MONTREAL – Written in large letters on the Montreal Canadiens’ dressing room wall is the slogan “No excuses.”
The new management team brought in last summer doesn’t want to hear about why the fabled Canadiens finished last in the Eastern Conference last season.
It just wants the losing to end. And veteran defenceman Josh Gorges agrees.
“The No. 1 thing is our attitude,” he said this week. “We have to bring back the mentality of what it means to be a Montreal Canadien.
“There’s a winning tradition in this organization and that has to be re-instilled in everyone. To understand that it’s not OK to be average. That’s not acceptable.
“I definitely felt that it was slipping away from us last year. We can go over it and over it and talk about excuses on why things didn’t happen, but I’d rather talk about the things that we’ll do to be better this year.”
The 2011-’12 season saw 24-time Stanley Cup champion Montreal end a four-year run of making the playoffs. The campaign was marked by injuries and a coaching change, when Jacques Martin was fired on Dec. 17 and replaced by first-time head coach Randy Cunneyworth.
In the end, general manager Pierre Gauthier was also axed after a disastrous series of player moves, including the trade of playoff scoring hero Michael Cammalleri to Calgary for the underperforming Rene Bourque.
The quick-witted Marc Bergevin replaced the dour Gauthier and reshaped the entire hockey department. Rick Dudley and Larry Carriere are the assistant GMs, and Scott Mellanby is the director of player personnel.
New positions to help develop players in the organization went to Martin Lapointe and Patrice Brisebois.
There is also a new coach in Michel Therrien, who returned to the team that gave him his first NHL job a decade ago, and new assistants Gerard Gallant and Jean-Jacques Daigneault.
Their job is to turn around a club that went 31-35-16 last season for a 28th-place finish in the 30-team league.
It will help that captain Brian Gionta is back after missing 51 games with a torn biceps, and that veteran defenceman Andrei Markov is healthy again. Markov played only 13 games last season and seven games the year before due to knee problems.
Markov tested the knee in the KHL during the lockout. While he seems to be moving slower, it stood up even though he had a fight in one game.
Getting the veteran back in the lineup is almost like adding a top free agent defenceman. The Canadiens were a force on the power play when the 34-year-old Markov was in his prime.
They were 28th in the league with a 14.3 per cent success rate without him last season.
“He’s one of the premier defencemen in the world,” said Gorges. “When he’s on, he’s fun to watch.
“Don’t watch him in practice. You get him in a game and it’s those little plays he makes, when he holds onto the puck and you think he’s going to move it and all of a sudden he fires it to someone that no one on the ice knew was open, and puts it on the tape.
“That’s when Markov is at his best.”
Bergevin’s first move was to add some sandpaper to one of the league’s smallest and least belligerent squads by signing tough guy Brandon Prust, feisty winger Colby Armstrong and small but gritty rearguard Francis Bouillon, who returns after three years in Nashville.
He also cleared up a roster spot and some salary cap space—and removed a source of fan discontent—by placing unproductive centre Scott Gomez on waivers in order to buy him out.
The next task will be signing holdout defenceman P.K. Subban, who will not be in the lineup for opening night Saturday against Toronto.
It wasn’t all misery last season.
Gauthier signed free agent Erik Cole, who led the team with 35 goals. His line with Max Pacioretty, coming off a breakout 65-point campaign, and small centre David Desharnais has been kept together as the team’s top unit.
Pacioretty, who took the Bill Masterton Trophy for rebounding from a fractured neck vertebrae, has a new US$27-million, six-year contract. Gorges and goalie Carey Price also got six-year deals.
Finishing at the bottom allowed them to draft highly skilled forward Alex Galchenyuk third overall. The clever playmaker, who may start the season in Montreal, has been skating on the second line with Tomas Plekanec and Gionta.
Bourque, who has recovered from the abdominal problem he said hampered his play last season, and centre Lars Eller are on the third line with veteran Travis Moen. Prust, Armstrong and gritty Ryan White form the fourth unit.
Even without Subban, Montreal has seven healthy defencemen, and that depth could be key in a short season with few breaks in the schedule.
A slimmed-down Tomas Kaberle has been playing in Subban’s spot with Gorges, while Markov skates with fellow Russian Alexei Emelin. Bouillon has been paired with heady Swiss rearguard Rafael Diaz and Yannick Weber is also in the mix.
Price has vowed to improve the team’s 5-12 record in shootouts. He’s ably backed up by Peter Budaj.
Another area to improve is their home record, a mediocre 16-15-10 last season. They’ll get a quick start on it with eight of their first 11 games at the Bell Centre.
Last season, the Canadiens started 1-5-2. That could be fatal in a 48-game schedule.
“Everyone who went through what we went through last year knows we cannot repeat what we did,” said Eller. “There’s only one way and that’s forward.”