I’ve mentioned it a few times over the past few weeks, that the Habs defense corps has a problem that has to some extent, been camouflaged by injury early on in the season. The fact that Andrei Markov has yet to play a game in this season, and the fact that Chris Campoli was injured in the very first game of the year has forced Jacques Martin to scramble on defence. He has had to use a lineup that is less than ideal – and frankly the team has done a decent job of making due in the wake of two pretty critical absences. Those absences, however, are on the precipice of being complete. Markov made the trip with the team out to Pheonix and Nashville. Campoli has been seen around Brossard practising under the supervision of the Canadiens coaches and medical staff.
With the return of Campoli and Markov brings an issue that if isn’t resolved in advance could have very bad consequences for the team going forward. The issue is one of redundancy.
Due to the critical injury issues on defence, Martin has relied heavily on PK Subban, Josh Gorges, Hal Gill and Jaroslav Spacek to provide stable veteran defence (although it is a huge leap to classify Subban as a veteran). This has been the case because Montreal currently employs 3 defensemen with extremely little NHL experience: Yannick Weber, Raphael Diaz, and Alexei Emelin.
All things being equal the situation shouldn’t be all that difficult to navigate. A simple approach would be to let the play of the individuals sort out who plays and let time decide who on the roster will stick. The rationale behind this dictates that over the course of multiple games, those with talent will show that they belong in an NHL uniform.
There is one fatal flaw with this logic however. All things are not equal. Out of the three defenders – only Emelin represents a different set of skills from the rest of your defence corps.
When Andrei Markov and Chris Campoli return, Montreal will have a total of 9 defensemen: Markov, Subban, Gorges, Gill, Campoli, Spacek, Weber, Diaz, Emelin. Martin is going to have to remove 1-2 defenders from the current lineup in order to maintain a normal roster size. For the sake of the team, and making the correct decision he’d be best serve to know exactly who will step out of the lineup – before he has to make that call. Secondarily, Martin had better think long and hard about what his defence will actually look like when Markov and Campoli return.
This is the problem looming on the horizon. We continue on this path, and Markov and Campoli return. Who sits? As of now it would probably be Emelin. But with Markov and Campoli in the lineup – exactly what purpose do Yannick Weber or Raphael Diaz serve?
Neither one will see power play time. I would argue that neither one possesses a skill not bested by Markov, Subban, Campoli or Spacek. With Weber and Diaz included in the mix the power play has score only 3 more goals than it has given up. While not entirely their fault, they have shown almost nothing that indicates that a turnaround is near. If these two defenders, both under 6 feet tall and 200 pounds, are not being used for their offensive skills – there is simply not much reason to keep them the lineup.
Weber and Diaz have been given every opportunity to showcase their abilities. Emelin has not played 3 consecutive games yet this season. While defensive miscues are attributed to the reason he is in the press box – the statistics do not support Martin’s decisions.
In 16 games Weber has 11 giveaways. Diaz has 8. In 8 games Emelin has 2. I can’t tell you how many other times that Weber and Diaz have forced prolonged shifts in their own end because of their inability to clear the zone.
In 16 games Raphael Diaz has 35 blocked shots – one of the stats that Martin praises as proof of commitment to defence. in 8 games Emelin has 10. Weber has only 12.
In 16 games this season Yannick Weber has 8 body checks. Same with Diaz. That is two-thirds of Montreal’s defence who are on the verge of being passed by the physical force known as Aaron Palushaj who has 7 in 6 games. Tag teamed together they represent the physical output of Brian Gionta. Emelin after 8 games is third on the team with 22 body checks. Worked out to 16 games he’d be at 44, only a few hits behind Eric Cole for the team lead. While hits do not tell a full story about a player’s game – they do reveal how a player plays in regards to physical contact. Its no surprise that Michael Cammalleri for example has 2 hits in 12 games. You expect a different level of physical commitment from your defense – and Montreal simply isn’t getting that from Diaz and Weber.
So what does all of this mean?
If you’re the coach of this team you have to be aware that Weber and Diaz’ skills are redundant when compared with Markov, Subban, Campoli and Spacek. Emelin represents the one option the Habs defence corps could turn to to provide physical play. Injecting him into the lineup provides the ideal mix of offense and physicality – something this team desperately needs. Until Martin decides to give Emelin a fair shot at sticking with this team – he’s in danger of ensuring that teams can continue to push the Habs around in the defensive end. You cannot stick check your way to the Stanley Cup finals. This team learned that two years ago running into a Philadelphia team that exploited Montreal’s weakness down low – scoring dirty, and easy goals while Montreal tried to poke check their way out of trouble.