MONTREAL – The Canadiens’ defense corps will boast a good mix of veteran leadership and youthful enthusiasm in 2014-15.
With the likes of 2013 Norris Trophy winner P.K. Subban, 14-year NHL veteran Andrei Markov, shot-blocking specialists Alexei Emelin and Mike Weaver, and newcomer Tom Gilbert in tow, Habs assistant coach J.J. Daigneault has high hopes for a contingent of rearguards that could also include a couple of rookie 20-somethings in Nathan Beaulieu or Jarred Tinordi come early October.
“I’m expecting the group we’ve got to be very solid defensively, first and foremost, because you have to be good around the net. I would like our shots against to drop down, too. That’s a stat I think needs to decrease. It has to do with defensive team play, positioning, good sticks and blocking shots,” detailed Daigneault, whose squad ranked 22nd in the NHL last year, allowing an average of 31 shots against per game. “As a group, we’re also expecting them to contribute offensively. It’s about playing the game with five men up the ice, and five men down. If they can chip in on offense and make a good first pass, that’s a plus for us. It means more puck possession, and more output coming from the back end.”
Having led all Canadiens defensemen in points over the last four seasons while establishing himself as one of the league’s premier playmakers along the way, Subban will undoubtedly be at the forefront of any offensive charge from the back end. Daigneault is adamant the 25-year-old will deliver once again in 2014-15, expecting his young superstar to thrive under the inevitable pressure and scrutiny that comes with signing a lucrative, long-term deal in any professional sport.
“P.K. isn’t going to play hockey to try to prove to people that he deserves the contract he signed in August. The contract is well-deserved. He worked hard for it, and he won a Norris Trophy,” stressed Daigneault, adding that the four-year NHL veteran’s best years are still ahead of him. “He’s been one of the highest-scoring defensemen in the league for the past two years. P.K. is going to play because he wants to get better; he wants to improve. I think that’s his real motivation. He wants to get better on a daily basis and I have no doubt that he’s going to have another good season.”
If Subban has been a catalyst on offense for the Canadiens since arriving on the scene for good during the 2010 postseason run, the same can be said of Markov, who finished among the Top 20 defensemen in the NHL with 43 points last season. Like Subban, the 35-year-old also finished in the Top 20 among all rearguards in power play assists and points. That being said, Daigneault asserts that Markov’s role within the group extends well-beyond just piling up points.
“I think the best leadership you can convey is the one you show on the ice. You can say whatever you want in the room, but you have to go out there and make things happen. Marky is like that. He plays a very disciplined brand of hockey, and he’s very thorough in what he does,” described Daigneault. “He’s diligent in his workouts, he rarely has a bad game, and he always shows up.”
Markov is someone Daigneault maintains young guns like Beaulieu and Tinordi can look up to as they set their sights on earning full-time roster spots in Montreal. The two-time NHL All-Star’s tireless work ethic and penchant for consistency are attributes Daigneault knows go hand-in-hand with shaping successful careers.
“As far as the kids are concerned, I think just watching guys like Marky and other veterans on a daily basis is a good thing. They need to watch how Andrei prepares for a game, how he’s always in the gym, how he practices hard every day and constantly pays attention to details,” shared Daigneault. “I think it’s important for them, especially in the first couple of years of their careers. They need to take the time to look around and see how things are done.”
In Daigneault’s eyes, both rookie blue-liners have made important strides since making their respective NHL debuts in 2012-13 – so much so that they will both receive strong consideration to start the regular season in La Belle Province when training camp opens in mid-September.
“The expectation is that they’re in the lineup and they contribute. I think they have very high expectations for themselves and their play, and they want to get better and they want to learn. They’re students of the game,” praised Daigneault, who believes the pair paid their dues during extended stints with the AHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs in recent years. “I spent a lot of time doing video with them, and they’re very quick to pick up on individual or team systems material. If they have a good camp, crack the lineup and contribute, it would be a big plus for us and the organization. Two good, young defensemen like that are going to be around for many years to come. They definitely have the skills to go on to long careers.”
And, should one – or both – of them get the nod, they’ll benefit from honing those skills alongside plenty of good mentors in addition to Markov and Subban.
“Weaver’s a guy that likes to share ideas. He’s an easy teach and he likes to learn. He loves to block shots. He loves killing penalties. He’s just passionate about everything he does. It’s always fun to have a guy like that on your team,” offered Daigneault. “Emelin takes a lot of pride in shot blocking, too. I see him stepping up and being a leader on both sides of the puck, and bringing good physicality. Gilbert will be a good addition on the right side. He’s a good puck-moving defenseman. He likes to join the rush, and he’s been putting up some numbers offensively.”
No matter which defensemen Michel Therrien intends to pencil into the lineup come opening night in Toronto, Daigneault affirms there will be no shortage of feistiness and desire among his blue line brigade.
“I think there’s a lot of character on the back side,” concluded Daigneault. “We have a good combination of pretty much everything.”
Matt Cudzinowski is a writer for canadiens.com.
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