This was not exactly what rookie general manager Marc Bergevin had in mind when he took over the Montreal Canadiens last June.
He had a blueprint. He wanted to construct a solid foundation. He wanted to surround himself with sound hockey minds. He also believed that through a fluid renovation the Habs would be back in the playoff picture this season.
But how many envisioned the Canadiens turnaround to happen so swiftly? How many felt they would go from worst to first in the East, humming along like a Mercedes on a 7-0-2 run heading into a big showdown against Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins at the Bell Centre on Saturday?
The truth is the Canadiens were not as bad as their 15th-place finish in the East last year. This team still had the same core of players that pushed themselves to the 2010 East final. It was the same core of players that took the Boston Bruins to overtime in a seventh and deciding game in the first round in arguably the toughest series the 2010-11 Stanley Cup champions faced in their title run.
There were a handful of developments that derailed the Habs last season. Captain Brian Gionta and veteran defenceman Andrei Markov were injured. A popular teammate in Jaroslav Spacek was traded in exchange for Tomas Kaberle.
When Mike Cammalleri was shipped to the Calgary Flames for Rene Bourque, the latter did not make much of a contribution.
New (and old) faces
Eight months later, the Canadiens began the lockout shortened season with a new GM, a new coach in Michel Therrien, added grit with free-agent Brandon Prust and some speed and enthusiasm and scoring punch with youngsters Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher.
They also have back a healthy leader in Gionta and an important component in Markov playing well, especially on the power play.
Bourque also has been more effective after offseason abdominal surgery. Before suffering a concussion last week, he had five goals and 10 points in 17 games, which was better than the five goals and eight points he put up in 38 games with Montreal last year.
The 49-year-old Therrien also has received plenty of credit. It has been said that he has toned down his hot-headed ways. It has been said that he has learned from his mistakes in his first go-around in Montreal and his stint with the Penguins.
Canadiens fourth-liner Colby Armstrong, who played under Therrien in Pittsburgh, conceded that Therrien is a bit more calm, but Armstrong doesn't buy into the belief that his coach has completely mellowed.
"Not really," said Armstrong, when asked if Therrien has changed much from his time behind the Penguins bench. "He's the same old Mike. He's the same around the dressing room.
"He'll still tell you up front when he thinks you're not playing hard enough. He's done that to me a couple times already. He still runs the ship."
But Bergevin made sure Therrien had some capable on-deck help in assistant coaches Gerard Gallant, Jean-Jacques Daigneault and Clement Jodoin. Therrien also has used sports psychologist Dr. Sylvain Guimond.
The two worked together at Quebec all-sports television station RDS last year. Therrien liked Guimond's way of thinking. He not only has worked with players like Carey Price (to encourage him to be a team leader) and forward Lars Eller (to earn his ice time, not expect it), he has been a sounding board for Therrien.
Guimond has encouraged Therrien to get to know his players and to find different ways to reach the different individuals in his dressing room.
So far, for Bergevin, Therrien and the Canadiens, everything has gone peachy. There no doubt will be tough times ahead. Dr. Guimond will tell you that. But why worry about the future, when the present state of mind in Montreal could not be better?
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