After a busy trade deadline of adding stability at the back-end, we now get to see if that depth will pay dividends for the Montreal Canadiens.
Looking at the depth chart, the Habs have, in my opinion, 9 NHL-calibre defencemen that can be of use. The likes of the lineup locks; Shea Weber, Andrei Markov, Jordie Benn and Jeff Petry combined with Nathan Beaulieu, Alexei Emelin, Brandon Davidson, Nikita Nesterov and Zach Redmond (on IceCaps) are all contributors to a very deep core.
Assuming every defenceman is healthy for the start of round one, as Weber, Benn and Emelin are all currently nursing injuries, coach Claude Julien will have interesting decisions on who to rely on when his team opens up against the New York Rangers at the Centre Bell next week. With Shea Weber and Andrei Markov establishing themselves as the first shutdown pairing, the bottom-4 should shape up as follows.
For the second pairing, Alexei Emelin and Jeff Petry should form the duo, and if healthy (Emelin currently injured) they can log some key minutes for the Canadiens down the stretch. Jeff Petry is an extremely impressive skater and on his day, he can move the puck effectively and push up in the play. Recently, Petry hasn’t looked completely like himself, as he looks to get back into form at the most important time of year. Also with Emelin’s stay-at-home style of play, the two veterans can complement each other well and eat up a good chunk of minutes; benefitting guys like Weber and Markov over time.
That leaves the last pairing, which really isn’t an actual third pairing partnership. Featuring youngster Nathan Beaulieu and newly acquired veteran defenceman Jordie Benn. The two are polar opposites with regards to playing style but as we’ve seen, it turns out to be quietly effective. The 24-year-old Beaulieu enjoys carrying the puck out of the zone and jumping into the play, while Benn will sit back, make the breakout pass and use his physicality to win puck battles and breakout. Claude Julien tried the duo out for a string of matches, in which they looked very solid and gained the trust of the coaching staff quickly. When Benn returns from his injury, hopefully in time for next week, this is the pairing we should see to round off a stingy top-6.
Ideally, this is how I expect the defensive depth chart to look like come game one of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs:
Markov – Weber
Emelin – Petry
Beaulieu – Benn
Am I confident with that defensive core heading into a tough series with the New York Rangers? Absolutely. This top-6 features solid stay-at-home guys with some puck mobility as well. Aside from the President Trophy winning Washington Capital’s core, I’d say that the Habs have more reliable options than the rest of the teams competing for the Stanley Cup in the Eastern Conference. In addition, Carey Price has been playing his best hockey of the season, posting a .942 save percentage since the Habs’ “bye week” in February. This, combined with a healthy and rested core, should make things easier if the forwards can continue to create chances and put the puck in the net.
This stingy defensive core, alongside coach Julien and co. are ready for a long playoff run.