In a year where some key Canadiens under-performed or were injured, Montreal was able to take the Stanley Cup-winning Bruins to a seventh game in the first round of the playoffs. However, thatís not good enough. A sixth-place finish and a spot in the playoffs can suffice for some teams, but not in Montreal, where the Stanley Cup drought extended to an 18th consecutive season after elimination by a hated rival. They can largely thank Carey Price -- who was every bit the goalie the other Vezina finalists were -- for taking them as far as they got. Backstopping the NHLís 22nd-ranked team in goal scoring, Price had little room for error. While the team should be better offensively in 2011-12, it will still rely heavily on Price.
Montreal was, and still is, small on the front line. In addition to some reliable goal scoring, the Habs could also use a boost of size and grit. To that end, the Canadiens signed Erik Cole as a free agent away from the Hurricanes. Cole leaves his Carolina comfort zone Ė of his nine NHL seasons, eight-plus have been spent in the 919 area code Ė for the bright lights of hockeyís hottest hot bed. And theyíll get a presumed full season of health from Max Pacioretty. He was called up in December and gave a much-needed jolt to the Gomez/Brian Gionta line before suffering a neck and head injury in the highly publicized incident with Bostonís Zdeno Chara in March.
Health will be the big question on the blue line. Andrei Markov has been one of the leagueís best offensive blueliners, but heís coming off his second major knee surgery and has been limited to just 52 games the past two seasons. The Canadiens must feel comfortable with his rehabilitation because they signed him to a three-year deal in the offseason. And Josh Gorges missed over half of last season with a knee injury that required reconstructive surgery. These are two top-four defenders the Canadiens are hoping can give them full seasons. This will be an area of concern.
Armed with one of the NHLís better goalies in Price, the Habs have enough talent up front to qualify for the postseason again, but theyíll need to get some of their top-six forwards contributing as expected. Guys like Scott Gomez and Michael Cammalleri underperformed last season and their return to previous benchmarks will help take Montreal deeper.
THE BIG GUNS
Tomas Plekanec (C): Plekanec led the Canadiens in scoring for the second straight season and was Montrealís most consistent forward from October to April. If the Habs can get rebound performances from some of their top-six guys, Plekanec should do better than his 57 points in 2010-11. Heíll open the season centering a line with Cole and Cammalleri.
Brian Gionta (RW): The 48 goals Gionta pocketed in 2005-06 may be an outlier, but the Habsí captain has been an automatic 20-goal guy for seven straight seasons. He led Montreal for a second straight season with 29 goals in 2010-11, though it was largely considered a sub-par year for Gionta. Thereís a notion out there that Gionta was held down by the poor play of linemate Gomez, but the two will likely remain on the same line this coming season. For a small player, he plays hard and isnít afraid to put his body in the high-traffic areas. With a full season of Pacioretty as a scoring threat on the left wing and an elevation in Gomezí play, Gionta could break the 30-goal mark.
Michael Cammalleri (RW): Cammalleri had a second consecutive season shortened by injury, playing just 67 games in 2010-11. It was also another season where he didnít produce the type of scoring punch (19 goals) the Canadiens expected of him when they gave him a five-year deal in 2009. Despite the missed time, he finished second on the team in scoring (47 points), which should tell us a little something about Montrealís offense. He remains one of Montrealís top forwards and will see time on the power play. With improvements offensively Ė the addition of Cole being one of them Ė and a full season of health, Cammalleri will increase his point total.
Erik Cole (LW): The Canadiens signed Cole to a four-year deal in the offseason, confident with the 32-year-old winger playing a full season after an upper-body injury wiped out half of his 2009-10 season. An established NHL goal scorer, Cole scored 26 times for the Hurricanes last season while connecting with the back of the net on 13 percent of his shots. The Canadiens could use another threat and Cole should find himself on one of the top lines, likely with Plekanec and Cammalleri.
