LAVAL, Que. – Aside from veteran defenceman Andrei Markov, the players returning from major injuries were all upbeat about the new season as the Montreal Canadiens gathered Wednesday for their annual charity golf tournament.
Winger Max Pacioretty, who survived a harrowing crash into a Bell Centre stanchion that left him with a severe concussion and a fractured vertebra, said he feels 100 per cent ready to go.
Defenceman Josh Gorges, who missed half the season after blowing out a knee, said he can finally skate without looking like he’ll fall over after rebuilding his stride in the off-season.
And centre Lars Eller said that while post-season shoulder surgery may keep him out of pre-season action, he should be ready when the Canadiens open the campaign Oct. 6 against the Maple Leafs in Toronto.
That left Markov as the mystery man.
The Canadiens’ star defenceman played only seven games last season as he went down for a second year in a row with damage to the ACL ligament the same knee.
The Team 990 radio reported that water was recently drained from Markov’s knee after he developed some swelling, which forced him to take a break from training.
He was one of the few veterans not paraded out to the throng of media in front of the clubhouse before the golf began.
When asked if Markov would be ready to start the regular season, general manager Pierre Gauthier said “we hope so.”
“There is no problem with his knee and he will continue his rehab. If the season started tomorrow he wouldn’t be able to play, obviously.”
Gauthier took a chance in June when he signed impending free agent Markov to a three-year contract that will pay him US$5.75 million per season. He didn’t try to sign free agent veteran Roman Hamrlik or the rearguards brought in as injury replacements—James Wisniewski and Brent Sopel—and will need a full season from his power play quaterback.
The Canadiens could match Markov with the gifted P.K. Subban on a top defence pair this season, with Gorges sliding back with his old partner Hal Gill. Veteran Jaroslav Spacek is going into the final year of his contract and may play with either Yannick Weber or one of newcomers Alexei Yemelin and Rafael Diaz.
Weber, who has a one-way contract for the first time, is counting on playing defence after being used at times as a forward last season.
“I expect Yannick to be a regular performer on our club this year,” said coach Jacques Martin. “I see him as a defenceman, but it’s always an advantage to play another position.
“That he is versatile is a plus for him. The fact that we’ll need him on our power play is another way of getting into the lineup.”
The key off-season addition was free-agent Erik Cole, who gives them the big body they needed for one of their top two lines.
The former Carolina Hurricanes winger is expected to play with centre Tomas Plekanec and Michael Cammalleri, while Pacioretty is likely to play left wing with centre Scott Gomez and captain Brian Gionta, a unit that scored regularly until Pacioretty was injured late in the season.
That would mean third line work for Andrei Kostitsyn, who Martin said was not in his doghouse despite a quote in a Belarus newspaper in which the winger suggested he was not getting a fair shake from the coach.
“I’m not concerned with that,” said Martin. “I’ll talk with Andrei, but he’s a big part of our success. Because we’ve added Cole, we have Pacioretty and with Andrei, now we have three power forwards. At times last year, Andrei was maybe one of our better performers. What we want is a more consistent performance.”
Kostitsyn, who is going into his final season before free agency, had 20 goals and 45 points in 2010-11, but has the size and skill to produce more.
“I never said (anything) bad about Jacques and I’m here to have a good season, ready to play,” he said. “I’ll talk to him about what this Russian newspaper said and I think we’ll be good for the season. Jacques is a good coach.”
He could find himself on a third line with Eller, who made great strides in every way except goal-scoring last season, and small, play-making forward David Desharnais, who also got a one-way deal after a promising second half.
A fourth line could have Mathieu Darche, Travis Moen and Ryan White, while candidates for the extra forward spot would include Aaron Palushaj, Brock Trotter or Andreas Engqvist.
Carey Price returns after establishing himself as a No. 1 goalie last year and Peter Budaj replaces Alex Auld as the backup.
Gauthier has nearly $4 million in cap space to play with and is likely to hold onto it in case mid-season adjustments are needed, rather than signing another free agent.
The Canadiens are banking on getting a much better year from a repentant Gomez, the team’s highest-paid player who had only seven goals last season, and from the development of young players Subban, Pacioretty, Desharnais and Eller.
Asked if this was a season for redemption, Gomez said: “I’m ready to deliver. We don’t need to name the season.”
“I like our team,” said Cammalleri. “It’s a team that’s learned how to play with one another and know what we can do for each other as a team.
“It’s a real positive thing for me that management wants to move forward with this group and try to win with this group and is also adding to the team. What Erik Cole provides is a big body with speed and a physical presence for us. It addresses a need.”
Gorges, Eller and Subban were not fit to play golf while Markov, Kostitsyn and Plekanec begged out because they aren’t golfers. Subban has a minor ailment and will be on the ice for the start of camp.
The Canadiens open their pre-season schedule Tuesday night against the Dallas Stars and Wednesday against Buffalo. Five of their eight pre-season games are at home.