Canadiens hope added depth leads to better results
The Montreal Canadiens are in the third year of their big makeover, and the 102-year-old team hopes it has grown into a Stanley Cup contender.
The Canadiens have been revamping the team since the end of the 2008-09 season. Adding veteran forwards Brian Gionta, Scott Gomez and Michael Cammalleri and hiring coach Jacques Martin brought a new look and leadership.
''It's as deep as we've been in the three years I've been here,'' said winger Mathieu Darche, who also joined the Canadiens that summer. ''You look up and down the lineup, and I don't think the coach will be afraid to put anyone on the ice against anybody.''
Notable offseason moves saw the departure of 37-year-old defenseman Roman Hamrlik, checking center Jeff Halpern and winger Benoit Pouliot, as well as the addition of scoring winger Erik Cole from the Carolina Hurricanes.
Montreal also released three defensemen picked up during the season to fill in while Andrei Markov and Josh Gorges recovered from major knee surgeries - James Wisniewski, Brent Sopel and Paul Mara. This week the Canadiens signed Chris Campoli, another veteran rearguard, when it became clear Markov's right knee was still a question mark.
The optimism comes from Cole, who filled a need as a big, physical forward capable of playing on a top line, and development of young forwards Max Pacioretty, Lars Eller and David Desharnais.
That bumps the attack up from two scoring lines to the three needed to be a contender.
Gionta and Gomez had their best moments last season when big Pacioretty joined them on left wing. His season ended abruptly with a concussion and fractured vertebra on a hit from Boston's Zdeno Chara. The good news is Pacioretty looks to be completely healed.
The top-scoring duo of Cammalleri and center Tomas Plekanec should be stronger with Cole on right wing. Their winger from last season, Andrei Kostitsyn, moves to the third line with Eller and the small but tricky playmaker Desharnais.
That leaves a fourth line to build from Darche, Travis Moen, Ryan White and perhaps Yannick Weber, a defenseman who has played forward.
The Canadiens were 24th in the 30-team NHL in scoring last season with 216 goals. Only Gionta, with 29 goals, reached his normal production.
Gomez, the team's highest-paid player with a $7.3-million annual salary cap hit, is coming off a brutal season of just seven goals and 31 assists.
Cammalleri, who missed 15 games with injuries, also looks to improve on his 19 goals, while Eller established himself as a strong defensive center and now hopes to add offense to his game. Kostitsyn also might want to improve on his 20 goals going into unrestricted free agency next summer.
The main concern is Markov.
The team's defensive anchor played only seven games last season as he returned from ACL surgery, only to tear it again. Markov missed part of the previous season recovering from a skate cut as well.
In his absence, crowd-pleasing rookie P.K. Subban grew into the team's top puck-carrying defenseman and power-play point man.
General manager Pierre Gauthier said Markov should not miss many games but the 32-year-old might not be in the lineup for the season opener Oct. 6 in Toronto.
At this time last season, the main worry was goaltending. Jaroslav Halak, who had led the team to the conference final, was traded to St. Louis for Eller and Ian Schultz and the team was gambling on Carey Price to recover from a shaky 2009-'10 season.
Price silenced his critics by playing in 72 games, posting a 38-28-6 record with a strong 2.35 goals-against average and .923 save percentage.
Gauthier feels the team improved its backup goaltending by letting Alex Auld go and bringing in former Colorado starter Peter Budaj.
Price, the fifth overall pick from 2005, is confident the team can go farther than last season, when it finished sixth with a 44-30-8 record before taking eventual Stanley Cup-champion Boston to overtime in Game 7 of the first round of playoffs.
''We're a step ahead of lot of other teams in the league,'' Price said. ''We have a lot of the same pieces as we had the previous season, so in that sense, we already have that chemistry.
''That (loss to Boston) lingers in our head. We were that close to knocking off the top team in the league. So we're all going to try to take the necessary strides to make that push.''