After a last-place finish tarnished the franchise, the brand, and more than a few reputations, Montreal's goals entering 2012-13 were simple: improve the team's competitiveness while generating excitement and goodwill among the fan base again. An appearance in the postseason was not expected for a team with so many needs, but the Canadiens went from worst to almost-first, finishing second in the Eastern Conference behind Pittsburgh. And they were a surprisingly fourth in the NHL with 3.04 goals per game – scoring a half-goal per game more than the squirt-gun offense of the previous season.
One decision had a hand in meeting the team's primary objectives, and then some. By having young-blood prospects Brendan Gallagher and Alex Galchenyuk on the Opening Night roster, the Canadiens not only energized the region, but the young Gallys made the Habs more competitive and more productive offensively, scoring 24 goals and 55 points between them. Their contributions along with a full season of Andrei Markov and P.K. Subban's development allowed the Canadiens to survive a down year from goalie Carey Price.
Alas, the rookies did nothing to give the Canadiens a more physical profile, something that presented itself loud and clear in the first-round playoff loss to the Senators. For all its achievements in 2012-13, Montreal was still a smallish team of quick skaters susceptible to heavy teams. Adding Brandon Prust last offseason was a step in the physical direction. And Alexei Emelin is a hitter, but the only one of note on the blue line. This offseason, the addition of Danny Briere aside, the Canadiens added pieces that could make them a tougher out. George Parros and Douglas Murray join Montreal to address its reputation as a skilled team, but unable to leave scars on opponents.
The Big Guns
Max Pacioretty (LW): Pacioretty led the Canadiens with 39 points in 44 games and tied for the team lead with 15 goals, making him the Canadiens' most prolific goal-scorer and point-getter the past two seasons. He was part of the first line that included David Desharnais and Erik Cole, a unit that Montreal could not live without in 2011-12. However, Cole look disinterested in his second season with the Canadiens and Desharnais was less effective, resulting in an early-season goal-scoring slumber for Pacioretty. Head coach Michel Therrien eventually found the right combination and MaxPac took off. He's a resilient player that plays through injuries and gets his shots on goal. He'll return as the team's top left winger and, with a developing core of offensive talent around him, Pacioretty should push for a 30-goal season.
P.K. Subban (D): Subban's 2012-13 season began with a six-game contract holdout and ended with him second on the team at 38 points and a plus-12 rating. He was a restricted free agent when the holdout began, so the team had the leverage, but Camp Subban was hoping for public opinion to swing his way. When Montreal got off to a good start, leverage remained with the team and he signed a two-year deal, which was essentially a bridge deal before he cashes in after this coming season. He's growing as a defender while maintaining his impact offensively. There are still the brain cramps that crop up from time to time, but those are occurring less frequently. He'll be on the top defensive pairing while getting ample time on the power play.
Carey Price (G): Price appeared to be having a typical season, which is to say brilliant, until a bad stretch that lingered from March to April before he hurt his knee in the first-round playoff loss to Ottawa. The Price Wasn't Right when he allowed 66 goals with an .891 save percentage in 23 games over the final two months of the season. The fact that the Canadiens survived, and prospered, despite Price's underwhelming finish says much about the team around him. Two years ago, Price had to be magnificent every night. Now, while the Canadiens aren't an elite offensive team, there's a more potent lineup around and it's not all on him every night. He'll return as Montreal's No. 1 goalie.
On the Rise
Brendan Gallagher (RW): Gallagher began the season as the less heralded prospect to Alex Galchenyuk, but made the bigger impact of the two rookies for Montreal over the course of the 2012-13 season. He ended up skating on the first line and finished tied for the team lead in goals (15) with Max Pacioretty. He didn't get any bigger between his final junior season and rookie professional one, but that didn't stop the 5-foot-8 Gallagher from playing in the dirty areas and contributing some big goals as the direct result of his relentless work in the offensive zone. We suspect more ice time in his second season and expectations are raised.
