MONTREAL – It will be all about continuity for the Montreal Canadiens.
And they’ll be a little bigger and grittier too.
The Canadiens were one of the big surprises of the lockout-shortened 2012-13 NHL campaign, as they went from last in the east to winning the Northeast Division and finishing second to Pittsburgh in the conference.
A sterling regular season was almost forgotten with their quick playoff exit at the hands of the Ottawa Senators, but defenceman Josh Gorges says there must have been a lot to their game that was worth keeping when they posted a 29-14-5 record in 48 games.
“This year, it’s attention to detail and fine-tuning the little parts of our game,” said Gorges. “We’re used to the system. Now it’s time to take it to that next level.”
It is Season 2 with Marc Bergevin as general manager and Michel Therrien as coach.
Bergevin made a few moves, but kept the core of the team intact.
The biggest signing was small, skilled forward Danny Briere, who turns 36 on Oct. 6. The Gatineau, Que., native who grew up idolizing the Canadiens was bought out by the salary cap-squeezed Philadelphia Flyers and finds himself on right wing of the first line with David Desharnais and Max Pacioretty.
They added size and toughness by signing defenceman Douglas Murray, who is expected to skate on the third pairing, and fourth-line enforcer George Parros.
The notable departures were winger Michael Ryder, who was replaced by Briere, and little-used defenceman Tomas Kaberle.
The biggest question will be how Carey Price will perform after his game, which had been solid most of the campaign, fell apart late in the season and into the playoffs, prompting fits of angst among the team’s fans.
Bergevin signed goalie coach Stephane Waite, who had helped Antti Niemi and Corey Crawford develop into Stanley Cup winners in Chicago, to work on taking Price to the next level. The 26-year-old won’t lack motivation, as a strong first half could win him a spot on the Canadian Olympic team.
Where the Canadiens should get better is from the continued development of the three gifted young players who now form the third line—centre Lars Eller with pesky Brendan Gallagher and 2012 third-overall draft pick Alex Galchenyuk.
Gallagher was a finalist for the Calder Trophy after scoring 15 goals as rookie, but the playmaking Galchenyuk is the one with star potential who will be looking to improve on his nine goals and 18 assists in controlled ice time last season.
When asked where he thought the team would be better this season, the captain Brian Gionta said “just maturity.
“Look at the strides some of our young guys made last year. That end will be much better.”
That would include the flashy 24-year-old P.K. Subban, Gorges’ defence partner who had a breakout year with 11 goals and 38 points in 42 games that won him the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s top rearguard.
And 24-year-old Pacioretty, the power winger who led the team with 39 points.
Better seasons are expected from some older players as well.
Andrei Markov, who looked stiff at times on the rebound from a run of knee injuries, has been skating with something like his old fluidity in camp. When healthy, Markov is a first-rate puck-moving defenceman and power-play point man.
“It’s a huge lift having him as healthy and strong and conditioned as he is,” said Gorges. “He’s arguably a top-tier defenceman in the game today.
“His ability to make plays and calm things down when things get crazy out there is unbelievable. He’s a big asset for our team.”
“I’m just happy to be healthy and working hard like a normal person,” said Markov.
He is paired with third-year blue-liner Raphael Diaz, at least until nasty hitter Alexei Emelin returns from a knee injury some time in December.
And there is forward Travis Moen, who struggled last season after signing a contract extension with only two goals and six points in 45 games. A checker, he isn’t looked to for many points, but Moen looked listless for most of the 2012-13 campaign.
“He looks to be in better shape than he was last season and it shows on the ice,” said Therrien. “He has a lot more jump in his game.”
Moen has been mostly on the fourth line in camp. He is likely to share that unit with centre Ryan White, winger Brandon Prust and, at times, Parros.
The veteran second line is unchanged with Tomas Plekanec between Rene Bourque and Brian Gionta, who returns from a torn biceps muscle.
If a rookie sticks with the club it will no doubt be towering defenceman Jarred Tinordi, a stay-at-home type who can move the puck and plays a physical game.
With seventh defenceman Davis Drewiske injured, Tinordi could pressure slow-footed Murray and 37-year-old Francis Bouillon for a spot on the third pairing.
Greg Pateryn also looks close to being NHL-ready, so the Canadiens have depth at the blue-line.
Where they want to improve most is in their post-season play. Losing in five to Ottawa threw a large bucket of cold water on a team that had been hot for most of the regular season.
“The challenge is always to be peaking come playoffs,” said Gionta. “It was a great accomplishment to win the division and come second in the conference, but at the end of the day, it’s what you do in the playoffs.
“We want to finish as high as we can and then set the tone in the playoffs and improve on that.”