We're about halfway done with our season preview and are a little ahead of schedule. Hopefully we can get this kicked out well before September ends and the teams start their travel season in lovely Europe. Pre-season hockey rules so go check it out in a town near you!
And now, the Montreal Canadiens.
Team M.O.: The oldest hockey club in the league, Les Glorieux went from an offensive powerhouse in their heyday to being a defense-oriented club since St. Patrick tended goal for them. The team is sticking to that system with a small yet speedy group of forwards, some big defensemen, and a young goaltender with the hopes they can satiate the desires of hockey fans in Montreal by bringing the Stanley Cup back there for the first time since 1993.
Last Season: They finished Eighth in the Eastern Conference and had two spectacular series against the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins, respectively, before bowing out to the Philadelphia Flyers in the Eastern Conference Finals. This was made possible by spectacular goaltending from Jaroslav Halak; who was rewarded for his hard work by being traded to the St. Louis Blues while their immature, pain-in-the-ass "backup" was given a multi-million dollar extension. No joke.
Offense: Tomas Plekanec put up 70 points in a contract year and while that landed him a nice extension, he's going to be continually pressed to put up those kinds of numbers from hereon-in. Scott Gomez managed to stay relatively healthy last season but wasn't nearly as effective when he wasn't able to set up Mike Cammelieri or Brian Gionta. Speaking of those two, they were both productive for the Canadiens in scoring roles but missed roughly a quarter of the season, each, with injury concerns. Given their size and the toughness of the league, this is something that's going to remain a continual concern for the club. Andrei Kostitsyn is gifted enough to give the team scoring but, like a lot of other Russian players, is considered "enigmatic", which is not the level of consistency the Canadiens are going to need to push for a playoff spot. However, Benoit Pouliot managed to pick up his production after being acquired from the Minnesota Wild and might actually thrive in a stupendous hockey market (or at least one where the people speak French!) Lars Eller comes over from the Halak deal and will compete for a spot on one of the scoring lines in camp.
Going further down the depth chart, Jeff Halpern was acquired through free agency to give the team a veteran presence on their checking units. Maxim Lapierre and Travis Moen provide the team with some "crash-and-bangers" who should do well to disrupt the opposition. Tom Pyatt broke into the league last season and given the fact that he was a constant come playoff time, it appears that he'll be on one of the checking units at the start of the season. Dustin Boyd was acquired from the Nashville Predators and is capable of giving the team 20-30 points, even while doing checking duties. Mathieu Darche has split time between the NHL and the AHL but will likely end up with the big club barring an extraordinary camp from one of their prospects.
The team may opt to use 8 defenders if they don't give guys like Ben Maxwell and Ryan White an opportunity. This team is sorely lacking an enforcer and would be wise to make a move for one but given their cap space concerns, they'd probably have to give up an NHL player in return. They have the players who can serve their roles but injuries, inconsistency, and immaturity remain concerns with the players in charge of producing points.
Defense: Andrei Markov suffered through a lot of injuries last season and that sucked for the Canadiens; he's a solid Number One defender who manages to do a little bit of everything right. P.K. Subban came to life during the playoffs last season and it would have to take something drastic for the team to send him back to their AHL affiliate in Hamilton prior to the start of the season. Jaroslav Spacek and Roman Hamrlik provide the team with solid veteran defenders who can log important ice time and still generate 20-30 points. Hal Gill provides the team with a mountain of a man who should do well in a shutdown/defensive role for the club. Josh Gorges and Ryan O'Byrne gives the team some solid options for their third pairing while Alexandre R. Picard could give the team a solid utility player if he remains with the big club.
The defense doesn't appear to need any tweaks; they have enough depth to counter injuries should they run into them. Out of all the areas on the team the defense seems the most solid.
Goaltending: Carey Price has a lot of upside and many of the tools teams would crave for their starting goaltender position. However, he hasn't been the same caliber player since giving the Habs fans the mock cheer and when he has been called upon to play, either the team in front of him lost or the team suffered because of his immaturity (see: shot the puck at the Washington Capitals players after getting scored upon and therefore put his team back in the penalty box.) While not having Halak around might be better for his mental makeup, the next two guys pushing him, Alex Auld and Curtis Sanford, don't necessarily strike fear into the hearts of the shooters they face (Auld's been a backup with pedestrian numbers while Sanford's spent time in the minors for the past few seasons.) If Price goes down or is horribly inconsistent, the team will not have the option to turn to a goalie with the tools to snag the starting job or even start for stretches at a time. It's too bad Karri Ramo won't be coming back to North America this season; he could be an upgrade over the other two backup options they have.
Management: Pierre Gauthier was named the team's GM after Gainey stepped down and in completed fairness, his hands are tied thanks to Gainey's moves. Martin may have a lot of NHL experience but his Florida Panthers squads were unimpressive while last years Habs managed to barely make the playoffs thanks to the overall weakness of the conference. They won't have it so easy this forthcoming season.
Prediction: Fifth in the Northeast Division and out of the playoffs.
Yes, I actually believe that the Toronto Maple Leafs are a better team. With an inconsistent/oft-injured group of forwards, a solid yet aging defensive squad, and an unreliable goaltending platoon, the team will be lucky to even sniff the postseason given everything their up against. All and all, the Montreal brass knows where they play and because the fans will show up come hell or high water, they simply need to absorb salaries without ever having to worry how to apply them.