ON THE RISE
Max Pacioretty (LW): Pacioretty appears to have recovered from the serious injury he suffered in a collision with Bostonís Zdeno Chara in March that left him with a cracked vertebrae and concussion. The 22-year-old forward was called up in December and produced 24 points (14 goals, 10 assists) in 37 games before the injury. The Habs gave him a two-year deal this past summer and are penciling in MaxPac for duty on one of the top lines. Pacioretty has good size and is physical on the wing, and should be a top goal scorer for Montreal with ample time on the power play -- seven of his 14 goals last season were with a man advantage. Thereís real potential here for a breakout season.
David Desharnais (C): The 24-year-old Desharnais played significant minutes for Montreal in 2010-11, registering eight goals and 22 points in 43 games. Desharnais showed an ability to create offensive chances from any line, skating with various combinations, and was a trusted man on faceoffs. He played well enough to earn more than the 12:52 of ice time he averaged, but his size works against him. Montreal coach Jacques Martin was comfortable using him on both special teams units and had him with the second line at times, but he mostly skated on the fourth line. With a full season at the parent club and continued use on the power play (four PPG last year), Desharnais could push the 20-goal mark.
TWO TO AVOID
Andrei Kostitsyn (LW): Kostitsyn brings with him the burden of expectations and hasnít fulfilled the promise he showed in his 53-point season in 2007-08. He was pretty inconsistent last season, but played well in the final months and into the playoffs, and was re-signed to a one-year deal in the offseason. Unfortunately, Kostitsyn isnít a happy camper in Montreal and voiced his displeasure with coach Jacques Martin to a Belorussian Web site in the offseason. In particular, Kostitsyn was not happy being moved from the top six. Ironically, it was when he skated with third-line center Lars Eller that Kostitsyn started producing more consistently. Itís very likely the player and coach will put that all behind them, but the fact remains Kostitsyn is not happy and heís likely to start the season on the third line.
Lars Eller (C): Eller had offseason shoulder surgery and his availability for the start of training camp is in jeopardy because of it. If Eller is healthy, heíll likely center the third line where he developed a bit of chemistry with Kostitsyn, though overall he had a desultory 2010-11 season. Heís got decent size, good hockey sense and is at his best setting up others. A little more experience ought to bring out his skills. Eller could emerge as a two-way forward with top-six potential, but needs to earn more trust from coach Jacques Martin.
Danny Kristo (RW): Kristo will return to the University of North Dakota for his junior season. The 21-year-old forward was drafted in the second round of the 2008 draft and immediately showcased his developing offensive skills during his freshman year. He slumped to begin his sophomore year, but started coming around midseason when he suffered an embarrassing injury that resulted in frostbite to his toes after he lost a shoe while walking to his girlfriend's apartment on the UND campus. He's on the small side, but plays with a two-way sensibility and isn't afraid to engage.
Louis Leblanc (C): Leblanc had a successful entry to the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in 2010-11 after one year of college hockey at Harvard University, registering 58 points (26 goals) in 51 games for the Montreal Juniors. This, despite suffering a shoulder injury in November that he played with for the rest of the season. The injury required surgery in the offseason and was more serious than first thought. He's facing 4-to-6 months of rehab. He looks ticketed for the QMJHL again this year. The 20-year-old forward plays a two-way game and is comfortable in open ice or along the boards.
Aaron Palushaj (RW): Palushaj had a brief three-game stint with Montreal -- his NHL debut -- after resurrecting his prospect cache in 2010-11. He had 57 points (22 goals) with a plus-22 in 68 games for the Hamilton Bulldogs, and then went on to average a point per game in 19 playoff games. Palushaj possesses a good hockey IQ, plays a well-rounded game, and is comfortable with the puck. Frankly, we still don't know why the Blues gave up on him so quickly after an underwhelming 2009-10 season.
Jarred Tinordi (D): Tinordi, the Canadiens' first-round draft pick in the 2010 draft, made the jump from the United States U-18 team to the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League, after turning down a scholarship to Notre Dame. The 19-year-old is an imposing figure on the blue line, standing 6-6 and towering over forwards, though he could stand to add some bulk. He's still learning the offensive side of the position -- Tinordi will play on the power play for London this year -- but he's all business on the defensive side.