By Dan Di Sciullo, NHL Editor
(Sports Network) - Considering the Montreal Canadiens finished last in the Eastern Conference in 2011-12, the club's return to the playoffs last season made the campaign a surprising success.
But, when you've won more Stanley Cup titles than any other franchise in NHL history, it's hard to impress the fan base with mere regular-season success.
Disappointment set in quickly when the Habs' magic disappeared once the postseason began. Despite heading into the playoffs as the second seed in the East, Montreal was bounced in just five games by Ottawa in the opening round, making the 2013 season less than satisfying for the passionate supporters of "Le Bleu, Blanc et Rouge."
All things considered, general manager Marc Bergevin did an excellent job getting the Canadiens back to the postseason a year after taking over the post following the disastrous reign of Pierre Gauthier.
The Canadiens boast a superstar defenseman in P.K. Subban and an extremely talented but frustratingly inconsistent goaltender in Carey Price. The offense can be dangerous at times, but the highly-skilled forward group also is lacking in size and capable of being shut down by more physical teams.
Montreal's road back to the postseason could prove difficult in the new iteration of the Atlantic Division, where the Habs will regularly face three of their Original Six foes -- Boston, Detroit and Toronto -- as well as last year's postseason nemesis, the Ottawa Senators. The division also features some teams who are down on their luck in Tampa Bay, Buffalo and Florida, but getting one of the Atlantic's three automatic playoff spots could prove difficult for the Canadiens in 2013-14.
FORWARDS - Bergevin and head coach Michel Therrien already had a stable of talented forwards before adding sniper Danny Briere to the mix over the summer and the Habs are hoping for a bounce-back season from the former Philadelphia Flyer.
The 35-year-old Briere, a Quebec native, famously snubbed the Canadiens in the summer of 2007, taking less money to join the Flyers as a free agent. His tenure in Philadelphia was marked by regular seasons of the good and bad variety, but the undersized forward always seemed to deliver in the playoffs.
Last year, Briere scored only six goals and 10 assists in 34 games for the Flyers and Philadelphia responded by buying out the remainder of his contract. The Canadiens finally lured him to Montreal with a two-year, $8 million deal after years of being booed as an opposing player for spurning the Habs.
Briere is a versatile forward who can play wing and center and it's unclear where Therrien will use him this season.
Montreal's line combinations are hardly set in stone, but the club has the makings of a dangerous top-six group. Therrien gets to choose his top-two lines from the likes of Briere, Max Pacioretty, Tomas Plekanec, Brian Gionta, Rene Bourque, Brendan Gallagher, Alex Galchenyuk and David Desharnais. The problem is five of those guys -- Briere, Desharnais, Gallagher, Gionta and Plekanec -- are under six-feet tall.
Pacioretty was the leading scorer for the Habs last season, tying the rookie Gallagher for the club lead in goals (15) while finishing with 39 total points in 44 games. However, the next-best scoring option for Montreal in 2013 was Subban, who, despite missing the first four games of the season due to a holdout, finished second on the team with 38 points and fellow blueliner Andrei Markov tied for fourth on the club with 30 points.
Plekanec figures to be the club's top-line centerman and is coming off a 14- goal, 33-point season during the lockout-shortened season. Unless Briere or Galchenyuk are used at center, Desharnais could be the team's second-line pivot. Desharnais had 10 goals and 18 assists in 48 games for Montreal in 2013.
Part of the reason Montreal was able to surprise its way to a second-place finish in the conference last season was the contributions from rookies Galchenyuk and Gallagher. The latter player added 13 assists to go with his 15 goals, while Galchenyuk, the third overall pick of the 2012 draft, had nine goals and 18 helpers. If both players are able to take steps in the right direction in their second seasons, it could go a long way towards getting Montreal back to the playoffs.
The Canadiens finished fourth in the NHL in scoring last season with an impressive average of 3.04 goals per game. With their speedy roster it expects to be a strong suit again in 2013-14. The only question is will the club's lack of size again come back to haunt them come playoff time?
One solution to the problem could come in the form of enforcer George Parros, a 6-foot-5 forward who was acquired over the summer in a trade with Florida. Parros gives the Canadiens a legit tough guy, taking over the role from the game, but (you guessed it) undersized, Brandon Prust.
DEFENSE - Subban received a great deal of flak for his contract dispute with the club, but his Norris-winning season proved he was worth both the money and the wait.
Despite missing some time at the start of the season, Subban tied for the NHL lead in scoring by defenseman with his 11-goal, 27-assist campaign. Although there are some critics who question Subban's play in his own zone there is no doubt he's a dynamic talent and clearly Montreal's top defenseman.
Another big factor in the Canadiens' return to the playoffs was having a healthy Andrei Markov, who returned to prominence in 2013 after struggling through three straight injury-plagued seasons in Montreal. The 34-year-old Markov, who is entering the final year of his contract with the Canadiens, had 10 goals and 20 assists while playing in all 48 games last year. It was the most games played in a season for the Russian veteran since he skated in 78 contests for the Habs in 2008-09.
Josh Gorges and Raphael Diaz, who likely will pair up with Subban and Markov, respectively, are not as high-profile as their potential skating partners, but they are both very effective. Both players are used as stay-at-home complements to the more offensively-skilled Subban and Markov.
The Canadiens are not expected to have their next-best option on defense, Alexei Emelin, until December after undergoing knee surgery in the offseason. With Emelin sidelined, the Canadiens could use Douglas Murray and Francis Bouillon as the final pairing. Murray, who played for San Jose and Pittsburgh last season, before inking a one-year, $1.5 million deal with the Habs in late August.
GOALTENDING - Price always seems to be a lightning rod for controversy in Montreal, and he certainly gave his detractors fuel for the fire with a lackluster showing last season.
Price turned in an average 2013 regular season, going 21-13-4 with a 2.59 goals against average and .905 save percentage in 39 games. He then suffered through an awful performance in the playoffs, but then again, so did the rest of the team.
The 26-year-old Price had a 3.26 GAA and .896 save percentage in four postseason games last spring and was unable to suit up for the fifth and final game against the Senators due to an injury.
Bergevin opted to fire goaltending coach Pierre Groulx and replace him with Stephane Waite. The GM also served Price warning by using his second-round pick in this summer's draft to select goaltender Zach Fucale, who is a few years away from playing in the NHL but could still provide motivation for Montreal's No. 1 netminder.
The Canadiens once again will use Peter Budaj as Price's primary backup. Budaj outplayed Price during the regular season, going 8-1-1 with a 2.29 GAA and .908 save percentage in 13 games. However, the Slovakian netminder didn't fare any better against the Sens in the playoffs, as he allowed seven goals on 31 shots in two postseason appearances.
WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - The Canadiens speed-driven offense could be enough to get the Canadiens back into the playoffs for the sixth time in seven seasons this year, but Therrien's undersized squad could once again run into the same problems in the postseason as it did last spring. Montreal is dangerous when able to play its game, but certain teams will continue to give the Habs fits. Then again, the club took great strides in Bergevin's first season at the helm and maybe he can fix Montreal's size issues with by trading for an upgrade during the season. With the club's talent level, he certainly has the assets to pull off a game-changing trade.
09/24 14:16:44 ET
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