While most of the post season hot stove talk has centred on finding a power leftwinger for Tomas Plekanec and a goalscorer for the third line,  the Canadiens defence has been pretty much left critically unscathed.  As the Canadiens forward units became injury-induced chaos last season, the blueline was a comparitive oasis of stability.   The difference is summed up one one word  – “depth”.   Depth, last season came in the form of the fortuitous signing of Alexei Emelin and Raphael Diaz out of Europe, the continuing development of P.K. Subban and the emergence of Frederic St. Denis near the end of the season.

They’re hardly Savard, Lapointe and Robinson but the Canadiens current ‘big three’ Andrei Markov,  Subban and Josh Gorges ended the season as a solid franchise cornerstone.    With the probable addition of Alexei Emelin to the top four,  the Canadiens enter next season with forty five minutes of every game in good hands.

The challenge is to fill those other fifteen minutes.

Here are the current candidates –

Alexei Emelin – Very strong physically.  The biggest member of the current defence corps at 6’2” and 220lbs.  He loves to hit and uses his size effectively without drawing penalties.   Not much of an offensive factor.  Needs to simplify his game from his own end since passing the puck not his strong point.  Natural partner for Markov.  At this point, number four on the depth chart.

Chris Campoli –  Unrestricted free agent.  Signed at training camp when it was clear Markov couldn’t start the season. Inconsistent, especially in his own end.   Good skater.   Not likely to be retained. 

Tomas Kaberle – Granted it’s a contract that Pierre Gauthier should never have assumed.  His game totally lacks a physical component but when he does recover the puck he has an excellent first pass and is the second best quarterback on the power play behind Markov.  The Canadiens would trade him if they could but, unlike Scott Gomez, he’s not a candidate for buyout or demotion to Hamilton.  Sixth or seventh defenceman?

Raphael Diaz – Seemed destined for Hamilton for rookie seasoning until Campoli and then Spacek went down in the first two games of the season. 5′ 11″.    Can move the puck  but has trouble winning battles in his own zone.  Needs to develop a busier stick.  Seemed to get tired at the end of his first full North American season.  Still could use some AHL experience but Canadiens will have to ask waivers to send him down.  Best be careful on this.  He’s only coming into his second year.  Remember Mark Streit?

Yannick Weber –   Small for a defenseman.  Easily removed from the puck.  Poor puck recovery ability.  Upside is his shot and playmaking with the man advantage.  On the fringe with the Canadiens.  Restricted free agent.  The clock may have run out.  Trade bait or a waiver candidate.

Brendon Nash – Lots to like about his chances.  Big puck-moving undrafted defenseman out of  Cornell University.  Had a strong rookie season in Hamilton two years ago.  Missed this past season after a muscle tore away from his shoulder blade requiring training camp surgery.  6’3” 215lbs.   Stayed in Hamilton maintaining his conditioning the entire season, while making close to fifty appearances at area schools for the Bulldogs.  Um;ess he learned a lot simply watching last season, he’ll start the year in Hamilton.

Frederic St. Denis – A carbon copy of David Desharnais.  Undrafted.  Signed out of Canadian college hockey and sent to Cincinnati of the ECHL for a year.  Last two years in Hamilton.  Named team’s top defenseman this season.   Called up three times for a total of seventeen games.  Seemed NHL-ready in his final callup.  Small.  Needs to find a way to get position on opponents so he’s not dominated in front of his own net.  Can replace Weber at cheaper price.

Jarred Tinordi – Longshot.    It’s rare a 20 year old defenseman makes the jump directly from junior to the NHL.  He does have that imposing size but nobody I’ve met has yet compared him to Bobby Orr or Raymond Bourque.  It’s a long way from the London Knights to the Canadiens and I think we can expect he’ll be allowed to make his rookie mistakes in Hamilton.

Also Under Contract –  Mark Mitera  Joe Stejskal  – long-term projects.   Garrett Stafford, Joe Callahan and Alex Henry –  veteran AHLer’s   Unrestricted free agents July first.

Entering the NHL professional ranksTinordi (London Knights), Morgan Ellis (Shawinigan Cataractes),  Greg Pateryn– (University of Michigan) and probably Magnus Nygren (Färjestad, Swedish Elitserien).  (Because of his December birthdate, the Canadiens, if they wish can sign Nathan Beaulieu to a pro contract and send him to Hamilton if they feel another year of junior hockey is unecessary)

Potentially the 2012-2013 Hamilton Bulldogs’ defense will be made up of  6’7” Jarred Tinordi, 6’4” Mark Mitera, 6’3″ Brendon Nash  plus 6’2”Greg Pateryn,  Morgan Ellis and Joe Stejskal.  (plus, if he agrees to come from Sweden, Färjestad’s Magnus Nygren – 6’1”).     Not all will make his way to the NHL but, thanks to an obvious change in Canadiens scouting priorities, the Canadiens defense is going to take on a much different look over the next  three or four years.

One additional note.  There’s been a lot of street talk about  bringing Hal Gill back.  Obviously none of it is coming from the area of the currently vacant general manager’s office.  Seems to me there’s enough leadership on defence from Gorges and Markov, but at the right price (below 2 million) and with the right attitude he could have some value on a one year deal.  Don’t count on it.

I haven’t been right on predictions for years but on paper at least to start, I see it as

Gorges -Subban;   Markov-Emelin;  Kaberle/St.Denis – Diaz.  (only two righthand shots – Subban and Diaz).  First recall – Brendon Nash.    Traded – Yannick Weber.   Gone Through Free Agency – Chris Campoli.  The defense is still smallish but that’s not going to be a problem much longer.