Canadiens' Defense: Falling Down
There are three blueliners who have been getting a lot of ink this year: Andrei Markov, Sheldon Souray, and Craig Rivet. These are the three defensemen with the highest profiles.
For the bulk of the season, the pairs have been Markov/Komisarek, Rivet/Souray, and Bouillon/Dandenault. Before I go any further, go check out Behindthenet's advanced +/- ratings and quality of competition ratings for the Montreal defensemen. You can also take a look at this chart for a quick picture of each pair's performance.
At 5-on-5, Markov/Komisarek are plainly Carbo's top option. They play the toughest opposition and they're producing the best results. That is impressive. Number two is Bouillon/Dandenault, and they're getting the second best results. The guys facing the softest opposition are Rivet/Souray. On top of that, they're getting blown out of the water.
The elephant in the living room is that two of the big names - Souray and Rivet - are 3rd pair defensemen at even strength. In fact, they're not even very good ones. Granted, even strength isn't the whole story. Souray's PP prowess is well documented, and both players serve PK time (albeit on the second unit, which is much easier than first unit duty). But even in the new lawyer hockey NHL, 5-on-5 is still pretty important. I know that because sucking at 5-on-5 is costing the Habs a lot of points in the standings.
The arguments in favour of Craig Rivet usually start and end with the word "intangibles." Maybe he is a great leader. He definitely stands up for himself and his teammates. But without producing actual, tangible results, the intangibles mean squat.
On the bright side, Markov and Komisarek have been fantastic. They're on the ice against the big guns, they've excelled as the top PK pair, and Markov is certainly no slouch on the PP. The Canadiens' record when Markov is out of the lineup is very telling. Also telling - and quite worrisome - is Carbonneau's tendency to lean on Souray on those occasions.
Bouillon/Dandenault have been as good as could be expected. Both had to deal with injuries early in the season, but they have come around and are providing solid defense.
The #7 and #8 guys are interesting.
Janne Niinimaa got off to a horrid start. Then in a Dec. 7 match against the Islanders, he got whacked in the head with the puck. He was stitched up and finished the game. Since then, Niinimaa has been pretty solid - certainly no worse than Rivet and Souray at even strength. His awful start might scare off other teams and make him a possible bargain FA signing in the offseason. I'd be happy to see him stay for another season for $1M.
Mark Streit has been converted into a serviceable 4th line forward. With eight defensemen on the active roster, something was bound to happen. I found it extremely odd that Carbonneau would even attempt this project when he already had a capable swing man in Mathieu Dandenault. Streit has proceeded to outscore Sergei Samsonov (they both have 22 points, but Samsonov has played 745 minutes to Streit's 675).
There have been reams of mainstream articles on the subject of the impending UFA status of Markov/Rivet/Souray. There is also an entertaining sextet of blog articles at The Score on the subject. They run the gamut from thoughtful and salient to laughably insipid. I addressed the issue in November, but didn't really proffer an opinion. So here it is:
Markov - He must be re-signed. Like I said before, It's hard to imagine him getting a better contract than T. Kaberle (5 years at $4.25M). But then, the market for defensemen seems to have skyrocketed. In the interests of keeping his price down, I only hope the subtleties of his game have gone unnoticed by the rest of the GMs in the league.
Souray - It is with great ambivalence that I hope he gets his $5M contract somewhere else. He's a helluva player to watch, but his skill set and the price that his skill set will demand are not conducive to winning in a capped environment. If the Canadiens can't win with Souray earning only $2.4M, then they're certainly not going to improve by paying him $4.8M.
Rivet - If he's going to be back next year, he has to be Andreychucked. Busted down to role player minutes. Pay him $1.5M to mentor the next rookie.
With the dearth of defensemen down on the farm (O'Byrne? Cote? Archer?) and Emelin's status still up in the air, it's apparent that the Canadiens will need to sign a good, cost-effective FA in the offseason. If Souray departs, Sami Salo (earning $1.5M this season) might be a good option. His big shot would make for a smooth transition into Souray's spot on the PP. A stopper of the calibre of Scott Hannan ($2.2M) would be optimal, but his price tag will likely be too big for Gainey. Andy Sutton ($2M) was being leaned on in Atlanta until his foot injury. Vitaly Vishnevski ($1.6M) is intriguing too - he's only 26.