Thursday, February 7, 2008

Defensive Surplus Pt II

The Canadiens have a veritably plethora of up and coming defenseman in various leagues across the world. Here's a look at several of the most promising names.

1. Ryan McDonagh (NCAA) - 12th overall, 2007 entry draft - The Habs got McDonagh at 12 and many teams had him rated even higher than that. He missed the US team's development camp over the summer and as a result was left off the US team at the recent World Junior Tournament. Should be there next year. A big body on the blue line who has drawn comparisons to Mike Komisarek. Winner of the 2007 Minnesota Mr Hockey award as the best High School hockey player in the state and currently patrolling the blueline at University of Wisconsin-Madison in NCAA division I and has 5 goals and 7 assists for 12 points in 28 games. Considered a blue-chip defensive prospect which many teams are rumoured to be interested in adding to their lineup as soon as next season.

2. Yannick Weber (OHL) - 3rd round, 73rd overall, 2006 entry draft - A later round gem for Trevor Timmins and co, Weber recently won the OHL hardest shot contest at the all-star game with a 99.2 mph shot. In his second year for the Kitchener Rangers, Weber has emerged as one of the top defenseman in the OHL with 19 goals and 26 assists for 45 points in 41 games. Played for his home country of Switzerland at the World Juniors and received some consideration as the tournament's top d-man.

3. Alexei Emelin (RSL) - 3rd round, 84th overall, 2004 entry draft - Emelin is still playing in the Russian Super League and has had success there. A mobile defenseman who makes a good first pass and plays with a mean streak. 111 pim in 48 games and a big part of that mega-brawl which took place earlier this year in Russia.

4. Pavel Valentenko (AHL) - 5th round, 139th overall 2006 entry draft - Valentenko possesses a hard shot, good skating ability and has shown some flashes of pro potential in the last few weeks as he's been asked to play a bigger role for the Hamilton Bulldogs. Good size at 6'2 and 212 lbs.

5. Mathieu Carle (AHL) - 2nd round, 53rd overall 2006 entry draft - Carle impressed the Habs brass in training camp before getting hurt. He has since bounced back and is giving coach Don Lever quality minutes in Hamilton and is a quality prospect at this point.

6. PK Subban (OHL) - 2nd round, 43rd overall 2007 entry draft - Subban is one of the fastest defencemen in the OHL and a gold medallist for Team Canada at the 2008 World Junior Tournament. He played a limited role on that team but should play a major role on next year's squad. Subban is confident, funny and looks like a future NHLer at this point. Subban grew up cheering for the Habs and was on the verge of tears of joy on draft day.

7. David Fischer (NCAA) - 1st round, 20th overall 2006 entry draft - Fischer is another Minnesota Mr Hockey winner with size and ability. His viability as a professional has been called into question on numerous occasions, especially recently but has had a strong second half of the season for Minnesota and looks to be emerging as a quality prospect.

The theme here is the Canadiens wealth of the talent on the blue line is one of those "good" problems you hear about. They are far less deep at centre and right wing but with the amount of defensive talent they have coming up in the system, you'd have to think that some space will be created. Some questions still surround all these guys but the future on the blueline certainly looks bright.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Defensive Surplus

One of the brighter spots in the Habs bright future is their prospects on defence. They've got several promising names on their way up and some good young guys already manning the blue line on the big club.

You can't help but wonder who will end up making the big club and who will spend their years in lesser leagues, especially with the trade deadline less than three weeks away.

Here's a review of what's going down on the blueline and what the Habs are looking at going forward and who fits where.


1. Mike Komisarek - The foundation of this defence for the the foreseeable future. Just turned 26 and has emerged as a bona fide number one with upside. Bob Gainey needs to lock him up long before any kind of restricted free agency comes along, teams would gladly give up their future to add a guy like him.

2. Andrei Markov - The other cornerstone. Signed through 2011 and emerging as a Norris trophy contender. Markov gives his team quality minutes in every situation and plays a solid defensive game. He's very hard to beat and makes one of the first passes in the league. Not going anywhere.

3. Roman Hamrlik - A veteran presence who came pretty much as advertised and exceeded some expectations. Hamrlik plays a solid, mistake-free game and is a smart player. The only knock on him is that his contract is big and lengthy. In the first year of a four year deal that pays him $22 million. That's $5.5 million per season for a guy who will be 36 years old in the final year of the deal. Obviously, the Canadiens organization has a lot of faith that Hamrlik will continue to compete at a high level for years to come.

4. Mark Streit - A 7th round sleeper who does it all. Streit co-quarterbacks (did I just make up a term?) the number one power play unit in the NHL, kills penalties, plays forward when needed and gets a tidy pile of points along the way. Sometimes has trouble in his own zone when things get physical and some might argue is far more effective as a forward in even strength situations. Pending unrestricted free agent who may be looking to cash in. I'd like to see Streit signed to a two-year deal for about $1.75 to $2.25 per season but would be reluctant to pay even that much with the guys coming up in the next few years.

5. Josh Gorges - Starting to look like a solid 5th or 6th defenceman when he gets to play an everyday role on his natural side. Makes a good first pass and has settled into a groove since struggling to find an identity on the team at times since being acquired a year ago. Never going to blow you away but at 23 his upside remains a factor.

