The last post dealt with the goaltending situation. Continuing on out from the net, the blueline makeover is next. This one is particularly challenging, and perhaps where Gainey has the most work to do.
Only three regulars -- Markov, Gorges and Hamrlik -- are under contract next year. This is a fairly solid core to build around: able to play good defense, gets the puck out of the defensive zone quickly and sets up forwards for scoring opportunities. Markov is clearly the best of the three, and probably the best defenseman to play for the Habs in a number of years.
The Habs rash of injuries last year proved that blueline depth is critical. Hockey is a defensive sport, and depth at goaltending and defense are critical. But the Habs can't rely on four or five of their prospects to fill the void either, as impressive as they are (O'Byrne, Weber, Carle, and Subban, to name a few). While it's nice to get some of the youngsters some much needed NHL ice time, at most only one or two can expect regular play with the big club-- and maybe only as part of the third pairing, lining up against the opposition's third and fourth lines.
Defense is simply much more difficult to play than offense. It is often more a matter of experience and good habits, and less instinct and skill. Most successful defensemen are not born, but rely on training and practice, doing the same thing over and over again until the memory is burned into every muscle. Take Nick Lidstrom. He might be the best in the business -- at 39 years old! Or his teammate, Chris Chelios: 47 years old, and taking regular shifts during these playoffs. 18 year old forwards are common but 18 year old defensemen are not.
One defenseman who did make the jump earlier than most was Mike Komisarek. He has done reasonably well as a young defenseman, but is still learning the game. He will often go for the big check, get tangled up and then ends up out of position. He also often fails to trust or communicate with his defensive partner, turning two-on-twos into two-on-ones and trying to play the pass between the opposing forwards.
The Habs know this, and won't offer him huge money. With the amount of players they need to re-sign, they can't afford to anyway. A long term contract would be justifiable, maybe as long as 10 years, but average somewhere between $4M/year and $5M/year. Markov should be the highest paid defenseman on the team, and his deal averages $5.75M/year (and only 4 years?!).
But Komisarek would be a fool to try to sign before he becomes goes UFA on July 1. If he waits, he will almost certainly get a huge contract from one of the struggling U.S. teams that needs to fill seats -- and Big K's brand of hockey fills seats. The bet here is that the Islanders will throw a front loaded, 15-year/$90M contract at him. He's a Long Island boy after all, and what better way for the Islanders to resurrect their moribund franchise than by signing one of their own. He would make an excellent partner for the left handed, offensively minded, smallish and not-very-physical Mark Streit.
Most of all the Islanders need to sell tickets. Look at what overpaying for Cristobal Huet and Brian Campbell did for the Chicago Blackhawks last season. They ended up first in the league in attendance, averaging 22,247 per home game. The previous year they were 19th, averaging only 16,814. Splashy, big ticket free agent signings are expensive, but effective marketing. There might not be a better, quicker way of proving to the fans that you are committed to winning.
Even if Komisarek should opt for free agency, all is not lost for the Habs. Markov, Hamrlik and Gorges can fill three of the top four slots. Indeed, Gorges did an admirable job filling in while Big K was injured this year. Another four or five blueliners would be needed. One or two of those spots could be filled by one of the Bulldog regulars from last year. That leaves the need to sign three UFA's.
Next post: the rest of the Habs 2009-10 defensive corps.