Two years ago, the Montreal Canadiens had the best record in the Eastern Conference. After things went south last season, they’ve got a revamped roster and a new coach in Jacques Martin.
The Toronto Maple Leafs, meanwhile, believe they may be able to end a franchise-record four-year playoff drought – if they can fix their leaky defense.
The Original Six and Northeast Division rivals open the new season on Thursday night as Martin makes his debut behind the Canadiens bench in the start of a five-game trip for his club.
Montreal (41-30-11) had an East-leading 104 points in 2007-08 under Guy Carbonneau before losing in five games to Philadelphia in the conference semifinals. Last season, the Canadiens were 35-24-7 when they fired Carbonneau on March 9 with general manager Bob Gainey taking over, but the change failed to provide much of a spark.
Playing as the eighth seed, Montreal was swept by Boston in the opening round.
Gainey hired Martin, who had stints with St. Louis, Ottawa and Florida. Martin coached the Blues and Senators to the postseason in 10 of his 11 seasons with those clubs but never reached the playoffs in three seasons with the Panthers from 2005-08.
“It was a priority for me that we find a head coach that had seen a lot of situations,” Gainey said. “We love Montreal as a marketplace, if that’s the right word, but it comes with the demands and expectations and pressures. And I think Jacques has already proven that’s well within his capacity to handle not only the coaching but the environment in Montreal.”
Gainey also went about reshaping his roster, and the Canadiens will have a smaller – and perhaps quicker team – on the ice.
The Canadiens acquired Scott Gomez in a trade with the New York Rangers and signed forwards Brian Gionta from New Jersey and Mike Cammalleri from Calgary.
Cammalleri had a career-high 82 points last year for the Flames while Gomez tied for the Rangers’ lead with 58 – his lowest total in five years. Gionta had 60 points in his final season with the Devils, his most since a career-high 89 in 2005-06.
Among those gone are Alex Kovalev, who led the Habs with 26 goals and 65 points, and longtime captain Saku Koivu. Kovalev signed with division rival Ottawa while Koivu joined Anaheim.
Carey Price is back in net after a bit of a rocky second season for Montreal. Price went 23-16-10 with a 2.83 goals-against average in 2008-09, but never seemed to recover from a lower-body injury that sidelined him for nearly three weeks in January.
Over his final 32 games including the postseason, Price was 7-16-5 with a 3.48 GAA. He also comes in having lost seven straight, but believes he can bounce back.
“I’m not really doing anything different, just working hard and staying focused,” Price told the Canadiens’ official Web site.
His counterpart, Vesa Toskala, also will be under pressure. Toronto (34-35-13) allowed a league-worst 3.49 goals per game last year and Toskala was 22-17-11 with a career-worst 3.26 GAA.
General manager Brian Burke made sweeping changes to the Maple Leafs’ blueline, adding Francois Beauchemin from the Ducks and prying Mike Komisarek away from the Canadiens. An All-Star, Komisarek spent his first six seasons with Montreal before signing a five-year, $22.5-million deal to join Toronto.
“We are extremely pleased to add a player with Mike’s ability and leadership qualities to our lineup,” Burke said. “He’s a respected competitor in this league and we know that he will bring his hard-nosed approach to our team on a consistent basis.”
Burke also added high-scoring forward Phil Kessel, who was acquired from Boston on Sept. 18 for two first-round picks and a second-round pick. Kessel led the Bruins with a career-high 36 goals last season, but won’t be available until November while recovering from rotator cuff surgery.
The Maple Leafs play five of their first seven games at Air Canada Centre, and know their defense will come under scrutiny in the early season.
“We got guys that can score, we can obviously play better defense,” forward Jason Blake said.
Montreal and Toronto split six meetings last season with each being decided by at least three goals.