Perhaps the most enduring image of the Montreal Canadiens' 2003-04 season will be goaltender Jose Theodore, breath hanging in front of him, toque perched askew on top of his mask at the end of the Heritage Classic in Edmonton last November.
The outdoor game was a reminder of the game's roots, and in many ways a reminder that Theodore had also returned to his. After suffering through a dismal 2002-03 season, during which the defending Hart and Vezina trophy winner was dogged on the ice by inconsistency and off the ice by rumors about his family's alleged ties to criminal activity, Theodore returned to form. With him, the Habs did too, stunning Boston in the first round of the playoffs, erasing a 3-1 series deficit, before being swept by the Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round.
Backstopped by Theodore (2.27 GAA, .919 save percentage in 67 games), the Canadiens were also buoyed by the return of injury-plagued defenseman Sheldon Souray, who appeared headed for Norris Trophy consideration until a late-season injury. Still, Souray was outstanding, with 15 goals and 20 assists in 63 games, and brought stability to a defense corps that had been fodder for media critics the previous season. Top defensive prospect Mike Komisarek also rounded into form during the second half, as the Canadiens lowered their goals against by 42 from the previous season.
If there was stability on the ice it had its genesis in the front office where Bob Gainey, a revered member of the Habs' dynasty of the 1970s, returned a year ago as general manager. Although he did not make any offseason moves, Gainey came out early in the season to chastise fans and their treatment of perpetual whipping boy Patrice Brisebois. The move had an immediate effect and Brisebois went on to have a solid season, leading the team with a plus-17 rating. Gainey pulled the trigger on a bold deadline moving, acquiring Alexei Kovalev from the Rangers and, after a desultory beginning (one goal in 12 games), Kovalev was a crucial contributor in the Canadiens' upset of Boston.
Although Kovalev remains an unrestricted free agent, there is a possibility he will return to Montreal. The Habs may have reached their quota of enigmatic forwards, however, having acquired underachieving Radek Bonk from Ottawa (via Los Angeles) at the draft.
Assistant general manager Andre Savard spoke to ESPN.com this week about last season's successes and the continued look to youth as the Habs move forward.
ESPN.com: How would you assess your team's performance last year, regular season and the playoffs?
Savard: I think Theodore had a good year in goal. He came back to (form) when we made the playoffs two years ago. He trained hard in the summer and had the good start. That's where it all starts. We got very good goaltending and we were right back where we were. I think that was one key area, Theodore, coming back to what he was before. When you're going through things, it's difficult. I think (Anaheim's Jean-Sebastien) Giguere lived it a bit this year. Even more so with Jose, when he won two trophies and then there's negotiations and everyone's patting you on the back and Jose reacted. He had a little setback and reacted in a very positive manner and got right back to the way he was going.
I think Souray coming back healthy, too. Certainly we missed Sheldon the year before. Right off the bat he played really well. Then Patrice Brisebois playing well and Komisarek coming in through the year, and that gives you a pretty good balance on the back end.
We've been having a development camp now for five years. We just finished one this week. And there are two guys, Michael Ryder and Mike Ribeiro, they're a very good example of how sometimes patience pays off, especially with Michael Ryder. We could see some very good offensive talent. But we had to show some patience. He showed himself patience. Those two guys had great years and that's what you need, eventually, you need new people coming into the team, being able to bring around good regular players. Jason Ward pitched in, too. So you had a group of guys like that. They kept it up. They're not one-year rookies. You're not talking coming out of junior. This was a progression and we kept with it.
In the playoffs I think Claude (Julien) did a good job. When you come back like that, your coach has done something right to keep the focus and the attitude right. Even in the first game it looked really bad and it looks like it's going to be an easy series (for the Bruins) and you win the series.
A lot of players had good series. Theodore got stronger as the series went on. There were a lot of factors. I think it comes back to the group for sure. There were a lot of key situations. Kovalev was certainly a very important player in the series. We had a very good top line in that series, Richard Zednik, Saku Koivu and Kovalev. Against Tampa (we) faced a good team. There were a lot of close games. Of course, some costly mistakes. You're in the playoffs against a very good team that worked hard. They did it against every team.
ESPN.com: Which player made the most significant strides in your estimation or had the biggest impact on your team?
Savard: Ryder. It has to be Ryder. He had a great year in the American Hockey League, you think back to last season. He's just kept going all year and worked hard and he kept the same rhythm, the same rhythm he had in the American league. He was able to keep the same in the NHL. I think all year he was trying to prove to himself that he was a capable player in the NHL. You've got that physical play and that good shot and he's a player who plays in the traffic.
ESPN.com: Which player needs to bounce back or take the biggest step forward if there is hockey this season? Is it perhaps Radek Bonk?
Savard: Well, a fresh start? I don't know about that. He's been in the league a little while, but he's only been on one team. He's a good two-way player and he cares defensively and he really understands defensive hockey. I think that's important. He takes a lot of pride in the penalty kill.
ESPN.com: Who is the top player in your system ready to play in the NHL right now?
Savard: You've got players in the system and you hope they seize the occasion. There's been a few players that retired, like Joe Juneau, and Stephane Quintal went to Los Angeles. We have one player we've certainly been watching, Alexander Perezhogin. He's a good skater and he's got good hands. He's one of those players, you think there's no play and all of a sudden there's a play. He's got some offensive touch. Instinct I would call it. We'd like some of these young players to seize that opportunity. There's Chris Higgins, also, and Marcel Hossa.
ESPN.com: What is the top priority in improving the organization?
Savard: Even if you're a high-offense team, if you're not good defensively, well. If you're getting good goaltending you're going to be in there. It's a combination of everything. But obviously, at some point you've got to score some goals, too. I don't think you can say it's there or it's there. You've got to cover everything. I think you've got to keep going forward.
ESPN.com: What is your favorite moment from last season?
Savard: It's always the playoffs. Winning in the playoffs. It's like three years ago. There are so many swings in a series. You're taking off and then you lose one. So, after it's all over, then you take a look at it all. But definitely winning in the playoffs.
ESPN.com: Least favorite moment?
Savard: I don't know really. I think I forgot that. I guess.
ESPN.com: What activity, destination or hobby will take you furthest away from hockey this offseason?
Savard: I'm trying to play golf, but I'm a (expletive) golfer. I used to play a lot of tennis. We're having a house built on a lake in Quebec City, so I'm taking care of that. I like to do different things. For me, working out, playing tennis on a Saturday morning, that's fun, too. Usually it's around sports. I don't have an old Chevy and I'm not renovating a condo. If I did it would take me years. I'm not that handy man. Sometimes I golf with my oldest son in Quebec City. He's 26. He's a scout for Ottawa. He's better than me. He wasn't, but he is this year.
Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.