The Engels Angle: Is the Habs defence better or worse?
Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price is congratulated by teammates Josh Gorges, left, and Andrei Markov, from Russia, after shutting out the Vancouver Canucks 2-0 during NHL hockey action Tuesday, November 9, 2010 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
By Eric Engels
Published Friday, July 29, 2011 7:27AM EDT
Most have assessed the Montreal Canadiens new defence to be superior to the one they played with last season.
That's not to minimize the loss of James Wisniewski, Roman Hamrlik, Brent Sopel and Paul Mara, but healthy returns for Andrei Markov and Josh Gorges should serve as upgrades on the first two, and new talents Alexei Emelin and Raphael Diaz inject some youth and speed where it was missing.
P.K. Subban will play the team's most pivotal role on the back end as he boasts the most versatility on the Habs' blue line, and Yannick Weber's development could have him surprise people by pinning down a regular spot in the lineup.
The return of Hal Gill enables the Canadiens to keep the stability he's been largely responsible for over the last two seasons, and Jarolsav Spacek's role as the team's 6th or 7th defenceman provides the necessary depth the Canadiens need to undertake a long and arduous season.
They will be a defence that can move the puck more efficiently than the previous group, one that should be able to create more even-strength opportunities, and with Markov's return, one that should certainly be more able of consistently scoring with the man-advantage.
But will they be as strong defensively?
Luckily, the Canadiens have a strong defensive system to rely on, but the sum of their parts do not equal a stronger defensive group than the one they had last season.
The loss of Roman Hamrlik, who finished among the top five shot-blockers in three of the four years on his contract as a Canadien will surely be felt. Even if Gorges and Gill do their part in that regard, one of them is coming off a serious rehabilitation process for the first time in his career and the other is a year older.
For the Canadiens to be just as strong as they were last year in the defensive end, they'll need Alexei Emelin to provide the bruising physical play he's earned a reputation for in Russia.
They'll also need a different version of Jaroslav Spacek, because the one from last season failed to find his rhythm for most of it.
As for Andrei Markov, who is less known for his defensive skills, he has the ability to make the difference on that side of the puck.
How would you pair them up?
Better or worse, I do believe the Canadiens blue line boasts a better balance than the one from last season. I'd pair everybody up as follows:
Both are defensively reliable, both capable of playing big minutes and Markov can afford to take chances with Gorges backing him up.
These two obviously know how to play together, and the balance is pretty much the same as it is with the first pair.
It'll be up to Weber or Diaz to push Spacek out of the lineup out of training camp. Despite Spacek's salary, there's a distinct possibility either one will be able to do that.