Alex Galchenyuk (C): Galchenyuk, 19, scored 27 points in 48 games as a rookie in 2012-13. Having the high-prized prospect on the opening-night roster was a way for the Canadiens to excite the fan base before returning him to the juniors, but Galchenyuk showed enough and produced enough early on to show that he belonged in the NHL. There were many learning moments and some significant scoring droughts, but the experience will make the kid a better player this season. He'll be a top-nine forward to open the season with potential to move up.
Two to Watch
Lars Eller (C): Eller scored a career-high 30 points in 46 games in 2012-13, which is somewhat remarkable given that he played himself into a healthy scratch in January. An injury to Max Pacioretty got him back into the lineup after two games off and he never left. He skated mostly on the third line, but was moved around between wing and center and was a fill-in when a top-six forward was hurt. His postseason ended early with a concussion, so we'll need to keep an eye on that during training camp.
David Desharnais (RW): Desharnais took a step back in 2012-13, scoring just 28 points while finishing at minus-2 in 48 games for the Canadiens. He had been part of Montreal's only good line the season before when he scored 60 points, but the undersized center appeared overmatched at times, especially in the playoffs against the giants on Ottawa's blue line. Still, the Habs like him enough and re-signed him for another four seasons. DD's good on the dot and has a proven rapport with Max Pacioretty, the team's leading goal scorer the past two seasons, dating back to their time in the AHL. He'll return as a top-six center.
Brian Gionta (RW): Gionta rebounded from an injury-shortened 2011-12 to score 14 goals and 12 assists in 48 games for Montreal last season. He's entering the final year of his contract and, at 34, his skills are starting to diminish. And there are some young guys on the roster that have earned more ice time. Walking hand-in-hand with age is health. For the second straight season, Gionta underwent surgery on his biceps. He's expected to be ready for the start of the season. Gionta will have a spot on one of the top two lines, but don't be surprised if he's losing minutes to Alex Galchenyuk before long.
Rene Bourque (RW): Bourque went from likely buyout candidate to a top-6 stalwart early in the season before a concussion wiped out six weeks in the middle of the already shortened year. He finished with just 13 points in 27 games, but his biggest contributions came with his physical play, hard work at both ends of the ice, and an ability to draw penalties. It all earned him a promotion from the third line. With the Canadiens using both of their amnesty provisions (Scott Gomez, Tomas Kaberle), Bourque will be with the Canadiens to open the 2013-14 season. And while the club is happy with his efforts this past season, they would like to see a little more scoring pop from the winger.
Jarrod Tinordi (D): Tinordi made his NHL debut for Montreal during the 2012-13 season, finishing off the regular season and playing in all five of the team's playoff games against Ottawa. He held his own at the NHL level and gave us a glimpse into Montreal's blue line for years to come. He's never been a big offensive star on defense, so temper any expectations of that. At 6-foot-7, he overpowers opponents and protects the area around the net and in the corners. Alexei Emelin's knee injury will keep him off the opening night roster, so there's a spot for Tinordi when the Habs kick off the season. He'll likely split time as a sixth or seventh defenseman.
Nathan Beaulieu (D): Beaulieu, a first-round draft pick in 2011, had his first taste of the professional leagues in 2013, opening the season with the AHL Hamilton Bulldogs and getting a brief call up to Montreal. He had 31 points (7 goals, 24 assists) and was a minus-8 for the Bulldogs. Beaulieu's made strides defensively, but his improvement doesn't jump out at you as the Bulldogs were the worst team in the AHL. He's behind Jarrod Tinordi in the pipeline, but will be part of the Canadiens' future. He possesses smart offensive skills that make him a replacement for Andrei Markov as the quarterback on the power play.
Mike McCarron (RW): McCarron, 18, was Montreal's first-round pick in the 2013 draft. He's expected to become the Canadiens' next big power forward. He's a good character guy who plays heavy and has potential to develop offensively. He enjoys the high-traffic areas and has good hands near the net. He passed up a college offer (Western Michigan) to sign a three-year deal with the Canadiens and is expected to spend most of his time with London of the OHL in 2013-14.