September 15, 2011
It's going to be another year of blockbusters and huge flops in the NHL. Which teams blew out their budgets for big name stars and gigantic special effects to score Michael Bay-levels of box office gold? Which teams are bloated action retreads and terrible sequels? Find out in Puck Daddy's 2011-12 NHL Season Previews, running throughout the month.
Last season began with Carey Price(notes) telling fans to "chill out" after he allowed four goals on nine shots during an exhibition game and was soundly booed. The fans eventually did "chill" after Price led the Canadiens to an 7-3-1 start in October and a 96-point season (44-30-8), good enough for sixth in the Eastern Conference.
Montreal's lack of offense (2.60 goals/game, ranked 23rd) caught up with them in their opening round matchup with the Boston Bruins, as despite taking the eventual Stanley Cup champs to overtime in Game 7, the Habs' final three losses in the series were by one goal.
The end was disappointing, but there were plenty of bright spots for the Canadiens. Price had a monster season and ended up fifth in the Vezina Trophy and seventh for the Hart Trophy and P.K. Subban(notes) shook off a 5-game benching in December to lead all rookies in goals scored (14) and formed a solid partnership with Hall Gill in the back.
Controversy took the Habs off track near the end of the season following the Zdeno Chara(notes) hit on Max Pacioretty(notes). The incident failed to rally the team together as they went stumbling into the playoffs winning just seven of their final 15 games despite entering that game against the Bruins having won five of their previous six. Chara was not suspended and Pacioretty did not return to the lineup for the remainder of the season. He's expected to be back in the lineup for opening night, however.
GM Pierre Gauthier was very limited in his off-season moves watching more players leave the organization than enter. Despite Erik Cole(notes) as the lone big-name addition, the offense will be boosted with a full season from Mike Cammalleri, a (hopefully) healthy Andrei Markov(notes) and a return to form from Scott Gomez(notes), who's coming off a 38-point season while taking up $7.357 million of Montreal's salary cap.
Will that be enough for Montreal to challenge the defending Cup champs in the Northeast Division?
Erik Cole was the biggest name brought in by Gauthier on a 4-year, $18 million deal to help boost the offense. Cole has averaged 20 goals a season in his 9-year NHL career and should fit in nicely in Montreal's top two lines adding size up front if he can remain healthy.
With Alex Auld(notes) heading to the Ottawa Senators, Peter Budaj(notes) will be the man to spell Price when a rest is needed. Budaj is capable of taking on a healthy workload behind Price, who played 72 games last season. The only question is how effective he'll be after a subpar year in Colorado (3.20 goals against average, .895 save-percentage).
Alexei Yemelin was a third round draft pick by the Canadiens in 2004, and after a long courtship he was signed to a 1-year deal with the hope that the 6-foot-2, 223 lbs. blueliner can be a physical presence.
With the healthy returns (and re-signings) of defensemen Josh Gorges(notes) and Andrei Markov, James Wisniewski(notes) (6-year, $33 million with Columbus) and Roman Hamrlik(notes) (2-year, $7 million with Washington) found themselves on the move out of Montreal.
Another blueline defection saw Brent Sopel(notes), acquired in February along with Nigel Dawes(notes) for Ben Maxwell(notes) and fourth-round draft pick, head to the KHL, inking a 2-year deal with Metallurg Novokuznetsk.
At forward ... Of the bottom eight teams in the NHL in goals scored, the Canadiens (213) were one of only two to make the playoffs (Los Angeles being the other). Only Tomas Plekanec(notes) (22), Brian Gionta(notes) (29) and Andrei Kostitsyn(notes) (20) scored more than 20 goals last season. Even strength was not where the bulk of Montreal's scoring came from as they finished 26th in the NHL with 137 5-on-5 goals.
The addition of Erik Cole will provide some offensive support for Plekanec, Gionta and Mike Cammalleri.
