MONTREAL – The Montreal Canadiens like to think there was more to their march to the NHL Eastern Conference final last season than hot goaltender Jaroslav Halak.
It’s just as well because the 25-year-old ”back-up” who stole the show in upset wins over first-place Washington and defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh was shipped off to St. Louis on June 17 for young forwards Lars Eller and Ian Schultz.
That handed the reins back to 23-year-old Carey Price, whose inconsistency in goal cost him the starting job late last season and left him only spot duty during the Canadiens’ best post-season run since the last of their 24 Stanley Cup triumphs in 1993.
Much of the Canadiens’ fate this season will depend on how Price handles both the job and the large faction of Bell Centre fans who were stunned to see their playoff hero go.
”We had two good young goalies and we kept one of them,” was as detailed as general manager Pierre Gauthier got in explaining the move.
Gauthier opted to keep the bigger, younger goalie with the pedigree. Price was drafted fifth overall in 2005, was a gold medallist at the world junior championship, and won a playoff MVP award for helping the Hamilton Bulldogs take the 2007 American Hockey League title.
The impassioned debate that followed the trade masked the fact that it was a relatively quiet off-season for the Canadiens.
Veteran centres Dominic Moore and Glen Metropolit, winger Sergei Kostitsyn and journeyman defenceman Marc-Andre Bergeron were let go as a free agents, while checking line centres Dustin Boyd and Jeff Halpern and back-up goalie Alex Auld were acquired.
The bigger move was handing right-winger Brian Gionta the ‘C’ after going without a captain last season.
Gionta was part of the near-total makeover former GM Bob Gainey orchestrated a year earlier, letting go most of the team’s old guard including captain Saku Koivu. Fellow veterans Scott Gomez, Michael Cammalleri, Hal Gill, Jaroslav Spacek and Travis Moen, were also brought in at the time, not to mention a new, defence-oriented coach in Jacques Martin.
It took them most of the season to get acquainted and sort themselves out, on and off the ice.
”They’re all back—that core group that led us in the stretch run and the playoffs,” said Gionta. ”They are all leaders, not just the captain.
”We’re all coming back and we know what to expect and can build off last year. So we’re excited about this year.”
There’s new blood in the form of rushing defenceman P.K. Subban, who some consider a rookie of the year candidate. He’ll be around from the start after playing big minutes in the playoffs. Eller should add size and skill to any forward unit.
The Canadiens work in forward pairs rather than three-man lines. There is Gionta-Gomez on the first line and Cammalleri-Tomas Plekanec on the second, with Andrei Kostitsyn, Benoit Pouliot or Eller to slot in as the third man on either. Eller is slated to start the season on the Plekanec unit.
Boyd and Moen have been skating with speedy Tom Pyatt with Halpern between Maxim Lapierre and Mathieu Darche.
The Gill-Josh Gorges pair that blocked a ton of shots in the playoffs is intact, as is the Spacek-Roman Hamrlik duo, but top defenceman Andrei Markov is not to return from off-season knee surgery until mid-to-late October, so juggling may occur that also involves Subban and Ryan O’Byrne.
They remain a relatively small team and don’t use an enforcer, but had the league’s second-best power-play last season, and are considered one of the quickest puck-moving teams in the league.