BROSSARD, Que. – It took a full season and a long playoff run to judge the effects of the massive roster makeover the Montreal Canadiens made in the summer of 2009.
Pierre Gauthier, who took over the team built by Bob Gainey when he replaced him as general manager on Feb. 8, said Monday that the signing and dealing binge that brought in Mike Cammalleri, Brian Gionta, Scott Gomez and others has put a new face on the franchise.
“There’s a feeling of optimism and enthusiasm around the team,” Gauthier said in a rare talk with the media as the Canadiens rookie camp opened at their suburban training centre. “I think we left the spring with a better knowledge of our team, of who we are and what we can accomplish.”
After slipping into the eighth and final playoff spot in the East, the Canadiens made a surprise run to the conference final, upsetting talent-packed opponents in Washington and Pittsburgh before falling to the Philadelphia Flyers.
While the hero of those playoffs, goalie Jaroslav Halak, was traded to the St. Louis Blues, Gauthier was confident the younger Carey Price will get the job done behind a team that has evolved into a tighter unit than the group of strangers who turned up for last year’s camp.
“What we like about our team through last year’s process and how it all concluded was that we developed an identity for our club,” he said. “We like the leadership group.
“That’s something that really came together in the playoffs. It’s an interesting group, an emotional group—a lot of people who really care about the team.”
He said the identity that emerged was of a team built on speed and strong puck-moving and positional play.
“In the playoffs, there were teams that were more talented and bigger than us, but we were able to compete because of our speed and intelligence,” he added. “That’s our identity. You need good special teams and a good goalie as well, it goes without saying.”
Team leadership will also have some structure this season as Gauthier said management will name a captain before the start of the regular season. He gave no hints, but Gionta, Gomez, defenceman Andrei Markov and perhaps rearguard Josh Gorges would be leading candidates.
Other than Halak, who was dealt for prospects Lars Eller and Ian Schultz, the Canadiens made only a handful of player moves this summer while making big changes in off-ice personnel.
Among player moves, veteran forwards Glen Metropolit and Dominic Moore, plus defenceman Marc-Andre Bergeron left, while forwards Dustin Boyd and Jeff Halpern and back-up goalie Alex Auld were acquired.
There are 17 players from the NHL club and another 17 on the AHL Hamilton Bulldogs who are returning, so few jobs are open for the 31 prospects at the rookie camp.
One rookie who is a virtual shoo-in the make the team, especially with Markov still recovering from a knee injury, is 21-year-old P.K. Subban, who became a regular on defence during the playoffs. With seven pounds of muscle added to boost him to 215 to start camp, Subban is expected to move into Bergeron’s spot.
Other candidates include Yannick Weber, Alexandre Picard and Mathieu Carle.
“There’s a lot of offensive defencemen in the organization—we’ve got 20 million of them that are ready to play,” said Subban. “It’s selfish for me to say it’s my spot.
“I can’t say that. It’s going to come down to who the coaching staff thinks is most ready.”
The 21-year-old Eller, a strong skater with skill, also has a good shot at making the NHL squad, but will be battling with young players who have already played games for Montreal like Max Pacioretty, Ben Maxwell and Ryan White.
Eller says he’s ready to live with being the guy they got for Halak, and Gauthier said he has no regrets about sticking with 23-year-old Price, who they drafted fifth overall in 2005.
“We see in Carey a more mature person and someone who really fits into the group here,” said Gauthier. “It’s up to him to have success with the team and the team to help him have success.”
The GM said a goal for the summer was to restructure the administration, which he did by moving out a handful of scouts and bringing in amateur scouts Ron Jankowski, Serge Boisvert and Christer Rockstrom and naming Vaughn Karpan pro scout.
He also brought in Pierre Allard as strength coach and named Ken Morin to a new job as head of hockey information.
New Tampa Bay Lightning GM Steve Yzerman raided the Canadiens for assistant GM Julien BriseBois as well as Bulldogs head coach Guy Boucher and his assistants.
Gauthier then hired former NHL rearguard and long-time executive Larry Carriere as his assistant and got former NHL captain Randy Cunneyworth to coach Hamilton with Randy Ladouceur, whose specialty is developing young defencemen, as his assistant coach.
He said a priority was getting more former NHL players into key jobs in the organization, which neither BriseBois nor Boucher were, although neither were Gauthier nor head coach Jacques Martin.
The team will also be preparing to see Geoff Molson, who led the group that bought the team from George Gillett last September, take over as president and CEO at the end of this season, replacing Pierre Boivin.