In April, Scott Gomez, coming off his worst season as a pro (7 goals, 38 points), promised to be better:
I was awful and I let the guys down," Gomez told reporters at the team's postmortem. "There's no one more embarrassed than me. … If I had pulled my weight, who knows? I didn't. I'll be the first to look my teammates in the eye and say it. It won't happen again. It can't. It just won't."
Gomez quickly became an albatross in New York with the Rangers, and in a hockey-mad city like Montreal, the patience has already worn thin. And he's right, "it can't" happen again.
Despite being unhappy with his ice time last season, Andrei Kostitsyn needs to put aside his differences with Jacques Martin and improve on his 20-goal, 45-point season. Entering the final year of his deal, Kostitsyn scored in bunches then disappeared in bunches last season. The addition of Cole makes his inclusion in the Habs' top two lines even tougher.
Max Pacioretty put up 14-goals and 24 points in only 37 games last season before the Chara hit. He should be ready to start the season and if he can pick up where he left off in March, his production will be welcomed over an 82-game schedule.
On defense ... The power play was a bright spot connecting at a 19.7-percent clip and that should only improve with the return of Andrei Markov to the lineup. P.K. Subban took on the role of leader of the power play and ended up with a team-high nine goals in Markov's absence.
Markov isn't the only blueliner returning from injury. Josh Gorges will return after missing the final four months of the season with a knee injury.
A defense that was missing two of its best players for most of the season still managed to finish eighth in the NHL. Healthy returns should keep the Habs' defensive success in the top-10 once again.
In goal ... When Gauthier traded Jaroslav Halak(notes) in June 2010, it was a weight off the shoulders of Carey Price. No longer would he have to preoccupy himself with competing against a teammate for the No. 1 job in goal; instead he could focus on his play and become a leader on the Canadiens. Price's play last year did that and much more with his 38 wins (tied with Roberto Luongo(notes) as league leader), 2.35 goals-against average, .923 save-percentage and eight shutouts, becoming Montreal's backbone last season.
With the lack of an upgrade in his backup with Peter Budaj, Price figures to once again take on a heavy workload unless the former Colorado Avalanche netminder proves himself to be capable of spelling the 24-year old as Montreal chases a playoff spot in the East.
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Jacques Martin will have two new right hand men behind the Habs' bench in Randy Cunneyworth and Randy Ladouceur after Kirk Muller's departure to take the head coaching gig with Milwaukee of the AHL. Despite the notion of Martin being a big defensive-minded coach, the Canadiens shot totals increased from his first season behind the bench in 2009-10 from 28.6 to 31.7 per game, good enough for ninth in the NHL.
Gauthier enters the season with just under $4 million to play with if tinkering is needed. Of course, with seven unrestricted and six restricted free agents coming in July 2012, the biggest name in need of a raise will be Carey Price and if he can repeat his numbers from last season, it's going to be a very rich contract.
Not only did David Desharnais play double digit minutes for Montreal in the playoffs, he spent some valuable time on a penalty kill unit that didn't allow a goal on 21 opportunities. Despite his small stature (5-foot-7, 180 lbs.), he's capable of playing wing even though he's a natural center. That flexibility could prove valuable to him if he's to find a permanent spot in the Canadiens' lineup
This one is too easy, but it's too hard to predict a Scott Gomez turnaround. His production has steadily dropped since he left the New Jersey Devils and so has his effectiveness in the faceoff dot steadily dropping from 52.2-percent in 2006-07 to 48-percent last season.
Price's health and play are the biggest factors in how far Montreal goes this season. You have to feel confident about Price as he heads into a contract year, but any drop in his output will jeopardize Montreal's playoff hopes.
There's no reason to believe that what Price did last season was a fluke. Still just 24-years old and coming into his own, Price has silenced his critics and should continue his rise as an elite NHL goaltender. But how much of this season will he be needed to carry once again? With some healthy returns to the lineup this season, the Habs may not be ready to overtake the Boston Bruins in the Northeast Division, but they should find themselves in one of the bottom playoff spots in the Eastern Conference yet again.