Pierre Gauthier signed Alexandre Picard and Alex Henry this week, further bolstering the depth on an already strong blueline. In fact, defense is where the Habs are strongest.
In so doing, Gauthier no doubt learned from the drubbing that Philly handed them in the playoffs. The Flyers were hardly a fashionable pick to win the East, esp when they were down to their third-string goalie, and with a couple of injured top-6 forwards.
But an incredibly strong blueline corps carried them through, and were inexplicably able to take two games from the Blackhawks (who had superior goaltending and more talented forwards).
The Habs already had a deep set of NHL-ready defensemen, but chose to let go of Bergeron and Mara. It was doubtful that either would settle for the two-way deals that Picard and Henry signed, enabling the Habs to leave them in Hamilton until they might be needed. Yannick Weber and/or Mathieu Carle would be the only Bulldogs the Habs had that might be able to make the jump. But Picard especially leapfrogs those two, and enables the Habs to allow the younger set to more fully develop at the AHL level.
Bergeron especially should find a home on an NHL team. His kind of PP prowess would be valuable to some teams, even if he has to play as a 6th or even a 4th line forward. With the revelation that was PK Subban, the Habs simply didn't need him anymore.
As far as when Picard (or Henry, should the Habs need more of an enforcer-type) might be called up, mark February 1 on your calendar. That's when Hamrlik's limited no-trade clause expires. The Habs will then be free to trade him to any team, not just the six he specified before then.
Hamrlik carries a significant cap hit, but his salary will be mostly paid by that time. His contract also expires at the end of the year, so he might make an attractive piece for a team making a playoff push but needing a #3 or #4 dman who can play on the 2nd PP unit and provide stable defensive help. They get the help without the lingering cap hit, and could be free to negotiate a more suitable contract for a defenseman of his age and skill set (somewhere below Spacek's $3.833M/yr).
And with the cap space gained by the Hamrlik trade, Gauthier could get a top 6 forward from another team looking to gain some value from a UFA they know they won't/can't resign. That is, assuming the Habs are still contenders at that point. If not, Hamrlik will probably just be traded for draft picks and/or prospects.
But if the Habs are contending, who might be that soon-to-be UFA top 6 forward? It could be Simon Gagne, if the Yzerman-makeover in Tampa Bay doesn't pay playoff dividends in it's first year. Granted he has a full no-trade clause, but he might just waive it for another chance at the Cup. The numbers work at least: he makes $250k less than Hamrlik.
Still all of this only works if O'Byrne is ready. O'Byrne will start the season as the 7th, but could conceivably take Hamrlik's slot by early next year. Gauthier could then and call up Picard (or Henry) as their 7th.
But if O'Byrne isn't ready, and the Habs are still playoff contenders, expect Hamrlik to stay put.