Last season: (39-33-10, 88 points, 4th in Northeast Division, 8th in Eastern Conference) In what was a highly frustrating regular season for fans, edging into the playoffs in the final days of the season turned into a miraculous run through the playoffs to the conference finals.
Head coach: Jacques Martin begins his second season with the Canadiens. The Habs’ miraculous playoff run may have helped him keep the wolves at bay. His curious personnel decisions as well as adherence to playing staid, boring hockey won him few friends last season. Then again, being the head coach of the Montreal Canadiens may be one of the most demanding jobs in professional sports.
Key departures: G Jaroslav Halak, F Sergei Kostitsyn, F Glen Metropolit, D Marc-Andre Bergeron, F Dominic Moore. Halak is the most noticeable guy they’ve lost. Carrying a team on your back through the playoffs makes that possible. The contributions of Metropolit as a role player will be missed, however.
Key arrivals: F Jeff Halpern, F Lars Eller, F Dustin Boyd, G Alex Auld. Halpern will fit nicely into a hybrid role to make the loss of both Metropolit and Moore go mostly unnoticed. Auld is set to be the guy who fans will yell for to start games when they get too upset with Carey Price. Their cries will be laughed at, however.
Under pressure: Without a doubt, Price is the man under the gun in Montreal. After Jaroslav Halak led the Canadiens to the playoffs and through to the Eastern Conference finals, thus securing cult hero status in Montreal, the offseason trade of Halak to St. Louis made Price’s job as the No. 1 goalie that much harder.
He’s already dealt with overzealous Montreal fans in the preseason, getting booed after a lackluster performance in his first start, so if Price thinks that poor play can fly under the radar, he’s greatly mistaken. Every start he makes for the Habs will be over-analyzed to the point of madness. Price will either succeed and stick it to his nay-sayers or he’ll crumble under the weight of great expectations. The drama will be incredible to watch play out.
Protecting the house: We’ve already analyzed what Price’s season is going to be like and Auld is a serviceable backup goalie just the same. That said, unless Price turns back into the guy we saw in his rookie season, the Habs goaltending is a bit weaker because they have to rely on Auld for a long stretch of time.
Defensively, Montreal could prove to be a lot of fun. Andrei Markov will return from injury soon enough and rookie P.K. Subban thrilled fans during the playoffs last season and will likely get a full year of NHL play to show what he’s capable of. There will be some hiccups since he’s still very young, but he’s going to be a joy for fans to watch. Jaroslav Spacek, Roman Hamrlik, Hal Gill, and Josh Gorges have gotten it together to help make Montreal’s defensive unit veteran strong and capable of playing well. Ryan O’Byrne could be the odd-man out or the right guy to jump in the lineup if the Habs need a little more thump along the blue line.
The top line we’d like to see: A line of Mike Cammalleri-Scott Gomez-Brian Gionta would be an outstanding offensive unit. Gomez and Gionta have the chemistry that goes back to their days with the Devils and Cammalleri is the hottest thing in Montreal since poutine. If Martin doesn’t get too allergic to offense, this would be a fun line.
Oh captain, my captain: The Habs still haven’t named a team captain as of yet. Expect any one of Mike Cammalleri, Brian Gionta, or Andrei Markov to get the nod, however.
Street fighting man: The Habs really aren’t a fighting team so picking out the designated brawler is difficult. If you’re looking for a fight with Montreal, however, it can’t hurt to make a run at Travis Moen. The former Duck and Blackhawk is more than accustomed to putting on the foil. Just don’t expect it too often. If Ryan O’Byrne sticks around he also will make a solid dance partner.
Best-case scenario: For things to break perfect for the Habs, Cammalleri has to score like it was the playoffs all season long. Getting at least 40 goals would be a great target for him to hit. Another big season out of Plekanec and getting Gomez and Gionta to play like it was the early 2000s again would help. Markov comes back and plays like he hasn’t missed a day while also helping Subban’s game to blossom further. Oh yeah, and Price plays out of his mind. That would do the trick both on and off the ice.
Worst-case scenario: Cammalleri struggles while Price plays inconsistently enough to make it an end-of-the-world issue to the fans and media. The uncomfortable political angling of the decision to make American-born Gionta captain gets magnified to a degree that even ‘The Daily Show’ starts to pick on the team. Meanwhile the Habs miss the playoffs and run Price out of town while erecting gold statues to Halak and yearning for the ‘good ole’ days’ of when he played for the Habs. C’est terrible.
Keeping it real: Price will play just fine. Yes, the fans and media will get on him, but he’ll do just fine in Montreal. Put the torches down and stop preemptively burning that effigy. Provided that Martin doesn’t get too insane with his lineup juggling and allows the Habs potentially fun offense the room to be creative and work, Montreal should be a playoff team. They won’t land an impressive-looking seed, but checking in at 6th, 7th, or 8th would be acceptable.
Stanley Cup chances: On a scale of 1-5, with one being the worst and five being the best, the Habs are a definitive 3. Too many things need to break right for Montreal to reach the finals and you can’t help but wonder that maybe all that magic got spent last season. They’ve got a chance to do it, but there’s a lot of questions surrounding the team to make it happen.
(Photo1: Jim McIsaac – Getty Images)