THE BOTTOM LINE
By Scott Burnside, Special to ESPN.com
There are a lot of reasons to think the Montreal Canadiens are on the cusp of being a very, very good team. Whether that happens this year or next is debatable, but GM and former Habs great Bob Gainey has assembled an enticing blend of youth and experience, grit and skill.
Offense: Although they didn't blow the doors off the free-agent market, Gainey managed to return Alex Kovalev, one player that should benefit from a new open game as much as any other in the league. Though the Russian star was courted by a number of teams, he chose to return to Montreal, a team he was dealt to at the 2004 trade deadline. He is, quite simply, a treat to watch and could easily return to top 10 in league scoring.
The offensive supporting cast is intriguing. Richard Zednik has averaged more than 26 goals a season for the past three NHL campaigns. Rookie of the year candidate Michael Ryder was second in team scoring in 2003-04 with 63 points, two points behind another emerging offensive star in Mike Ribeiro. Popular captain Saku Koivu returns to provide solid leadership and should see his offensive numbers jump provided he can stay healthy (he played in only 68 games in 2003-04). Radek Bonk, a perpetual underachiever in Ottawa, joins the cast and may flourish where expectations have been dialed back considerably.
Defense: The Canadiens' blue line features a group loaded with promise, although the team's successes will hinge to a great degree on its continued maturation. Gone is favorite whipping boy Patrice Brisebois. Sheldon Souray was an All-Star in 2004 and his 15 goals were the second-highest among NHL defensemen, but his durability remains a concern. Andrei Markov is the leader of the next generation of Canadiens blueliners and is joined by former University of Michigan star Mike Komisarek and fellow American Ron Hainsey, who were paired together for a time in the AHL. One key addition will be the arrival of fleet-footed Mathieu Dandenault, signed away from Detroit, where he won three Cups while floating between defense and forward under master tactician Scotty Bowman.
Goaltending: This will once again be a strong point for the Canadiens with former MVP Jose Theodore returning to hold the fort. But his backup, Cristobal Huet, starts the season on the shelf with a knee injury, meaning there's a troubling lack of support for Theodore. Still, Theodore's play will help smooth over many of the rough spots the young blueliners may endure.
WHERE THEY'LL FINISH
YES Jose Theodore is a world-class goalie. The defense, while young, has a tremendous upside and is already battle tested.
If Theodore has a typically slow start to the season, it will put more pressure on the defense. If the streaky Kovalev stumbles out of the gate, early pressure may sour him on the season.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Alexander Perezhogin. Suspended for all of last year's AHL schedule for a vicious stick-swinging incident in the 2004 playoffs, Perezhogin has terrific offensive tools and could find himself playing a significant role in a league where skill is expected to be at a premium.
Claude Julien guided the Habs to the playoffs in his first full season as coach and then saw his underdog Habs upend Boston after trailing in the series 3-1, so mental toughness shouldn't be an issue. Expectations will be higher than in the past, but Julien's squad may still benefit from flying under the radar compared to revamped teams like the Penguins, Bruins and Flyers.
BEST OFFSEASON MOVE --> SECOND CHANCES
Resigning Alex Kovalev. For the first time in years, the Canadiens have an elite scorer in their lineup that has the ability to win a game on his own and makes those who play around him better through sheer osmosis.
WORST OFFSEASON MOVE --> THEY NEED BACKUP
It's surprising the Habs didn't make a move to bring in a veteran backup for Theodore, knowing that Huet will be out for at least the first two months of the season and maybe longer. Yann Danis is a talent, but he's not ready for NHL action just yet.
Mike Ribeiro, LW
Ribeiro had 20 goals and 45 assists during the 2003-04 season.
Jose Theodore, G
Theodore had a 33-28-5 record and .919 save percentage in 2003-04.
“We were doing a lot of positive things but you can't afford to give teams momentum.”
— Saku Koivu on new rules' effects on games