Originally Published: September 25, 2013

Montreal Canadiens: Caught in between

By Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com

Managing expectations. That's what it's going to be about early this season for the Montreal Canadiens after jumping from 15th in the East in 2011-12 to second in the lockout-shortened season. They are not an elite team quite yet, and the job of the Habs' organization in the NHL's most passionate market will be to send a strong message that while they certainly are no longer a 15th-place team, they're also not among the 6-7 clubs that are knocking at Lord Stanley's door. They are somewhere in between: a team that continues to grow under shrewd, patient GM Marc Bergevin, but again has a simple goal this year -- just get in. Lessons must be learned from the opening-round, five-game loss to Ottawa, when a controversial hit on Habs center Lars Eller in Game 1 saw the Canadiens come unglued. Those are signs of a team that doesn't yet know how to win.

"We're just going to learn from that playoff experience," winger Brendan Gallagher, runner-up for the Calder Trophy last season, told ESPN.com. "I know me, personally, after the Lars hit especially, it set the tone, the emotional level of that series was so high, it was something you couldn't prepare for, you just had to experience it. There are different ways we could have handled it, we could have reacted differently. I think that's going to make us better. We're going to learn from that."

Really, the only notable change saw winger Daniel Briere replace winger Michael Ryder (who signed with New Jersey). Briere's addition will be felt just as much in the dressing room as on the ice, where he'll help the power play.

"I'm really excited about that," Gallagher said of Briere's addition. "He's a smaller guy who's had a lot of success in the league, and a guy that I can learn from. You look at how many big goals he's scored in big games, it's hard to find another guy in the league that can match that. Adding a guy like that to the team, as a young guy I'm just going to listen to whatever he says because it's going to be the right thing. He's such an approachable guy. He's willing to give his time to anyone. You want that type of player on your team."

Other changes: The Canadiens also cut ties with forwards Colby Armstrong and Jeff Halpern as well as blueliners Yannick Weber and Tomas Kaberle. Aside from Briere, signed to a two-year, $8 million deal, the Habs added veteran tough guy George Parros and veteran rugged blueliner Douglas Murray. In Parros, the Habs added muscle in part because middleweight and valuable winger Brandon Prust can't be asked to continually fight above his weight class; he won't last the season if he does that. And they also added him because the new Atlantic (old Northeast) is perhaps the most intimidating in the league, with Boston leading the way, but also Randy Carlyle's Maple Leafs stocking up over the last two years. The Senators don't get pushed around, as Montreal found out in Game 3 of their first-round series when the Habs suffered a beatdown in a line brawl, and the Sabres also have beefed up. So, in the end, adding Parros a year after adding Prust is about keeping up with the Joneses for Montreal.

Montreal's biggest strength was also a weakness in the end. Carey Price was the reason the Habs flew up the standings in the opening three months of the season, and a big reason why they flamed out so badly at the end when his game went south. Few people around hockey doubt he won't bounce back this season, but that's obviously the most important key to the season for the Habs.

"I feel this way and I know for sure that a lot of guys in our room feel this way: We have the best goalie in the world," Gallagher said. "When you're playing in front of a guy like that, it gives you confidence."

When asked to pick the top goaltender in the NHL, superstar center Sidney Crosby didn't bat an eye with ESPN.com in an early September interview in responding: "Carey Price." With a Canadian Olympic job on the line for Sochi, Price has a lot riding on this season. Bet on him delivering.

Another key strength is the man running the team. Bergevin has shown tremendous patience since coming on board in May 2012, preaching at all times the long-term view and his desire to stock up the organization's depth chart with higher-end prospects. A surprise second-place finish in the East last season didn't change a thing in his approach: He's not trading high draft picks or the organization's top prospects for a quick fix no matter the incredible appetite in his market for the team to get over the playoff hump. The Habs are on the right course with Bergevin at the helm, even if it means taking a bit of a step backward this season.

And finally, a young, impressive core is developing in Montreal, and that's the team Bergevin is building around. Gallagher (21), Alex Galchenyuk (19), Eller (24), Max Pacioretty (24) and Norris Trophy winner P.K. Subban (24) -- not to mention Price (26) -- form the core for years to come.

A perceived weakness by some is also an area Bergevin has tried to shore up as best he could by having depth: the blue-line corps. Led by Subban, who exploded for his best season en route to the Norris Trophy last season, and the dependable Josh Gorges, the Canadiens are viewed by some as being top-heavy on defense, with the dropoff after the first few guys noticeable for some scouts. That depends on a lot of factors this season. Can Andrei Markov, 34, sustain his early-season play from last year when he looked like the Markov of old? The compacted schedule appeared to take a toll on him in the second half last year and he wasn't as effective. But at least he stayed healthy. Can Raphael Diaz continue his tracking into what appears to be a reliable, puck-moving, top-four blueliner? Can youngster Jarred Tinordi take the next step? How much do veterans Francis Bouillon and Murray have left in the tank? Alexei Emelin, Montreal's most physical blueliner, is out until at least December as he recovers from knee surgery. He will be sorely missed. Nathan Beaulieu and Davis Drewiske are other options in a group that's 10-deep. But there are questions here for sure. Even Subban, so electric last season, will be under scrutiny in Montreal to ensure he doesn't regress after a sensational season. And it's a contract year for him.

"He's a high-energy guy, to say the least," said Gallagher, chuckling. "He's a guy who in the dressing room gives us life. You see what he does on the ice, he's looking to create something at all times. I'm sure guys don't like playing against him because you can't hit him, you can't touch him, he's going the other way. To have a guy like that on your team, it's something that's rare. We enjoy it."

The Red Wings' arrival in the new Atlantic Division provides another team that stands in the way of the Canadiens, who will already be battling with the likes of Boston, Toronto and Ottawa within their own division to make the top four. That's not welcome news.

LeBrun: I see this as a reality-check season for the Habs, who will still battle for a playoff spot but certainly not the division title. Price is the X factor, no question. The Habs and the Leafs will be neck and neck for fourth place in the Atlantic.

Burnside: Fifth in Atlantic Division.

Custance: Fourth in Atlantic Division.

Melrose: Fifth in Atlantic Division.

Strang: Fourth in Atlantic Division.

Pierre LeBrun

ESPN Senior Writer


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