Every now and then, a franchise hits rock bottom. Even the most respected franchise in a sport can run afoul. That's where the Canadiens find themselves entering the season after a last-place finish in the Eastern Conference in 2011-12. The positive spin is that there's only one way to go from last place. After a coaching change blew up in its face, ownership finally admitted to a problem, checked itself into rehab, and hired a new general manager. Marc Bergevin was lured away from the Blackhawks to shepherd the NHL's premier brand back to its rightful spot. His first order of business was to hire a new head coach, which turned out to be an old head coach. Michel Therrien, who coached Montreal for parts of three seasons between 2000 and 2003, returns on a three-year contract.
Therrien will have limited assets. The Canadiens have one good line and an elite goalie in Carey Price. The coach also inherits P.K. Subban, a talented defenseman who still hasn't quite put it all together. Therrien, who's last coaching job was in Pittsburgh, had a hand in the transition of Kris Letang from forward to the one of the NHL's better scoring defensemen. Beyond that, Therrien will have to coach up some youngsters, wring some value from a few under-performing forwards, and hope for Andrei Markov's knee to hold up for the season.
In a word, the outlook for Montreal is "stuck" -- stuck with an impotent offense, stuck with undersized forwards, and stuck with overvalued contracts. Franchises in transition don't turn around overnight. It will be at least one year before we see the Rouge, Blanc et Bleu playing postseason hockey -- The Hockey News predicts them for 13th place in the East, ahead of only Winnipeg and the New York Islanders. The Canadiens may not be fun to follow in real life, but the unsettled nature of its lineup can spawn some fantasy surprises.
THE BIG GUNS
Max Pacioretty (LW): Pacioretty overcame a scary injury in 2010-11 to lead the Canadiens in scoring last season with 33 goals and 65 points in 79 contests. The one constant for head coach Jacques Martin or his non-Francophone replacement, Randy Cunneyworth, was the first line production from Pacioretty, David Desharnais and Erik Cole. Pacioretty and Desharnais have been together since their days in AHL Hamilton and continue to mix well. Pacioretty will remain on the left wing of the first line and is part of Montreal's young core. In leagues that reward shots on goal, Pacioretty carries more value than just the 30-plus goals most owners are expecting.
Eric Cole (RW): Cole started his first season in Montreal slowly, posting just four points in the first 11 games, but, once he got comfortable, he was the club's best player from November through to April. Cole led the team in goals (35), was second in points (61) and was a prototypical power forward, leading all Montreal forwards in hits. The veteran easily meshed with younger stars David Desharnais and Max Pacioretty to form Montreal's top line. New head coach Michel Therrien would be nuts to break up that productive unit.
Carey Price (C): After sorting out the organization's leadership, the Canadiens were quick to extend Price a six-year contract. Along with P.K. Subban and Max Pacioretty, Price is part of the young core around which the franchise is building. The British Columbia native posted good numbers in 65 games last season with a 26-28-11 record and decent peripheral stats; given Montreal's anemic offense, Price really needed to be dominant every night, as his 11 losses in overtime or a shootout indicate. His record and stats are not necessarily an indictment of Price's ability, but more a barometer of the talent in front of him. This same formula could repeat itself this coming season, as the Canadiens' offense isn't going to steal many games, so Price will need to be good each and every start.
ON THE RISE
P.K. Subban (D): Subban, a restricted free agent entering the summer, and the Canadiens are eventually going to work out a deal. Whatever the parameters of that deal may be, it will be in place and Subban will be among the top four defensemen on the roster. The growing pains continued for Subban in 2011-12, but along with the pain, came the growth. He was a plus-9 last season, a 17-goal swing from his minus-8 the season before -- a sign that he was giving more thought to being a complete defenseman. There may continue to be some boneheaded plays, but Subban also brings the heavy shot and is a presence on the team's power play -- five of his seven goals came on the man advantage. Few young defenders are under as much scrutiny as Subban, but his ability to contribute in scoring, penalty minutes and hits make the talented youngster a potential star in most leagues.
Lars Eller (C): Eller experienced some growth in his game last season and finished with career highs in goals and assists. After moving him around the season before, he primarily centered the Habs' third line, which is what he'll be doing to start the upcoming season. There isn't enough firepower on the Canadiens roster to maintain three offensive lines, so temper any breakout expectations for Eller, but we should see him continue to play major minutes with an opportunity to increase his offense.
