Yes, indeed, despite the promise of impending labor Armageddon and a prolonged work-stoppage, your friends at Puck Daddy are previewing the 2012-13 NHL season (whenever the heck it starts). Why? Because this is the most important election in the history of all-time ever, and you need to know the candidates — like the Montreal Canadiens.
The Montreal Canadiens were one fortunate bounce of a puck away from eliminating the eventual Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins during their 7-game opening round playoff series in 2011. Nathan Horton put an end to the Habs' season in overtime of Game 7 and 12 months later it was looking like a return trip to the postseason wouldn't be coming for awhile.
The season that followed was one of change and transition. A slow start eventually cost head coach Jacques Martin his job. His replacement, Randy Cunneyworth, found himself in the middle of a language dispute while holding the "interim" title. In January, a frustrated Mike Cammalleri spoke out and was dealt to Calgary a day later. GM Pierre Gauthier was finally let go, along with special advisor Bob Gainey, at the end of March; and the Canadiens would finish dead last in the Eastern Conference with their lowest point total in almost a decade.
But out with the old and in with the new. Rookie General Manager Marc Bergevin was hired in May and he decided to bring back head coach Michel Therrien, who stood behind the Montreal bench for two and a half seasons at the beginning of the 2000s. Bergevin also brought in Rick Dudley as assistant GM and retired NHLers Donald Audette and John Madden (scouting), Patrice Brisbois (player development coach), Martin LaPointe (director of player development), Sylvain Lefebvre (AHL head coach), and Scott Mellanby (director of player personnel) to fill various roles in the organization.
There was more turnover in the executive offices than on the roster, but a cleaning of house was needed in Montreal. Bergevin did invest in the Habs' future by drafting Alex Galchenyuk No. 3 overall at the NHL Draft in June and signing Carey Price (six years, $39 million) and Max Pacioretty (six years, $27 million) to extensions. Defenseman P.K. Subban, a restricted free agent, remains unsigned until the lockout ends, but he should join that list soon after things are resolved.
With a clean slate, the only direction for the Habs to go is up. The question is how big of an immediate step in the right direction will they take this season?
"Now 516 days since our last playoff game... still less than the Maple Leafs."
The on-ice product won't feature many changes from last season. Colby Armstrong and Brandon Prust were brought in to provide depth and toughness up front. Armstrong only played 70 with the Toronto Maple Leafs over the past two seasons and has been inconsistent offensively throughout his career. Prust parlayed two strong seasons (18 goals, 46 points, 316 PIMs, 164 games) with the New York Rangers into a 4-year, $10 million deal.
Francis Bouillon will replace the departed (and still unsigned) Chris Campoli in the back. He'll be a veteran presence while Yannick Weber, Alexei Emelin and Raphael Diaz continue to find their way in the NHL.
At forward … Montreal's top three scorers all came from their first line, who each had career seasons in 2011-12. In his fourth year, Max Pacioretty broke out offensively with a 33-goal, 65 point campaign and earned that long extension. David Desharnais will be an RFA next summer and putting up another 60-plus point season will do his bank account some good. Veteran Erik Cole left Carolina to sign a big money deal with the Habs last summer and was worth the investment with 35 goals and 61 points.
All was well and good on the top line, but further down the lineup is where the production slowed. Just three other Montreal forwards finished with double digit goals (two if you take away Rene Bourque's five after being deal from Calgary) and other than the top three, only Tomas Plekanec (52 points) finished with more than 28 points on the season.
Lars Eller took a nice step forward with 16 goals, including a 4-goal night versus Winnipeg, but it'll be vital for him, Bourque, Plekanec and a healthy Brian Gionta (31 games last season) to pick up the slack. What of Scott Gomez? Only two more seasons left at a $7.357 cap hit. So, there's that to look forward to.
The bottom six will be tough to play against and the Montreal penalty kill (2nd overall, 88.6 per cent) again be strong. Prust and Travis Moen should have no problems getting under opponents' skins.
On defense … Of all non-playoff teams, Montreal finished with the lowest number of goals allowed (2.61 per game, 11th overall) and that was without Andrei Markov for 75 games. The Russian defenseman has undergone two knee surgeries in the past two years and played a total of 20 games for the Habs. When healthy, Markov provides production from the blueline and is the powerplay quarterback. P.K. Subban, while still maturing, led the Canadiens defense with seven goals and 31 points. Tomas Kaberle was acquired in December and had 22 points in 43 games with the Canadiens. Markov's return will be a boost, but given his recent history, it's better to allow his comeback be a surprise than expect him back.
In goal … Carey Price is the face of the franchise and the barometer for the team's success. After battling Jaroslav Halak in 2009-10, Price has had the reigns all to himself the past two seasons and saw his numbers rise dramatically and fall slowly. A new contract no competition from Peter Budaj once again, Price will have to again wins some games by himself and hope that a 19-ranked offense can bail him out on nights when he's off.
Canadiens fans' hands were actually going up last season because they were just surrendering.
Whenever Marc Bergevin leaves the Canadiens, he can say he did it his way: bringing in his own people and reshaping a front office that needed an overhauling. Missing the playoffs has been something over the past decade that's occurred too often compared to the rich history of the organization. Bergevin has a plan to bring the Canadiens back to hallowed graces in the hockey world, it just might take a little bit of time.
Michel Therrien comes back to Montreal a much wiser coach. He arrived in 2000 at age 37 as a rookie. He returns with 462 NHL games under his belt, including an appearance in the 2008 Stanley Cup Final with Pittsburgh. Therrien knows the pressure that exists coaching the Canadiens and that will be to his advantage in his second tenure with the club.
The Canadiens will go as far as Carey Price will take them. After a career season in 2010-11, his numbers took a slight step back last season. Things ended prematurely after suffering a concussion in March, but when healthy can be one of the league's best. He signed a long-term extension over the summer and if Montreal is to make a quick turnaround from 15th in the East, it will begin with Price's play in goal.
In his first full NHL season David Desharnais made his presence known with a 60-point campaign. The 26-year old was helped by his linemates, Cole and Pacioretty, and a 16.3 per cent shooting percentage. With very little change to the lineup, it'll be up to his top line again to provide production, with Desharnais the center of it all.
Rene Bourque was a consistent 20-goal scorer in Calgary, but after coming over to the Canadiens in January he struggled posting just five goals in 38 games, including one in his last 20. It's vital for the success of the Habs for him to regain his scoring form that he had with the Flames.
"Hockey. A beautiful game.
"The Montreal Canadiens sweater. Perhaps its most beautiful jersey.
"And yet there are those who choose to sully perfect with ... a turtleneck.
"Spare us Tomas Plekanec. It's not that cold and you're not Alexei Yashin."
It can't really get worse for the Canadiens. Despite returning mostly the same roster from 2011-12, a healthy one will show improvement as Montreal led the NHL with 440 man-games lost to injury. Contributions from the depth up front will help the offense. A healthy Markov will improve the defense. The Carey Price from 2011-12 returning to form will help the goals against. Michel Therrien will have his hands full as he returns as head coach, but he's shown a history of taking teams and improving them within a year.