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Analysis: Canadiens not ready to go young on 'D'

by Arpon Basu /

MONTREAL -- When the Montreal Canadiens entered training camp, the big question facing them was which of their two young, first-round draft picks on defense would be able to claim the final roster spot.

Two months later, it appears neither Nathan Beaulieu nor Jarred Tinordi has been able to convince Canadiens brass he is ready to seize the job.

General manager Marc Bergevin added some veteran help on defense Tuesday when he acquired Sergei Gonchar from the Dallas Stars in exchange for forward Travis Moen.

And the help doesn't get much more "veteran" than Gonchar; at 40, he is the oldest defenseman in the NHL by 22 months.

Gonchar is not likely to be asked to play much more than the 13:01 of ice time averaged in the three games he played with the Stars since returning from a broken foot that kept him out of the first 11 games of the season.

But if Gonchar is in uniform with the Canadiens, it likely means Beaulieu and Tinordi won't be, and one of those two will probably be sent down to the Hamilton Bulldogs of the American Hockey League, though Bergevin would not commit to it when asked Tuesday.

Bergevin traded Josh Gorges to the Buffalo Sabres in the offseason for a number of reasons, but a big one was to create a spot in the top-six on defense for Beaulieu or Tinordi, or maybe both of them as the season went along.

Now, with Gonchar coming in, that spot opened up by moving Gorges has seemingly been closed, and a similar window has opened up for the Stars' young defensemen.

"I needed to open some doors and some opportunities for them," Dallas GM Jim Nill said.

The opening doors in Dallas are then coinciding with the closing ones in Montreal.

Beaulieu and Tinordi have each shown flashes of the talent that made Montreal take them with their first-round picks in the 2011 and 2012 NHL Drafts, but they haven't done it on a consistent enough basis to gain the trust of coach Michel Therrien.

Gonchar shouldn't have that problem, having played under Therrien with the Pittsburgh Penguins from 2005-2009.

"He'll bring some leadership, he's a very good person," Therrien said after the Canadiens' 3-0 win against the Winnipeg Jets on Tuesday. "I'm eager to see where his game is at, but I'm convinced he'll bring experience and depth to our defense.

"We're talking about making a transition to our young veterans, but Gonchar has won the Stanley Cup, he likes taking care of young players. He took care of [Evgeni] Malkin when I was with the Pittsburgh Penguins; Malkin stayed with his family. So that's the type of player he is. You just have to ask Malkin, it's Gonchar that kept him straight, that showed him how to be a professional, that showed him how to train. So he's really a good person."

Bergevin said he has spoken with each of Beaulieu and Tinordi recently and, while not admitting that their play forced him into making this trade, conceded that they have not lived up to expectations.

"It's about how they perform. They're young and they need mileage, so at some point they will play either here or in Hamilton. That will be up to them," Bergevin said. "As young defensemen it takes time. In recent weeks I had conversations with both of them. They're still young, they're still a part of our future here in Montreal, but they need to be better. They're aware of that, they know that and we're working with them."

Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin added some veteran help on defense Tuesday when he acquired Sergei Gonchar from Dallas in exchange for forward Travis Moen. (Photo: Bill Smith/NHLI)

Gorges wasn't traded solely to make room for Beaulieu and Tinordi, it was also to free the Canadiens of the final four years of his contract at an annual salary cap charge of $3.9 million. Now, Bergevin has also removed the $1.85 million of Moen's contract next season, with Gonchar's contract expiring at the end of this season.

Beaulieu, Tinordi, Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher will all be restricted free agents next season.

"I manage a hockey team and I manage a salary cap," Bergevin said. "It was a hockey decision and a financial decision."

The one area where the Canadiens have struggled the most has been the power play, entering games Tuesday sitting 28th in the NHL with a 7.7-percent efficiency, and that is the area of the game where Gonchar has excelled over the course of an excellent career.

However, the Canadiens have Andrei Markov and P.K. Subban as their top defense pair with the man advantage, and they eat up nearly all of the power-play minutes available, though that is also a reflection of how seldom Montreal has been on the power play this season.

The two defensemen of the second wave of the power play, Beaulieu and Tom Gilbert, each average under a minute of ice time per game with the man advantage, so if Gonchar is going to help he will need to do so with limited minutes.

"Sergei has made his career on the power play," Bergevin said. "It's something you don't lose overnight, but we're conscious he isn't the same player he was in Washington or his good years in Pittsburgh. We understand that. But it's an asset Michel has at his disposal if he feels he needs Sergei on the power play."

Gonchar has needed to make the most of limited opportunities recently in Dallas, playing fewer than 20 minutes a game for the first time in his career last season.

"My role was a little different, but I still think I can help the team," Gonchar said. "If my minutes are going to increase, I think I'm ready to play more."

How much Gonchar plays in Montreal remains to be seen, but one thing that became clear for the Canadiens with this trade is they are not prepared to go through with the youth movement on defense that began when Gorges was traded on July 1.

A delicate balance always needs to be reached between development and winning for any team that considers itself a contender. Though Bergevin always says his goal for the Canadiens is to simply reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs and then see what happens, trading for a player like Gonchar to the detriment of players like Beaulieu and Tinordi suggests his ambitions are far grander than that for this season.

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