Canadiens: 10 Things You Need To Know
By Pierre LeBrun
The Montreal Canadiens followed up their dream spring of 2010 with an inconsistent 2010-11 season, which culminated with an aggravating first-round exit to Boston.
Aggravating because the Canadiens took the first two games in Boston and again looked like the playoff-upset specials of 2010, when they knocked off Cup contenders Washington and Pittsburgh in succession.
One year later, however, the magic at the Bell Centre ran out as the B's rallied back to take four of the next five, including a Game 7 heartbreaker in overtime that ended Montreal's season in excruciating fashion.
The Habs return largely the same core, hoping their fortunes better mirror their conference finals appearance of 2010.
1. Habs resolute to rebound
The battle might be just as much between the ears as it is on the ice when the Canadiens try to turn the page on this past spring's painful seven-game collapse to the Bruins.
"For sure that was a huge disappointment for us," Habs captain Brian Gionta told ESPN.com. "You look back at that series, Game 4 was pivotal for us. We had a lead in the game and we could've had a good stranglehold on the series. And it was a heartbreaker definitely in Game 7."
Gionta believes his team can learn from that painful memory and be stronger for it. That's certainly the tact the Bruins themselves used when they blew a 3-0 series lead to Philadelphia in 2010 only to come back one year later and win the Cup.
2. Striving for consistency
The Canadiens jumped out to a terrific start last season and were leading the Northeast Division before fading badly in the second half.
"We had a great start and started real strong," Gionta said. "Then after that, we were barely above .500. The main thing is consistency. We have to find a way to maintain that throughout the full season. We've been bugged by injuries the last two years; major guys in the lineup have gone down. Hopefully with everyone staying healthy, we can find that consistency."
3. Welcome back, Andrei Markov
The Canadiens were yet again without Andrei Markov last season, losing their top defenseman for most of the season as he underwent a second knee surgery. They're just not the same team without him.
"It's huge," Gionta said. "He adds a lot to our power play. Offensively he's really gifted. He's just a steady force back there who can move the puck all over the ice, and he really helps the forwards out. Hopefully once he gets his game back, we'll be off and going."
4. Car-ey, Car-ey, Car-ey
A year ago at this time, Habs fans were fretting the loss of playoff hero Jaroslav Halak and management's faith in Carey Price to reclaim the No. 1 netminding job. Score one for GM Pierre Gauthier and coach Jacques Martin. Facing incredible pressure in the league's most passionate market, Price grabbed the bull by the horns and delivered a sensational performance all season. How the league's 30 GMs didn't see fit to make him one of the three Vezina Trophy finalists is mind-boggling. And although the fans might have been holding their breath after Halak was dealt to St. Louis, the players in the room were not.
"It played out kind of how we felt in the room it would," Gionta said. "Jaro was great for us, especially in the playoffs two years ago, but we knew what Carey was last year. Everybody in the room was confident he could do that. He's dealt with tremendous pressure all his career. You see him evolve as a person and a player. He's just matured tremendously over the last year and a half."
There's absolutely no reason to doubt Price will carry on this season. And he has to be his team's MVP once again for his team to have any chance.
5. Too soft? Pfft
The Chicago Blackhawks thought they were being pushed around last season so they went out in the offseason, and added grit and muscle in Daniel Carcillo, Jamal Mayers, Steve Montador and Sean O'Donnell. Many people believe the Canadiens were once again too soft last season, but Gauthier resisted Chicago's line of thinking, despite having lost to a Bruins team that combined skill and brawn on its way to Cup glory.
"It's no secret we're built for speed; that's the makeup of our team," Gionta said. "You know, I think last year, a lot was made last year with Boston that we were physically outmatched. But you look at the series, it had nothing to do that. I don't think by any means [we] were pushed out of the series or any game. The players in our lineup are used to playing against bigger guys. It's not our first year in the league, either."
6. Welcome, Mr. Cole
It's uncanny how often a team will end up acquiring a player who has had success against that club over the years. Erik Cole has scored some big goals against the Habs over the years, and clearly that left an impression. The Canadiens made him their surprising, marquee offseason addition.
"Pierre Gauthier added Cole this year, and I think that's good for our top six," Gionta said. "That brings a dimension to our top six that we haven't had the last couple of years. He's going to be big for us."
The last time Cole left his familiar surroundings in Carolina was a disaster, in Edmonton (27 points in 63 games). Can he make his return north of the border a better story this time around? He's got one thing going for him: He is a terrific skater with speed and joins one of the league's fastest teams.
7. Team at crossroads
Few teams in the NHL enter this season with a more varying mixture of predictions than the Canadiens. It's as if people around the industry either believe in the team that went to the final four two years ago or see a fading team whose first-round exit last season represents a more realistic portrayal of its identity.
"Some people look at us and they're skeptical; some are optimistic," Gionta said. "The guys in the room are confident that we have the right bunch of guys, and we have the group that can win a championship for sure. We just have to do it on a more consistently, on a night in, night out basis throughout the regular season and maybe improve our situation going into the playoffs."
The first half, in our opinion, will be huge for this team. The Canadiens are picking up the pieces, mentally, after that collapse with Boston. A slow start will shatter whatever is left of their team confidence. A strong start will made them believe they've turned the page. October hockey will mean something in Montreal.