David Desharnais (C): Desharnais continued his development with Montreal, earning a larger and larger role as the season wore on. He eventually dislodged Tomas Plekanec as the as the center on the first line, showing good chemistry with team-leading goal scorers Max Pacioretty and Erik Cole. Desharnais is a trusted player, who takes faceoffs and plays on both special teams units; his 17 assists and 20 points on the power play led the team. Head coach Michel Therrien will keep the top line together to open the season but there will be a top-six spot for Desharnais should the coach feel the need to restructure his lines.
TWO TO WATCH
Louis Leblanc (C): Leblanc got a sniff of the NHL as a 20-year-old rookie last season, skating mostly on the third and fourth line. He showed some of the offense that was on display in juniors, but the 2011-12 Canadiens weren't an ideal situation for a young prospect to thrive. There's an opportunity for him to grab a starting wing spot this year, possibly as high as the second line after we learned that Rene Bourque will miss the early part of the season. Leblanc showed more combativeness than we expected and made an impression on an often listless squad. There's some sleeper potential here, particularly if he can get on a line with established veterans like Tomas Plekanec and Brian Gionta.
Aaron Palushaj (RW): Palushaj, at best, will fill out the fourth line for Montreal this coming season. He's been productive for Hamilton, with 102 points in 121 AHL games over the last two years, but that success didn't translate in his 38-game stint with the big club in last season. If the Canadiens decide to ride some younger players as the season wears on, Palushaj has an opportunity for more minutes.
Rene Bourque (RW): First and foremost, health will be an issue. Bourque underwent abdominal surgery in late August and is expected to miss the early part of the season -- possibly to return December. Beyond the health concerns, Bourque showed the Canadiens very little after being acquired from Calgary in a mid-season exchange of bad contracts. In 38 games with Montreal, Bourque was a minus-16 with five goals and eight total points. With three years left on his deal and now an injury question, the Canadiens will have a hard time finding a taker for Bourque, so he'll be around this season. New head coach Michel Therrien would really like the two-time 27-goal scorer to take command of a wing spot on the second line when he returns, but Bourque could land as a third-line winger or worse. The Canadiens may owe him a lot of money, but Therrien owes him nothing. Coming off a season as sour as 2011-12 was for the franchise, the Canadiens don't have the luxury of waiting for Bourque to produce. Therrien won't hesitate to allot more minutes to a younger forward should Bourque struggle in the fall.
Brian Gionta (RW): Gionta missed more than half of the 2011-12 season after he underwent surgery to repair a torn biceps. A return to full health is expected and he'll skate as the second line right wing alongside center Tomas Plekanec and a to-be-determined left winger. You can typically pencil in Gionta for a 20-20 campaign, but he's approaching his 34-year-old season and we always worry about injuries to smaller-stature guys like Gionta, especially ones that like to initiate contact the way Gionta does.
HOT (OR NOT?)
Nathan Beaulieu (D): Beaulieu, Montreal's first-round draft pick in the 2011 draft, is an offensively polished defenseman, who started to show three-zone presence last season with his junior team. He scored 52 points (11 goals, 41 assists) with 100 penalty minutes in 53 games for the St. John's Sea Dogs of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. He's eligible for another season at the junior level, but we expect the organization to place him in the AHL with the Hamilton Bulldogs. Look for Beaulieu to be with the major league team in 2013.
Danny Kristo (RW): Kristo followed up a sub-par sophomore season to have the best season of his three-year career at the University of North Dakota. He set career highs in goals (19), assists (team-leading 26) and points (45) in 42 games for the Fighting Sioux. He could stand to bulk up a bit and needs to work on his defense. Kristo announced that he's returning to UND for his senior season.
Brendan Gallagher (RW): Gallagher had another productive season with the junior Vancouver Giants of the Western Hockey League. He scored 77 points (41 goals, 36 assists) in 54 games, giving him 280 points in 244 games over four seasons with the Giants. Gallagher has finished up his junior eligibility and will move onto the Canadiens' organization. While a ticket to AHL Hamilton is the most likely outcome for Gallagher, he made quite an impression within the organization during last year's training camp and hung around on Montreal's roster until the final days of preseason.
Alex Galchenyuk (C): The third overall pick in this past June's draft, Galchenyuk played just two games for the OHL's Sarnia Sting last year due to a knee injury, but the talented pivot snagged 31 goals and 83 points two seasons ago in the OHL. Despite the knee injury and missed development time, the Canadiens obviously felt comfortable selecting the center with a high upside. He'll turn 19 in February, but did sign a three-year entry level contract with the Habs in July. Odds are, Montreal will give him at least a piece of the requisite 10-game look that players still in juniors are allowed, but he's definitely a player worth remembering when he lands at the NHL level. He's not a natural goal scorer, but with his ability to make plays, Galchenyuk is projected to be a No. 1 center in the NHL.