Daily Hab-it: The ripple effects of depth
Dallas Stars' Jeff Woywitka skates off after scoring a goal against the Anaheim Ducks in the first period of an NHL hockey game in Anaheim Calif., on Sunday, April 3, 2011. (AP Photo/Christine Cotter)
Published Wednesday, August 17, 2011 1:47AM EDT
The obvious message in the Canadiens signing of Jeff Woywitka to a two-way contract on Monday is that Pierre Gauthier does not want to spend another season scrambling to fill holes caused by injury.
Some of the reactions I saw on Twitter after the signing was announced pointed out that Woywitka will never be able to replace an Andrei Markov or Josh Gorges should one of them experience issues with their respective knee surgeries.
Of course he won't.
There aren't too many teams who can hide a defenceman capable of playing top-pairing minutes in the minors in case of injury. If you have a defenceman like that, he's likely to be playing on the big club already.
And the Canadiens have that.
Should the pairing of P.K. Subban and Hal Gill be re-united, those two spent the entire second half of last season playing as the top defensive unit at both even strength and shorthanded. With Markov and Gorges around that should no longer be the case, at least not as blatantly as it was before.
So, if one of Gorges or Markov gets hurt, the presence of Woywitka in the organization – almost assuredly in Hamilton – only adds to Jacques Martin's ability to absorb it by bumping everyone up the depth chart and slotting him into the bottom.
When last season began, Yannick Weber was the only defenceman in Hamilton who could conceivably make the jump to Montreal in the event of an injury, and after ripping up the AHL for six weeks he was called up for good.
When this season begins, there will likely be three newly-acquired defencemen in Hamilton who could be called upon should injuries hit in Woywitka, Raphael Diaz and Mark Mitera. If Brendon Nash or even Kyle Klubertanz can build on their solid rookie seasons in the AHL, that number could jump to four or five. (UPDATE: Thanks to everyone in the comments and on Twitter for pointing out that Klubertanz signed with Djurgardens of the Swedish Elite League. Slipped my mind. Will you ever forgive me?)
But while the insurance against injury is the obvious benefit to having so many capable defencemen in the minors, it is far from being the only one.
Depth = accountability
Last season, with the Canadiens dressing just about everyone they had under contract who belonged in the NHL, the fear factor that a threat of a benching represents was non-existent.
On defence, up front and in goal, none of the team's top players had to worry about sitting out a game or two if their performance suffered (aside from Subban, as we all remember, but rookies don't count).
Now that threat level has increased significantly at all three positions, but nowhere more so than on defence.
If the top-four is some combination of Markov, Gorges, Subban and Gill, that would mean Jaroslav Spacek, Alexei Yemelin and Weber would probably be fighting for playing time on the third pairing. Any three of those defencemen could be candidates to be moved up the depth chart if one of the top-four is hurting the team.
At the same time, with a three-man competition for two spots, the pressure to play well on that third pairing will also be quite fierce and could very well bring out the best in all of them. And with so many able defencemen on the farm, Martin has an additional pressure-tactic to coax the best out of his back end.
Not only that, but discipline-based benchings like the one Subban faced last season become easier as well. Watching from the press box while your team struggles without you does not drive a point home quite as effectively as when a new player steps in and makes your absence an afterthought.
Surplus of forwards
Up front, the Canadiens only had five players worthy of being called top-six forwards for most of the season. It changed briefly when Max Pacioretty was called up from the minors, but reverted back to that situation when he was injured.
This season, assuming Lars Eller and David Desharnais are ready to build on their rookie seasons, it's possible the Canadiens will have nine forwards who could be slotted into the top-six with those two, Pacioretty, Andrei Kostitsyn, Erik Cole, Brian Gionta, Scott Gomez, Michael Cammalleri and Tomas Plekanec.
While people were screaming from the rooftops for Gomez's ice time to be reduced as he struggled through last season's nightmare (by the way, if you want to read an interesting, heavily statistical analysis of Gomez's season, click here), the reality was that it would have been practically impossible to demote him for most of the season. And Gomez knew it.
Martin sheltered Eller and Desharnais from difficult match-ups for the large majority of last season, and Jeff Halpern simply was not a viable top-six option, so as poorly as Gomez played he could remain comfortable in the knowledge that his role on the team was never in any real jeopardy.
This season that may not be the case, especially considering how Martin trusted both Eller and Desharnais to face difficult match-ups in last spring's playoffs.
On the wings there are five players who would not be out of place filling the four positions that make up the top-six, a jump from three for the better part of last season. That surplus should lead to greater accountability there as well.
Under the current set-up, should one of the top wingers get off to a start like Gionta had last season Martin won't be forced to break up a line that's working like he did when he put Kostitsyn with Gomez at the start of November, effectively putting the brakes on Kostitsyn's torrid start.
Now, if a similar situation occurs, the hypothetical Gionta figure would simply move down on the depth chart to be replaced by a third-liner, or the entire line's minutes could be bumped downward depending on how the other two lines are performing.
Even Price could be pushed
In goal, where Carey Price has clear reign on his crease, the arrival of Peter Budaj represents a bit more of a threat to him than Alex Auld did. Though Budaj's numbers were not glorious in Colorado last season, he is an athlete in his prime years who still sees himself as a starter. Obviously, Budaj knows Price will get the bulk of the work, but he will have the benefit of a full-time goalie coach for the first time in his career – and it's one of the best in the NHL in Pierre Groulx. It's entirely possible Budaj could push Price a little harder than Auld did, even though Auld performed extremely well almost every time he was called upon.
Still, Martin appeared reluctant to go with Auld in any important games (just one of his 12 starts came against a team that made the playoffs), and he only had two starts in the first two months of the season. Perhaps Budaj, should he respond well to his exposure to Groulx, will be seen by Martin as a more reliable option than Auld was.
Sign of progress
The Canadiens as they are currently built are a team that is far more sheltered than they've been in recent years from the possibility – some would say the inevitability – of injuries. Teams that make up the elite of the league, the top tier as Gauthier would say, are often able to absorb injuries to key players and remain competitive long enough to allow their stars to heal.
The only star the Canadiens have, and the player they simply cannot afford to lose for a long period, is Price. But among the skaters, there is no single player whose injury would absolutely sink the team, even though it would hurt severely if Markov or Plekanec were lost for a long period.
In past years, the biggest condition to any pre-season prediction on the Canadiens was health, and it remains so this off season.
But it's not nearly as big of a mitigating factor as it once was because of the depth that's come from the development of young players and the acquisitions made this summer.
And if the injury situation is such that the added depth won't be needed, its mere presence may be enough to push a lot of players who underachieved last season to new heights.