Spring is usually viewed as the season of new beginnings, but fall is the time when hope sprouts all around the NHL.
There’s only one team in the league that doesn’t want this year to end differently than last and now is the time when happy finales feel most possible. There are no bad goals haunting fans, no missed backchecking assignments for coaches to yell about and no snipers looking skyward wondering how they failed to pull the trigger on a glorious scoring chance.
But check back in a month and everything will be different.
What will reality bring for the Montreal Canadiens, a team that underwent more changes than any other over the summer? The volume and depth of the alterations made by GM Bob Gainey have almost paralysed any prognostication because nobody knows quite what to expect.
The stunning metamorphosis included the exit of, among others, long-time captain Saku Koivu, all-world talent Alex Kovalev, top-six forward Alex Tanguay and bruising defenseman Mike Komisarek. In their place come an entire trio of new forwards in Scott Gomez, Mike Cammalleri and Brian Gionta, as well as defensemen Jaroslav Spacek, Hal Gill and Paul Mara. And we haven’t even mentioned new coach Jacques Martin.
While talking to The Hockey News earlier this off-season, Gainey himself admitted he’s not even sure what to expect.
In truth, the Stanley Cup fans were dreaming about just a short season ago is as far away as ever. Montreal surprised everybody in the hockey world by finishing atop the Eastern Conference standings in 2007-08, only to take a major step back last season, punctuated by a four-game, first round sweep by the Boston Bruins and the subsequent summer shuffling.
On paper, the Canadiens once again enter the season as a club on the playoff bubble. If everything goes right, maybe Montreal is sniffing around for home-ice advantage by locking down a place among the top-four Eastern seeds. More likely, the Habs will be scrapping it out for one of the final post-season berths.
While much curiosity and some legitimate optimism surround the new acquisitions, internal growth will be as much a factor in Montreal’s fate as anything else.
It starts with Carey Price, who ended last year poorly in goal by giving the now-famous “Patrick Roy salute” to the fans in his team’s final playoff game last April. Price turned 22 in August and must now turn a page in his career, getting to the chapter where he’s completely focused on becoming the star goalie he can be.
Andrei Kostitsyn and Tomas Plekanec both had terrible showings last season and must rebound to give Montreal any kind of balanced attack.
Andrei Markov, the team’s best player, will once again be counted on to ignite the power play and put up big points from the back end.
The good news for Montreal is a number of its new players wear Stanley Cup rings. That winning pedigree will help the team compete, but don’t expect any added jewellery at the end of this season.
This column also appears in the Montreal Metro newspaper.
Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey’s Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Wednesdays and his column, Top Shelf, appears Fridays.
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