Season preview: Steve Montador; Versatile new guy upgrades blue line depth

Looking to improve depth and add long sought-after grit to the blue line mix, the Blackhawks acquired veteran utility defenseman Steve Montador over the summer.

Stan Bowman traded for Montador on June 29th and signed him less than 24 hours later.

Acquired prior to free agency from Buffalo for the seventh-round pick Bowman received from the Panthers in exchange for Tomas Kopecky’s negotiating rights, Montador inked a deal with Chicago sixteen hours before he was set to hit the open market.

Chicago will mark the defenseman’s sixth team in the last seven seasons.

Set to earn a whopping $4.6 million this season, Montador is the league’s 28th highest-paid defenseman next to Calgary’s Mark Giordano.  Since his contract is frontloaded, Montador’s cap hit over the next four years sits at a more manageable $2.75M.

The Blackhawks know a thing or ten about over-paying for talent in free agency.  That’s what happens when a general manager is forced to address his needs outside of the organization.  Montador’s cap hit is about five hundred thousand too much for a player of his caliber, but Bowman valued a swingman who could fill any role if needed, three through six on the defense; kill penalties, battle in front of Corey Crawford, be a team player and help out on the power play if need be.  Montador can do those things.  His value is in his intangibles, and the flexibility he gives Joel Quenneville.

In his new deal, Montador has a limited no-trade list allowing him to submit 10 teams he cannot be dealt to without his approval up until the final year of the agreement.

At the same age, Bryce Salvador signed a 4-year $11.6M deal with New Jersey and though Salvador’s had injury problems (Salvador missed all of 2010-11 with concussion symptoms), the contract itself was an overextension and didn’t turn out well for the Devils.  Considering limited options in this summer’s free agent pool, the extra commitment to Montador is a risk worth taking.

Montador is coming off the career/contract year in Buffalo.  There, he led the Sabres’ defense with a plus-16 and was fourth in points by position under Tyler Myers, Jordan Leopold and Andrej Sekera.

He drew the attention of general managers and scouts in 2007-08 while in Florida, posting 8 goals and 23 points in spite of minimal ice time.  Over three years in Florida (2005-08), Montador, an undrafted graduate of the Ontario junior system, honed his skills under Jacques Martin.  While with the Panthers, Montador at times dressed as a fourth-line winger as well.

From that 07-08 performance, Montador signed a one-year deal with Anaheim for the same $800,000 he was earning in South Florida.  He was dealt to Boston before that season’s trade deadline and finished the 08-09 season with 4 goals, 21 points and a plus-17 while averaging a career-high (at the time) 16:09 in ice time.  It was his sound play for the Bruins in the postseason against Montreal and Carolina that earned Montador a two-year $3.1 million deal with Buffalo.

Stan Bowman has noted he pursued Montador up to the 2011 trade deadline to no avail.  At that time, Buffalo had just attained new ownership, was in contention for a playoff spot and wasn’t about to sell off any assets that could help them get there.  Bowman settled for Chris Campoli, a player who didn’t bring any new or missing intangibles to that crop of Blackhawks defensemen.

Montador has earned the title of journeyman.  He skated for three different junior teams (North Bay, Erie and Peterborough) over four years and is now, at age 31, with his sixth NHL franchise.

Strengths

As a player, Montador is possibly best-described as jack-of-all trades, conqueror of none.  To make a Blackhawk comparison, although he’s not as offensively adept as this former Hawk, Montador is a cheaper, more responsible James Wisniewski.

Montador is average sized (6-0, 210), so he’s not the hulking, ass-kicking defenseman most scouts salivate over.  However, despite his frame, Montador is a dedicated battler.  He won’t win many battles against the bigger forwards in the league, but he’ll work hard in the trenches and make life difficult for the Holmstrom’s, Franzen’s and Penner’s of the league.

He boasts a heavy shot which can be useful specifically on the second power play unit.  Montador isn’t shy about pinching or joining the rush, which fits right into Joel Quenneville’s offensive approach.  Montador’s usually smart about when to jump into the fray, but he has made some bad reads from time to time and doesn’t have the kind of first-step jump to cover those mistakes as someone like Duncan Keith is able to do.

In his own end, Montador is agile and covers more ice than your typical 5-6 defenseman.  In this phase especially, Blackhawks fans will see a big improvement over Brent Sopel, Nick Boynton and Jassen Cullimore.  His skating ability will help him easily adapt to a role on one of the Hawks penalty-kill units.  He has a high motor, or high “compete level” to use scouting vernacular.  On many teams Montador’s solid enough in all areas to be a reliable second pair defenseman.  On a Cup contender, he’s getting 15-18 minutes tops on your third pairing.

Montador will drop the gloves or defend a teammate when necessary, but it’s something he’s drifted away from since improving his game and place on defense in recent years.  His hands dirty, blue collar style should quickly make him a Hawks’ fan favorite.

Weaknesses

Since the acquisition and subsequent signing, many have noted Montador’s Game 7 scratch in the Sabres-Flyers series this past spring.  While Montador had a rough two games prior to the series decider, he was also on his way out of the organization and everyone involved knew that.  So, I don’t know if its fair to regard that scratch as a cursory indicator of things to come.

However, bouts of mental and physical fatigue have plagued Montador’s game over stretches of each of his NHL seasons.  So much so that he’s found himself watching more than a handful of games from the press box every year and as recently as last March.  With the increased pressure and intensity being a Blackhawk nowadays brings, don’t be surprised if that continues.

More

While with the Florida Panthers (2005-08), Montador was teammates with other new Blackhawks, Rostislav Olesz and Brett McLean.  Montador is an ambassador to the humanitarian organization “Right To Play.”  Originally a native of Vancouver, he resides in Toronto.  Montador is a fan of the Seinfeld, Sodoku and System of a Down.   In April of 2010, he set his career high for minutes played, 35:12, in a double-overtime playoff loss at Boston.  With the Panthers, he posted a “Gordie Howe Hat Trick” on February 21, 2008 against the Bruins.

ChrisBlock@TheThirdManIn.com

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