6. Francis Bouillon - Good skater who can hit. 32 years old so we've likely seen the best of Bouillon. Prone to the occasional defensive error or breakdown but generally solid. Maybe a tad overpaid at $1.875 million. Probably not a big part of any long term plans.

7. Mathieu Dandenault - Not really a defenceman anymore. Making too much money ($1.75 million) with another year remaining on his deal and a team-worst -10 rating. Someone who may be on the way out if Gainey can find any takers. Chances are he won't. Dandenault works hard and has three more Stanley Cup rings than anyone not named Brisebois on the Habs blueline.

8. Patrice Brisebois - A veteran presence who makes a lot of mistakes. The Canadiens have a dismal record with Brisebois in the lineup and many fans wouldn't be sad to see him gone. He's here for this year only and I'd be shocked to see him play in the postseason.

The unit has stayed remarkably injury-free throughout the year and that's paid huge dividends for the team.

The gist of the rundown is this:

-Hamrlik, Komisarek and Markov are the foundation of a solid future.

-Streit and Gorges are good options, although Streit looks better at forward while manning the point on the power play.

-Dandenault, Brisebois and Bouillon are the guys least likely to be here in the next two or three years and more likely to be dealt in the coming weeks although probably not too attractive to most teams.

On Friday I'll get into the prospects that will be challenging for jobs in the coming years.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Statement Game

The Senators are looking to prove they're still the elite team of the East. Martin Gerber is looking to prove he's a bona fide number one goaltender. The Sens, as a team, are looking to prove they can win games without Dany Heatley and Daniel Alfredsson. It's a good litmus test for where this team stands right now.

The Canadiens look like they'll be without Roman Hamrlik, who missed the morning skate today with the flu after going -3 on Sunday against the Rangers. Michael Ryder is likely to be the other guy left aside. If the Habs win, they're only one point behind the Sens, who once had what looked like an insurmountable lead in the division and conference. releases their power rankings every week and this week, the Sens were dropped to #17 and the Habs jumped up to #2, their highest position of the year and trailing only the mighty Detroit Red Wings. I don't know if any f the Sens pay attention to things like this, but it's indicative of the attitude of the hockey world toward their team. They're not really taken seriously as a Cup contender, especially given their current situation between the pipes and with injuries.

Martin Gerber has been brilliant for periods of his career and dismal at others. It seems that every time he's given the title of number one goaltender, he loses his composure and has a bad game or five. He's a guy who's at his best when competing for a starting job, ideally in a tandem situation. He melted down against the Habs in the playoffs a few years ago before Cam Ward stole his starting job and went on to win the Conn Smythe trophy. If that version of Gerber shows up to the Bell Centre tonight, the Habs may be battling for first place on Saturday in Ottawa.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

This Senators team does a great job against the Habs. Chris Neil always gets under Alex Kovalev's skin. Jason Spezza doesn't have Sheldon Souray to undress anymore but he still has a lot of success against the Habs. Mike Fisher is a great player who will have to step up if the Sens want to stay on top.

The story broke last night that the Senators head scout Frank Jay was signed by the Habs after resigning his post with Ottawa. This is a real coup for the Canadiens. Their much-maligned pro scouting gets a boost on this one and adding a guy to your staff with a track record like Jay's bodes well for the next few draft years, which are supposed to the best since 2005.

The Bell Centre will be rockin tonight, that's for sure. The only question is whether the Habs will keep them in the game as their 7th man.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Spectacular Super Sunday

Great Super Bowl. After cheering for the Patriots all year, I found myself pulling for Eli Manning's Giants. It was incredibly exciting, maybe the best Super Bowl I've ever seen.

The Habs had an up and down weekend. After pounding the lacklustre Islanders on Saturday afternoon, the Habs came out flying and jumped out to a 3-0 lead. The Rangers turned it into a game by getting physical with the Habs and playing their style of hockey. The Habs are more of a finesse team and that was evident for the first half of the game, when they were flying all over the ice and their crisp passing had the Rangers on their heels. The game turned right after that and Ryan Hollweg took his frustration for out on little Andrei Kostitsyn for an elbow he absorbed from Alex Kovalev. Guy Carbonneau kept Kovy off the ice for about four minutes after the hit and finally Hollweg just went after a guy with the same initials.

I maintain that if Sergei hadn't sold the hit to the officials by laying prone on the ice for a minute or two, no major or game misconduct penalties would have been assessed on the play. Look at Chris Higgins the day before: Just as vicious a hit, but Higgins bounced back up so it went mostly unpunished.

I'm not overly concerned about the loss being a turning point for the Habs. I didn't give them much of a chance going into the game but I admit to being surprised they managed to blow a three-goal lead. Mitch Melnick was on point today when he mentioned that several veterans, including Roman Hamrlik and Saku Koivu, looked tired on Sunday afternoon.

It's too bad the Habs couldn't close out the Rangers, if they had then tomorrow night's game would have been a battle for first place in the Eastern Conference. It's still a huge game as the Habs can pull to within a point of the Sens with another tilt on Saturday. There's no reason to think that the Habs won't come out strong, the time is now for them to overtake the Sens, who are dealing with infighting and injuries to Daniel Alfredsson and Dany Heatley. If they don't catch them with those two guys out of the lineup, they won't catch them at all.