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Canadiens look to core of young talent to move forward in 2006-07

General manager Bob Gainey picked up wingers Sergei Samsonov and Mike Johnson this summer, but lost out in the bidding for former Detroit veteran Brendan Shanahan and reportedly some other free agents.

And even with Saturday's trade of centre Mike Ribeiro to the Dallas Stars for veteran defenceman Janne Niinimaa, it was still a relatively quiet off-season for the Eastern Conference's seventh-place team from 2005-06.

So, to make the playoffs again, they will need bigger contributions from skilled young players like first-line wingers Chris Higgins and Michael Ryder, centre Tomas Plekanec, defenceman Mike Komisarek and perhaps even younger prospects like Guillaume Latendresse and Alexander Perezhogin.

"At the end of last year, our team had good chemistry and I don't think they wanted to break that up," said defenceman Sheldon Souray. "So for us, it's more important to improve on what we had than to come in and totally overhaul our team.

"Look at a team like the (New Jersey) Devils, who had so much success over the last 10 years. They didn't change personnel a lot. The core stays together. That's what we're looking at. We have a good group of players here who want to be here and want to win here."

The top line has captain Saku Koivu between 30-goal scorer Ryder and quick-footed Higgins. Plekanec, who is emerging as a solid two-way centre, takes Ribeiro's spot between Samsonov and Alex Kovalev.

Johnson is on the third trio with big centre Radek Bonk and the energetic Steve Begin while a fourth line could have speedy Perezhogin with the physical Latendresse and checker Garth Murray or with tough winger Aaron Downey.

Niinimaa, who had off-season surgery to repair a nagging ankle injury, joins a mobile but not terribly physical defence with Souray, Komisarek, Craig Rivet, Andrei Markov, Mathieu Dandenault and second-year man Mark Streit. Defender Francis Bouillon is out until at least late November with a knee injury.

Cristobal Huet of France and David Aebischer of Switzerland are the goaltenders, with promising Yann Danis of Lafontaine, Que., ready for call-up if needed.

Two other factors could decide the Canadiens' fate - Koivu's left eye and Huet's goaltending.

Koivu is coming off surgery to repair a detached retina in the eye, which still has a blind spot he needs to adjust to, although he looked fine in pre-season.

He also hopes he can delay surgery until after the season on a small cataract that has developed on the eye. But if it worsens, his season could be over early.

"The blind spot is going to be there," said Koivu, who was clipped under the visor by Justin Williams' stick during a playoff game against Carolina in April. "It's more the mental part - of being comfortable and not to think about the eye. It'll take some time, but so far, so good."

Huet missed training camp last season while recovering from off-season knee surgery, but when he joined the team in mid-season, he was an instant success.

The goaltender's steady play allowed Gainey to trade struggling Jose Theodore to Colorado for Aebischer. Huet went 18-11-4 with seven shutouts and a league-best .929 save percentage.

Now the question is whether Huet will maintain that level over a full season. Neither Huet nor Aebischer was sharp in pre-season.

"They're pros and they know the real season starts Friday (when Montreal opens the season in Buffalo) and they'll be ready," said Guy Carbonneau, who takes over as head coach after serving as Gainey's assistant in the second half of last season.

Gainey, who stepped in as coach for the fired Claude Julien in January, will stick to the GM's job.

He saw in the summer how not all players want to play in Montreal, with its relatively high taxes and intense, year-long media coverage.

But the former Canadiens captain hopes that by keeping most of the same players together for a second year that the team that jelled in time for a late playoff push will have that chemistry from opening day in 2006-07.

Souray is confident it will.

"A lot's been said about guys we tried to get here and who didn't want to be here for various reasons, but the guys who are here want to be here," he said.

"We realize that sometimes there's some other stuff that goes along with playing here, but I think that Bob knows the guys here feel good wearing the jersey and he didn't want to break that up."

Montreal made the playoffs on Huet's goaltending and the high-tempo skating game that was successful for a handful of teams who adjusted best to the crackdown on restraining fouls, particularly Buffalo and Carolina.

Where they fell short was on experience and their overall skill level, which they hope to have at least partly addressed by acquiring Samsonov and Johnson.

They also lacked depth on defence, which they hope Niinimaa will provide.

The Canadiens won their first two playoff games in Raleigh, N.C., and were gunning for a third win at home when Koivu was injured. Then they bowed out in four straight games to the eventual Stanley Cup champions.

"I don't think we're the favourite to win the Cup, but we showed last year that with the guys that we have, there's a chance," said Koivu. "We know we have to prove it first to ourselves and then to the media and the fans."

The Canadiens also signed another former captain, Kirk Muller, as assistant coach.


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