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2003-04 Montreal Canadiens Preview

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By Matt Canamucio, NHL Editor

(Sports Network) - So much for the Montreal being back on the map.

After a surprising trip to the second round of the playoffs in 2002, the Habs fell out of the postseason field with a 10th-place finish in the Eastern Conference last campaign. That makes four times in five years Montreal has not contended for the Stanley Cup come spring.

Summing up the ' woes was the performance of goaltender Jose Theodore, the Hart and Vezina winner in '02. After dazzling the NHL, Theodore watched his goals-against average balloon nearly to 3, and things continued to get worse in the offseason.

During the summer Theodore's father and half brothers were arrested for alleged involvement in a loan-sharking scheme. Not exactly ideal circumstances to bounce back under.

The controversy aside, the ' offseason as a team was relatively quiet, with the exception of the hiring of Bob Gainey as general manager. The former Habs captain built the Dallas into a Western Conference power and eventual Stanley Cup champion as their GM, but to do the same here he'll have his work cut out.

AT THE HELM - Claude Julien took over behind the bench in mid-January after Michel Therrien was relieved of his duties, but things didn't really improve under his guidance. Julien's record was 12-16-3-5 after the switch.

As always with a coach who took over at midseason, you will see more of the impact Julien can make having the reins from the beginning this season. The 42-year- old's resume includes success at both the Junior and American Hockey League levels.

ON THE ATTACK - Saku Koivu, in his first full season following a bout with stomach cancer, led the team with 50 assists and 71 points and was re-signed to a two-year contract in the offseason. The diminutive Finn remarkably enjoyed his best statistical showing on the heals of his life-and-death battle. Also surprising was the fact that Koivu was healthy for all 82 games, something that hadn't occurred since his rookie campaign in 1995-96.

Koivu is joined in the team's offensive core by Richard Zednik (31g, 19a) and Yanic Perreault (24g, 22a), but things thin out thereafter. No other player managed to eclipse the 20-goal mark, and only Jan Bulis, and Donald Audette managed 10+.

Zednik is the team's best pure scorer right now, possessing the speed and strength to convert in various ways. The former Washington Capital will have to repeat his career year because there really isn't another sniper on the club. That's why Montreal managed a meager 206 goals a season ago.

Perreault, meanwhile, has been the NHL's top faceoff man the past few seasons, but his role isn't exactly defined. He all but fell off the face of the Earth the second half last season, tallying only five goals in that time.

Due to demotions to the minors and injuries, last season was Bulis' first full one in the NHL, and he responded with 16 goals and 24 assists. Another former Cap, Bulis has potential at both ends of the ice, but the team would like to see him utilize his 210-pound frame more to his advantage.

Veterans , Joe Juneau and Donald Audette are also likely to be among the team's top three lines. Audette, who spent a good portion of last year in the minors, needs to get back to the level that made him a 30-goal scorer for Atlanta a few years back. Since then he's been passed on by Dallas and has yet to find his niche with the Habs.

A wild card is winger Marcel Hossa, the younger brother of the Ottawa ' Marian. Marcel was up with the big club for 34 games last season and potted six goals in that time. He has similar size to his brother and can be a poor-man's version of him.

ON DEFENSE - Montreal made its way two seasons ago with defense and goaltending, but that was hardly the case in 02-03. The allowed 234 goals in 02-03, a mark worsened only by seven other NHL clubs.

Markov, in addition to his offensive contributions, emerged as the anchor last season, playing alongside the bruising Craig Rivet on the top pairing. The Russian registered a team-high plus-13 rating, which is remarkable on a club that allowed so many goals.

Sheldon Souray, more specifically is health, will be an x-factor on the team's defense. Souray missed all of last season with a serious wrist injury, and it was clear that the hard-nosed, nasty dynamic he adds was missing.

Other vets in the corps include Patrice Brisebois and Stephane Quintal, but we may see some rookies contributing on the backlines as well. The demotions of experienced NHLers Karl Dykhuis and increased the likelihood that youngsters Mike Komisarek and Ron Hainsey will make the team.

IN THE CREASE - Theodore finished with a 20-31-6 record, 2.90 goals-against average and .908 save percentage last season and had many wondering if the new contract he was given the previous summer was a good idea. It remains to be seen if the poor play was

of his own doing or a result of what was happening in front of him.

If Theodore can get back on track, the Habs will feature a very respectable tandem in net. Mathieu Garon, once a higher-rated prospect that Theodore, spent most of last season with Hamilton of the AHL, but managed a 1.99 goals- against average and .940 save percentage in eight appearances with the big club.

X-FACTOR - This club obviously needs to find some sort of consistent firepower, but it's the other end of the ice that will propel it back into the postseason. If Souray can stay healthy and make an impact, and Theodore can right his ship, the Habs will be a factor.

WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - A factor in what, you ask? A factor in the race for the last playoff spot in the East. The conference may be weaker than the West, but there are still plenty of teams better than the Habs on paper.

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