With the Montreal Canadiens off to one of the greatest starts to a season in National Hockey League history, there is not much to debate, second-guess or complain about in Habs land. The Canadiens are the second team to ever win eight straight games in regulation to begin a season, and look like the team to beat in the Eastern Conference right now.
Though everything is going just fine on the ice, a question is starting to arise about how to handle a pair of young defencemen. In each of the Habs eight games this season, former first round pick and 23 year old Jarred Tinordi has been sitting in the press box with 25 year old Greg Pateryn.
Both Tinordi and Pateryn were kept in the minors for most of last season, and though they looked NHL ready, it made more sense to have them play big minutes in the minor leagues rather than sit out and watch games at the NHL level.
This season, both players are waiver eligible for the first time and can not be sent back to the American Hockey League’s St. John’s Ice Caps without another team plucking them off the waiver wire for nothing in return. This leaves the pair of defenders between a rock (Newfoundland) and a hard place (the press box).
Pateryn got into 17 regular season games with the Habs last season, suited up for seven more in the postseason and played well enough to make a case for himself to be a regular this year. Tinordi, after being selected 22nd overall in the 2010 draft, and coming in at a hulking 6’6 and 230 pounds, was projected to be a physical, shutdown defender on the Habs long before this season.
However, eight games into the season and neither player has seen a single shift of action. The fact neither player can be sent down has left the Habs with an awkward eight defencemen on the big league roster and just Paul Byron as an extra forward, while almost every other team carries seven defenders and has two extra forwards.
What has compounded the problem for Tinordi and Pateryn, has been the strong play of the six blue liners who are in the lineup. This has been a pleasant surprise for the Canadiens overall, but leaves 23 and 25 year olds watching each game from upstairs, which is not ideal for a rookie’s development.
Andrei Markov is coming off a five point night and is obviously not coming out of the lineup anytime soon. His partner, P.K. Subban is one of, if not the best defender in the league, and Jeff Petry is performing even better than the Habs could have imagined after dealing 2nd and 3rd round picks to acquire him last March. Nathan Beaulieu was once mentioned in the same breath as Tinordi and Pateryn as NHL-AHL tweeners, but his play has skyrocketed to the point where he is a huge part of the Habs success.
At the start of the season, Alexei Emelin and Tom Gilbert were considered candidates to sit out now and again to make room for the rookies. However, Emelin has played above expectations alongside Petry on the second pair, and Gilbert has settled in well next to Beaulieu on the third pairing.
Habs head coach Michel Therrien doesn’t like to mess with a winning lineup, and with the team undefeated through eight games, why would he? But on the other hand, how long can you leave two young, capable defenders on the sidelines before it affects their development?
Look, it's a good problem to have, but what do you do with Pateryn/Tinordi/Byron #Habs fans? I bet they rotate next weekend during back2back
— C J Casselman (@RabidHabs_CJ) October 18, 2015
This puts general manager Marc Bergevin in a tough spot. He has to be considering going all-in for a playoff run this season, but he has to balance that with the long-term goals of the organization. The long range picture wouldn’t necessarily have Pateryn and Tinordi as cornerstones of the franchise, but it would definitely have them in the lineup on a regular basis.
So should Bergevin consider moving one of veteran defenders which would be a hit to the current lineup, but could pay dividends in the future by developing Pateryn into a steady, reliable two-way blue liner? Would it be that much of a hit to this year’s team to ship out Gilbert and insert Pateryn into the lineup?
If a veteran is dealt, when an inevitable injury occurs that pushes Tinordi into the top six, but the Habs still have Mark Barberio in the minors who has plenty of NHL experience. Due to this depth, and with several NHL teams becoming desperate already, it’s time for Bergevin to strike and ship out Gilbert.
Why Gilbert? He is in the final year of his current contract, and the earlier his $2.8 million cap hit is off the books, the more dollars the Habs will have to play with when the trade deadline rolls around. Gilbert has played well this season on the third pairing, but struggled at times last season when playing in the top four.
Many fans would like to see Emelin as the one who is shipped out. However, he has three years left on his contract with a $4.1 million cap hit and a no-movement clause. This makes him less desirable to other teams, and if he wants to stay, he just refuses to waive his no-move and he stays.
Bergevin has worked some magic in the past to ship out future cap hits, and it was about this time last year when he dealt Rene Bourque and Travis Moen to free up nearly five million in cap space for this season. However, Emelin’s contract has two additional years after this one at a higher cap hit than either forward who was shipped out last fall, making it nearly impossible to find a taker for the Russian blue liner.
Wonder if they give so much ice time to Emelin a la the minutes they gave to Bourque before giving him the "see ya"?
— Veronica Canete (@chile_pepper) October 8, 2015
Trading Gilbert would be sacrificing depth, which is a rarity by a team that is atop the league standings, but Gilbert is easily replaced by Pateryn. This would improve the long-term fortunes of the team, having Pateryn and Tinordi playing more, instead of rotting in the press box. In fact, if Pateryn starts to play as a regular this early in the season, his improvement by the time the playoffs come around could result in a better all-around defender than Gilbert is anyway.
Though Gilbert likes to slap the puck around the boards, and doesn’t add nearly as many points as he once did, the perception around the league is he is still a steady, puck-moving defender, and a veteran, right-shooting, puck-moving defender is a commodity that teams are always in the market for these days.
Though the Habs would be wise to deal with teams in the Western Conference, you would have to think the Pittsburgh Penguins, Boston Bruins and especially the Columbus Blue Jackets would be willing to part with a draft pick or two to add a veteran defender. The Jackets just gave up a second rounder to hire John Tortorella, so the price tag for a number blue liner who actually plays games would have to be about the same.
Out west, the Dallas Stars, Chicago Blackhawks and Colorado Avalanche have high hopes and a dire need for some depth on the back end. Even the Edmonton Oilers are starting to have visions of playoff games dance in their heads and could use some veteran help so they don’t have to rush Darnell Nurse.
There wouldn’t be a huge return, a 2nd round pick at best, or possibly a pair of thirds, but moving out Gilbert now would allow for Pateryn to start playing regularly, which he has already proven he was capable of doing last season. This would also make Tinordi the seventh defenceman and give him the chance to rotate in and out of the lineup more frequently to get his feet wet as an NHL defender.
Not only would this be a huge bonus for the long-term fortunes of the team, there is reason to believe Pateryn can be as good, if not better than Gilbert as soon as this season. If there are no takers for Emelin’s huge contract, getting a draft pick for Gilbert, and replacing him with a player who has much higher potential is a win-win for an already undefeated team.
(Photo Credit: Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)