Let's assume Big K opts for free agency, and signs a monster contract with some struggling team. The Habs still have a lot of options to fill the void, but need to go with someone who can help spark the offense.
Besides the obvious importance defensemen have in protecting the net, this position is where a lot of offense is generated these days. A lot of goals are either deflections or seeing-eye shots through a thicket of legs and sticks. Thus someone who can uncork one from the point has a lot of value. Most of this has to do with the size of goaltenders today -- and the size of their pads (but more on that in a later post).
Offense was ostensibly the reason the Habs signed Brisebois and traded for Schneider. But the Habs should take a pass on both, because both have limited defensive skills. Brisebois is the least effective of the two. Easily pushed off the puck, he also doesn't have much of a shot. While he is a decent PP QB, that's not enough to keep him with the team, especially when there are other options -- without the drawbacks.
Schneider was much better than Brisebois, but had similar shortcomings. He helped revive a dormant PP with his howitzer of a shot. But he is just too slow to play an effective defensive role. Playing the point on the PP often left him alone along the blueline. If a puck were ever to escape the zone, almost any opposing forward could beat him to the puck and create a short-handed breakaway.
Instead, the Habs are going to have to look outside. The most intriguing UFA available is Philippe Boucher. He has a powerful, right handed shot and likes to play the body with his 6'3", 218 pound frame. In his last full season (2006-07), he was second among Stars defensemen with 159 hits, tied for first in plus/minus, first in goals (with 19) and second in points. But the key is "full season." He hasn't played one since then, being felled by one injury or another.
It's difficult to say if he's injury-prone. It could simply be two straight years of bad luck. In any case, should the Habs take a run at him, the contract should have a provision for games played. Still, it would be nice to have a Quebec-born player playing big minutes on the blueline again.
Another player that might fit the bill is Francois Beauchemin. He's somewhat smaller (6'0" and 207 lbs) and is a left handed shot, but has many similarities to Boucher: loves to play the body, has a pretty decent shot, and a Quebec native to boot. He's also coming off an injury, but has played significantly more than Boucher recently.
Of the two, Boucher is the better fit. He's bigger and his right handed shot would complement Markov nicely. Further, with three lefties under contract, Gainey needs to sign righties. Boucher also only made $2.5M last year, and would be hard pressed to get more than that given the last two years.
With Markov, Boucher, Hamrlik and Gorges, that leaves room for three or four more d-men. This is the easy part. Re-sign Bouillon and Dandenault as the #7 and #8. The fact that Dandenault can effectively play both forward and defense is a depth asset that many GM's and coaches would covet. Further, Bouillon is left handed and Dandenault right, giving the future coach flexibility come injury time.
The other two positions can be filled by O'Byrne and Weber. This is somewhat risky, as having two green defensemen can causes problems. But O'Byrne grew a lot last year, especially in the playoffs. And Weber was thrown into the fire as well late in the season. And both have right handed shots, nicely complementing the other regulars. Their shortcomings can be somewhat mitigated by pairing with a solid, defensive oriented veteran. Maybe something like this?:
As the more seasoned player, O'Byrne gets the nod over Weber. But Weber will be an effective PP point man, playing right behind Boucher. And with Bouillon and Dandenault waiting in the wings, the Habs have some effective veteran backup should the youngsters stumble.
If Komisarek somehow loses his mind and re-signs with the Habs, the blueline looks much better. One option is to replace O'Byrne in the lineup. They both play similar roles after all. Another more interesting option is to not sign Boucher and let Big K play the point. Komisarek came in 4th at the NHL all star game "hardest shot" competition, recording a 98.5 mph slapper. Of course, these competitions are different than regular play, but he does have it in him. Perhaps some decent coaching might coax him to uncork one once in a while during a game? He almost never plays the PP, so who knows how well he might do?
This option also affords the Habs a bit more cap room, as signing Komisarek would significantly shrink the space available to sign anyone else, including Boucher's likely smallish contract. We'll address all these cap considerations at a later point, after breaking down the forward lines in the next post.