Movin' on down?

CHRIS STEVENSON -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:25 AM ET

How does a team that didn't make the playoffs last year and did nothing to improve in the off-season keep up?

Other Eastern Conference teams like the Philadelphia Flyers, Washington Capitals and Florida Panthers -- even the Toronto Maple Leafs, for crying out loud -- who were all on the outside looking in with the Montreal Canadiens when the playoffs started last spring, have signed significant players.

The Habs brought back gimpy Patrice Brisebois, who was booed out of the town the last time around.

The Canadiens started well last year and had the best power play in the league, but lost quarterback/defenceman Sheldon Souray to the Edmonton Oilers as a free agent. His cannon from the point accounted for an NHL-record 19 of the Habs' 86 goals with the man-advantage.

He has been replaced by veteran Roman Hamrlik, who came over from the Calgary Flames, a guy whose best years are behind him.

The Habs also said goodbye to Radek Bonk and Mike Johnson and replaced them with Bryan Smolinski and Tom Kostopoulos. ("Tom Kost-who-poulous?" Habs fans are asking). Can you say treading water?

The key will be the kids, assuming Koivu himself can turn in another career year, forward Alexei Kovalev shows up for more than half the games and goaltender Cristobal Huet's groin holds up.

After failing to land any big-name free agents, any improvement this year is going to have to come from the growth of youngsters like Christopher Higgins, Michael Ryder, Mike Komisarek, Tomas Plekanec, Maxim Lapierre, Andrei Kostitsyn and Guillaume Latendresse.

Defenceman Andrei Markov, signed to a big, new deal last summer, will be under a lot of pressure to try and make up for the loss of Souray's offence.

Goaltending prospect Carey Price, who has this city abuzz, had an amazing year last season, leading Canada to gold at the world juniors and Hamiltonto the AHL title, but he is still the goalie of the future.

Like the other bubble teams, the Canadiens will need just about everything to go right to avoid missing the playoffs for the sixth time in the last nine years.


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