It’s important to first make it clear that Andrei Markov isn’t a make-or-break player here in 2017.
Still surprisingly effective, sure, and still one of the Canadiens’ best defensemen, no doubt. But losing him for nothing — he says he’s just going to the KHL, where he’ll be able further bolster Russia’s blue line in Pyongchang — helps to show off something Marc Bergevin should have been sweating about since the Jonathan Drouin trade.
The Canadiens blue line is, to put it lightly, a point of concern. It’s Shea Weber, about to be a year older and worse than he already was, complemented by Karl Alzner and a bunch of guys who serve as nice depth pieces on most teams. However, that means they probably also can’t necessarily be counted on to do the one thing that caused the team a ton of problems last season: Get the puck up the ice.
When the Canadiens traded P.K. Subban — still funny and relevant, by the way — they did so with the acknowledgement that Weber was more of a stay-at-home guy. He’s not going to lug the puck for you. Neither was Markov, to be fair. Not at his age. Then there’s the addition of Alzner, not known as a puck-mover either. So then who’s in charge of moving the puck through the two non-attacking zones? Jeff Petry? Sure, him. Did it last season, didn’t he?
So Jeff Petry is your No. 2 defenseman again, which didn’t work last year. Karl Alzner isn’t going on a pairing with Weber for a lot of reasons, so you effectively brought him in as a $4.625 million middle-pairing defenseman. He’ll play with David Schlemko, maybe? That leaves two of Brandon Davidson, Jordie Benn, and newly signed Mark Streit as your bottom pair. You have to therefore ask again: Which of these guys is moving the puck for you? The answer might be “nobody.”
The answer could have been “somebody.” The idea that Mikhail Sergachev wasn’t going to at least be a middle-pair puck-mover for this club is a strange one, considering Tampa — with a much better extant D corps — clearly plans to use him as an everyday option this coming season. Now, the Habs had need of offense and are still apparently hellbent on trading Alex Galchenyuk for reasons I can’t understand, and I’m not sure if you guys heard but this Drouin kid is both ultra-talented and French-Canadian. It’s frankly surprising Montreal didn’t give up even more than Sergachev to get him.
Point being, while goalscoring was a bit of a problem for the Canadiens last year (they ranked 15th), that wasn’t their primary problem. I don’t know how you go into an free agency period with a very obvious need like this — indeed, this is Bergevin’s second straight offseason with such a need — and wholly fail to address it. If anything, the Montreal blue line got worse since the Drouin trade.
Guys out: Markov, Sergachev, Nathan Beaulieu (which, whatever). Guys in: Alzner, Streit, and Seguin trade castoff Joe Morrow.
Seems like a downgrade on every front, doesn’t it?
Hey, the Canadiens are letting Markov go, which might not be a bad idea in most situations since he’s in his late 30s and wasn’t exactly a defensive stalwart despite doing a lot of other things well. But the idea that he said he’d take a one-year deal and they still didn’t want him back doesn’t really make a lot of sense for the club; they have a ton of money to spend (about $8.5 million against the cap) and no positional needs to fill unless they plan to take a ton of salary on via trade. Which they probably can’t.
Meanwhile, that Habs offense they wanted to upgrade? Yeah, well, Drouin is a nice add, and Ales Hemsky can be a good value given his age and price. But they also lost Alex Radulov and seemingly didn’t have the ability to replace him. Maybe they think Drouin is the replacement; the money they’re paying him seems to suggest as much. But the very real chance that Drouin can’t replace Radulov’s dominant possession game and 50-plus points has to be a consideration, does it not? And if you are looking to trade Galchenyuk, what do you get up front that makes you, y’know, better?
By any real measure, the Canadiens now absolutely have to be in Going For It mode given the general age of their core. Even Max Pacioretty is going to be 29 in mid-November. Craig Custance suggested that if anyone is going to extend Ryan Johansen an offer sheet, the Canadiens — with all their money, their clear desire for a high-end center, and their need to push all-in — might be the team to go after him. But let’s be honest: There will be no Johansen offer sheet.
All of which puts pressure on six people, by my reckoning. Most obvious is, of course, Bergevin himself. If this new Habs team, more built-in-his-image than ever before, cannot compete realistically in the Eastern Conference — and still-realistically, it can’t do that without Carey Price going nuclear again — then it’s gotta be his job. Gotta be.
Next is obviously Weber, who despite the location of the ‘C’ on someone else’s sweater is The Face of Bergevin’s Habs. Bergevin rocked the hockey world with this trade, swapping out a beloved superstar defenseman for a, uhh, more understated guy who was supposed to provide the kind of grit, self-determination, and responsibility the Bergevin’s Habs needed to be built on. Weber was perfectly good last season, but if the team falters again with him as the franchise defenseman, at some point that’s going to land in his lap.
Along similar lines, if Alzner can’t deliver as the big free agent prize from this summer — he had to be considered the best defenseur in the UFA class — that’s also going to result in some amount of rancor or resentment, right? I’m not sure what “not delivering” looks like if your career high is five goals and 21 points, but more goals getting past Price probably doesn’t help anyone here, even if they allowed the third-fewest in the league last season.
So that’s three guys under very serious pressure. Doesn’t even get into Price (who, like Henrik Lundqvist, is always under pressure to make a not-great team look at least pretty good). Beyond Price, there’s also Max Pacioretty, a well-paid perennial 30-plus-goals guy whose alleged inability to coexist with Subban was allegedly what got the elite defender traded. As captain, this is his team. If it can’t get off the ground, that’s going to be on him.
Finally there’s Drouin, who’s going to be expected to replicate his 21 goals and 53 points, plus do what Radulov did to drive the puck into the offensive zone and keep it there. Can he do that without the kind of talent on his line and behind him that he enjoyed in Tampa? We’re about to find out, but if he doesn’t, how does the first French-Canadian ultra-talent to wear the bleu, blanc, et rouge in forever get treated?
One guy who probably doesn’t have a lot of pressure on him in all this is the new coach.
That’s the big wrinkle in all of this: Claude Julien is one of the absolute best hockey minds on the planet, but how he’s going to corral whatever this is into a coherent, working model remains to be seen. The Habs played at a whopper pace after Michel Therrien got axed (33 points in 24 games is equivalent to about 113 over the full 82) and also had that sweet, sweet Julien-driven, fifth-in-the-league possession share of nearly 52.3 percent to close out the season.
Even with the possession advantage, though, the Canadiens only outscored their opponents by nine goals under Julien, and that was with Price and the backups stopping almost 93 percent of the shots they faced. Can that continue for a full season? I tend to doubt it. That’s true both because the number is unsustainably high for an entire team over 82, and because the Canadiens defense is worse now than it was at any point last season.
All of which is to say it’s tough to see what the Canadiens hope to accomplish in terms of getting better this coming season. If, or perhaps when, they don’t, there will be no shortage of blame to go around. Most of that blame should trickle up to Bergevin, of course.
The way he’s managed the team the past few summers, there’s no other way forward. He’s had a lot of kicks at the ol’ football and he keeps Charlie Browning it.
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