MONTREAL – The Montreal Canadiens might be the NHL’s oldest team but they’re looking at it more as being in the third year of their big makeover.
And the 102-year-old team hopes it has grown into a Stanley Cup contender with the additions and fine-tuning done since the end of the 2008-09 season. That’s when the signing of veteran forwards Brian Gionta, Scott Gomez and Michael Cammalleri and hiring of coach Jacques Martin brought a new look and leadership.
“It’s as deep as we’ve been in the three years I’ve been here,” said winger Mathieu Darche, who also joined the Canadiens that summer. ”You look up and down the lineup and I don’t think the coach will be afraid to put anyone on the ice against anybody.”
Notable off-season moves saw the departure of 37-year-old defenceman Roman Hamrlik, checking centre Jeff Halpern and winger Benoit Pouliot as well as the addition of scoring winger Erik Cole from the Carolina Hurricanes.
Montreal also released three defencemen picked up during the season to fill in while Andrei Markov and Josh Gorges recovered from major knee surgeries—James Wisniewski, Brent Sopel and Paul Mara. This week the Canadiens signed Chris Campoli, another veteran rearguard, when it became clear Markov’s right knee was still a question mark.
The optimism comes from Cole, who filled a need as a big, physical forward capable of playing on a top line, and development of young forwards Max Pacioretty, Lars Eller and David Desharnais.
That bumps the attack up from two scoring lines to the three needed to be a contender.
Gionta and Gomez had their best moments last season when big Pacioretty joined them on left wing from Hamilton of the AHL in November. But Pacioretty’s season ended abruptly with a concussion and fractured vertebra after being shoved head-first into a Bell Centre stanchion by Boston captain Zdeno Chara. The good news is Pacioretty looks to be completely healed.
The top-scoring duo of Cammalleri and centre Tomas Plekanec should be stronger with Cole on right wing. Their winger from last season, Andrei Kostitsyn, moves to the third line with Eller and the small but tricky playmaker Desharnais.
That leaves a fourth line to build from Darche, Travis Moen, Ryan White and perhaps Yannick Weber, a defenceman who has played forward.
The Canadiens were 24th in the 30-team NHL in scoring last season with 216 goals. Only Gionta, with 29 goals, reached his normal production.
Gomez, the team’s highest-paid player with a US$7.3-million annual salary cap hit, is coming off a brutal season of just seven goals and 31 assists. But he has promised to play better this year.
Cammalleri, who missed 15 games with injuries, also looks to improve on his 19 goals, while Eller established himself as a strong defensive centre and now hopes to add offence to his game. Kostitsyn may also want to improve on his 20 goals going into unrestricted free agency next summer.
The main concern is Markov.
The team’s defensive anchor played only seven games last season as he returned from ACL surgery, only to tear it again. Markov missed part of the previous campaign recovering from a skate cut as well.
In his absence, crowd-pleasing rookie P.K. Subban grew into the team’s top puck-carrying defenceman and power-play point man.
General manager Pierre Gauthier said Markov should not miss many games but the 32-year-old may not be in the lineup for the season opener Oct. 6 in Toronto.
Subban will likely start with his partner from last season, rangy Hal Gill, while Gorges should play with Campoli and veteran Jaroslav Spacek with either Weber or one of two 25-year-old rookies, puck-mover Rafael Diaz or bruising checker Alexei Yemelin.
At this time last season, the main worry was goaltending. Jaroslav Halak, who had led the team to the conference final, was traded to St. Louis for Eller and Ian Schultz and the team was gambling on Carey Price to recover from a shaky 2009-’10 season.
Price silenced his critics by playing in 72 games, posting a 38-28-6 record with a strong 2.35 goals-against average and .923 save percentage.
Gauthier feels the team improved its backup goaltending by letting Alex Auld go and bringing in former Colorado starter Peter Budaj, so Price may be a little less busy.
Price, the fifth overall pick from 2005, is confident the team can go farther than last season, when it finished sixth with a 44-30-8 record before taking eventual Stanley Cup-champion Boston to overtime in Game 7 of the first round of playoffs.
”We’re a step ahead of lot of other teams in the league,” said Price. ”We have a lot of the same pieces as we had the previous season, so in that sense, we already have that chemistry.
”That (loss to Boston) lingers in our head. We were that close to knocking off the top team in the league. So we’re all going to try to take the necessary strides to make that push.”
The Canadiens also let go of assistant coach Kirk Muller and brought in their head coach from Hamilton, Randy Cunneyworth, and his assistant Randy Ladouceur, to be associate coaches in Montreal.
Under Martin, the Canadiens compensate for being smaller than average with quick puck movement and strong defensive play. They also excel on special teams. They were seventh overall on both the power play and in penalty killing.
They needed it, as Montreal gave opponents a league-worst 327 power-play opportunities.
Another area to improve is third-period scoring, where Montreal was tied with New Jersey for last with 56 goals.