8. Excitable P.K., P.K., P.K.
Speaking of generating mixed reviews, P.K. Subban took the league by storm last season with a terrific rookie campaign. Alex Ovechkin met his match when it comes to flamboyant goal celebrations. The young blueliner rubbed some people the wrong way on opposing teams and in the media, but we for one adore his style and charisma. Just wish there were more P.K. Subbans in the league.
"He's a tremendous talent," Gionta said. "There's no secret he's going to be a star in the league. The things he can do out there at his age and so early on are unbelievable. The biggest thing is that there's a learning curve, no matter who you are. But especially in a market like Montreal. You have to find your way, and that's why he may get that mixed reaction when people talk about him. But he's learning, he's a good kid, he knows what to do and he'll be great for a long time."
Subban's offensive contributions were huge last season in Markov's absence. If Markov can return as the Markov of old, it will ease the pressure on Subban to carry that load and might help him flourish. With James Wisniewski and his 51 points gone to Columbus, the Habs can't afford a sophomore slump from Subban.
9. Return of Max Pacioretty
Somewhat lost in the controversial, season-ending concussion suffered by Pacioretty when Zdeno Chara rammed him into a stanchion was the fact that Pacioretty had really come on for the Canadiens and looked every bit worth the first-round pick the Habs made of him four years ago. Now it remains to be seen just how Pacioretty rebounds from that scary episode.
People in Montreal will tell you former Canadiens winger Richard Zednik was never the same after getting crunched by former Bruins blueliner Kyle McLaren during the 2002 playoffs. Here's hoping Pacioretty can turn the page, stay healthy and pick up where he left off before that infamous incident. The Canadiens ranked only 22nd in goals scored last season and need Pacioretty back to his normal self.
10. Underrated Josh Gorges
It's hard to fathom any player can stay under the radar in a hockey-mad market such as Montreal, but at least from a league-wide persective, Josh Gorges remains an underrated blueliner. A terrific two-way player with a high-end hockey IQ, Gorges does all the little things well, although he rarely blows you away with a sexy play. He makes the sure pass, blocks a ton of shots (79 in only 36 games last season) and is arguably Montreal's most reliable defender. Oh, and he's eligible for unrestricted free agency July 1.
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
Experience: Entering 17th NHL season
Stanley Cup titles: 0
• Jacques Martin might not be popular with all his players (ahem, Andrei Kostitsyn), but you can't argue with the club's defensive prowess under the veteran coach's tutelage.
The Canadiens were eighth in the league in goals against last season and seventh on the penalty kill, while far from playing a boring style.
Martin preaches speed, skill and defensive awareness. But like any coach before him in the mercurial market that is Montreal, he needs more playoff success to make everyone happy. -- Pierre LeBrun
Best bet: Carey Price
After a promising rookie campaign (24 wins in 40 starts, 2.56 GAA and .920 save percentage), Price struggled considerably in his subsequent two campaigns. But the Habs' vote of confidence in keeping Price seemed to do the trick as he put up elite numbers throughout the 2010-11 season, finishing with 38 wins (tied for first in the league), a 2.35 GAA (ninth) and a .923 save percentage (tied for sixth). No reason to think he can't do it again, but be prepared to pay for the privilege of having him on your roster. -- Tim Kavanagh
Risky pick: Andrei Markov
No one is going to convince Markov he's about to embark on anything other than a healthy, productive season with the Canadiens. Working out with a disciplined intensity since recovering from his second major knee surgery in a year, Markov earnestly insists he's in better shape than ever. Sure, there's a risk in drafting Markov (and his rebuilt right knee), but the upside to one of the very best offensive defensemen in the league may be very much worth the gamble. -- Victoria Matiash
Sleeper pick: Max Pacioretty
Pacioretty was perfectly comfortable as a top-six winger with the Canadiens last season before his season-ending injury. In 37 games, Pacioretty had 14 goals and 24 points on the second line with Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta. Healthy and ready for training camp, Pacioretty only needs to beat out Andrei Kostitsyn or Erik Cole to stay on as a top-six winger and make a run at 30 goals. The way Kostitsyn's numbers have been trending, Pacioretty should have no trouble winning more ice time. -- Sean Allen
Who's On The Move
The offseason signings/acquisitions and departures for the Canadiens:
• June 1: Re-signed D Hal Gill.
• June 9: Re-signed LW Andrei Kostitsyn.
• June 10: Re-signed LW Mathieu Darche.
• June 20: Re-signed LW Max Pacioretty and C David Desharnais.
• June 23: Re-signed D Andrei Markov.
• June 29: Re-signed D Yannick Weber.
• July 1: Signed LW Erik Cole and G Peter Budaj.
• July 13: Re-signed C Ryan White.
• July 22: Named Randy Cunneyworth and Randy Ladouceur assistant coaches.
• July 22: Re-signed D Josh Gorges.
• Aug. 15: Signed D Jeff Woywitka.
• D James Wisniewski (traded to Columbus)
• D Roman Hamrlik (unrestricted free agent, signed by Washington)
• C Tom Pyatt (unrestricted free agent, signed by Tampa Bay)
• D Alexandre Picard (unrestricted free agent, signed by Pittsburgh)
• LW Benoit Pouliot (unrestricted free agent, signed by Boston)
• C Jeff Halpern (unrestricted free agent, signed by Washington)
• G Alex Auld (unrestricted free agent, signed by Ottawa)
• D Brent Sopel (unrestricted free agent, signed by KHL's Novokuznetsk)
• D Paul Mara (unrestricted free agent)