ON THE DECLINE: Jaroslav Spacek
You know the story with these Montreal Canadiens.
Small and fast up front, often too hurt on the blue line, great power play, trouble scoring goals at even strength.
A team capable of surprising in the playoffs, having gone to the conference final two years ago and taking the Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins to overtime of the seventh game in the opening round last spring.
Maybe things change a bit for the better this season.
As far as being small up front, general manager Pierre Gauthier went out and signed power forward Erik Cole from the Carolina Hurricanes. He had 26 goals last season for the ĎCanes and was 10th among NHL forwards in hits. Along with Max Pacioretty, who was really coming into his own until that hit by Bostonís Zdeno Chara (11 goals in the 20 games previous to being injured March 8), the Canadiens might actually now have some legitimate size on their first two lines. Cole could line up with Tomas Plekanec and Mike Cammalleri, while Pacioretty worked well last season with captain Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez.
The Canadiens gave the Bruins all they could handle without Pacioretty and top defencemen Andrei Markov and Josh Gorges, the latter two since recovered from knee injuries. Goaltender Carey Price took a big step toward becoming an elite goaltender; now consistency is his challenge.
With the Cole signing and a clean bill of health for the key injured, this Canadiens team looks to be a little better than last year. But so are some other teams in the East, which means making the playoffs still isnít a given.
Scott Gomez. Seven goals. Really? Despite having a decent group of top six forwards, the performance of Gomez, with his $7.3-million cap hit a season, was and remains one of the big sore points for fans in Montreal and rightly so. Gomez said all the right things after last season, but it remains to be seen if he can raise his play or become an issue again this season. With the addition of some size in Cole and the apparent healthy return of Pacioretty from that hit by Chara last season, the Habs finally have a little bit of size up front to go with the skill of Gionta, Cammalleri and Plekanec (who remains one of the most underrated players in the NHL). There isnít a superstar in this group, but they should score enough goals to make this a playoff team. The frustrating Andrei Kostitsyn, blessed with a legitimate power-forward skill set but loathe to use it on a consistent basis, is in a contract year so he might just be motivated enough to bring it more often this season. He could challenge for a top-six forward spot or give the Habs a great threat on their third line.
Answer: Andrei Markov. Question: Name the No. 1 defenceman the Montreal Canadiens need to stay healthy this season? After playing just seven games and missing the rest of the season with his second major knee injury, Markovís status will go a long way toward determining the effectiveness of this group. The return of gritty Josh Gorges, who missed half the year with a knee problem, will be a boost, too, because heís a positive presence in the dressing room. P.K. Subban emerged as a bona fide star last season and veteran Hal Gill, who keeps Subban in line, will be back for another season.
Yannick Weber, Jaroslav Spacek and rookie Alexei Yemelin round out a strong blue line - if it can stay healthy.
Carey Price, after playoff hero Jaroslav Halak had been traded during the summer of 2010, started with a poor performance in his first pre-season game a year ago and told everybody to chill. He then got hot. Price posted a league-leading 38 wins last season while facing the second-most shots in the NHL (2,147). He was seventh in save percentage (.923), 10th in goals-against average (2.35) and third in shutouts with eight. He emerged as a solid No. 1 goaltender. The Canadiens will need nothing less than the same performance - or even better - from the 24-year-old if they are going to be a playoff team again this season. Peter Budaj was signed during the summer as Priceís backup, replacing Alex Auld. Budaj, 29, is coming off a less-than-mediocre year with the Colorado Avalanche, but should be a capable backup for the Habs. He wonít be called upon too often. Everybody knows now this is Priceís team.
Canadiens coach Jacques Martin is all about the process, as he repeatedly says in his daily meetings with the media. Martin has helped the Canadiens become a middle-of-the pack team in the Eastern Conference as he enters his third year behind the bench. He has won four rounds in the playoffs in his two years as coach, which is a pretty decent showing for a guy who had a reputation for regular-season success but post-season underachieving (see Senators, Ottawa). Perry Pearn is back as his No. 1 assistant, but popular Kirk Muller has moved on to get some head coaching experience in the AHL.
Heís replaced by Randy Cunneyworth, who was immensely respected by his teammates when he was a player and graduates from the AHL where he was the coach of the Habs farm club in Hamilton. Martinís message seems to be still finding an audience.
Price and Subban took huge steps forward last season toward becoming legitimate stars. In Montreal, where the spotlight is white hot and the city has a tendency to devour its hockey young, it will be interesting to see if they can continue to improve. In Priceís case, he seemed to find a new maturity and sang froide that helped him. Subban seems to feed off the energy in Montreal and doesnít seem to be bothered by the criticism directed at him by opponents, whom he drives crazy with his self-assured attitude and sometimes over-the-top goal celebrations.
It has been a while since the Habs had some bona fide young stars who can handle playing in hockeyís Mecca. The Habs canít afford to have either of their young stars backslide.