
That would leave some combination of Erik Cole, Andrei Kostitsyn, Mike Cammalleri, Max Pacioretty and Brian Gionta as legitimate top-nine wingers. With Tomas Plekanec entrenched as the number-one centreman, that means one of Eller, Desharnais or Gomez would have to move to the wing. Considering the strong play of Eller and Desharnais during the winning streak, it should probably be Gomez who takes a winger's spot. The two younger guys aren't as good as Gomez on faceoffs, but there's nothing stopping Gomez from taking draws, even if he's playing on the wing. It makes sense to move him because once Gomez crosses the opposing blueline, which he does very well, he peels off to the wing anyway. Eller and Desharnais go to the net more directly, as a centre is supposed to do. It may work, or it may not, but it's worth a try. Gomez surely wasn't doing much at centre, so maybe a change of assignment might spark him a bit. At the least, it would disturb the lines that are scoring now as little as possible.
The bigger dilemma for Jacques Martin will be on defence. Young, relatively inexperienced guys like Yannick Weber and Raphael Diaz have steadied their play in the last several games. They're learning on the job, which can give a cautious coach like Martin another reason to dye his hair. All in all, though, they're doing relatively well. Jaroslav Spacek has brought stability since his return from injury. The veteran is playing moderate minutes on his natural left side and is looking pretty solid. Josh Gorges, despite a couple of glaring gaffes, is a workhorse and is putting up more points than he ever has before at the NHL level. P.K.Subban eats minutes as well, and even when making mistakes is a threat to the opposition. Hal Gill is, perhaps, the sketchiest of the D-men so far this year, but Martin loves him on the PK and would never sit him.
While those six guys are in the lineup every night, an (one would imagine) unimpressed Alexei Emelin is downing steamies in the Bell Centre pressbox. This is a guy with size, mobility and a mean streak...exactly the kind of defenceman the Habs need...who the Habs have been courting since they drafted him seven years ago. He finally arrived in North America and now finds himself the odd man out in a defensive logjam in Montreal. This is a touchy situation. Presumably Emelin left Russia because he believed he'd be playing in the NHL. We know he's got an out clause in his contract that allows him to return to the KHL if he's not on the Habs roster. So, how long will it be before he decides this healthy scratch stuff is crap? The problem is, the Canadiens need a guy like him. The bigger problem is, they need him to be NHL-ready right now. He's not as ready as the other young guys, even though he's not making any terrible errors, and Martin has chosen to trust Weber and Diaz instead.
The difficulty Martin faces is that the Canadiens are in a competitive division and need to give themselves the best chance to win every night. To do that, they have to ice the best defence they can. At the same time, they have to give their young and inexperienced players a chance to develop so when injuries hit, they've got the depth to handle it. They're risking losing Emelin if they don't play him.
Exacerbating the situation is the return of Markov. If he stays healthy for more than a week, another of the current six defencemen will have to bow out to give him a spot. Knowing Martin, that means one of Weber or Diaz. Again, it means one of the young, promising defencemen will be stunted in his development for lack of ice time.
Given the situation in Montreal now, with Gorges being the only defenceman in his prime, it's important for the younger Ds to get some playing time. That means, even if they make mistakes, Emelin has to play instead of Gill some nights. Diaz will have to draw in instead of Spacek. However, knowing Martin, he'll play the veterans every night, regardless of how many mistakes they make. If he does, and Emelin or Diaz walk, it will hurt the Canadiens. It's a dilemma, without question. Whether Jacques Martin can sort it without costing the team in the long run is a test of good faith. If only our faith wasn't already stretched thin.