The Montreal Canadiens camp opened with a setback Friday when top defenceman Andrei Markov said he was still having trouble with his reconstructed knee.
The 32-year-old was not sure when he will resume practising with the team and was optimistic, but couldn't guarantee, that he will be in the lineup when the Canadiens visit the Maple Leafs in Toronto for their regular season opener on Oct. 6.
"I'm just right now taking it day by day and every day it's getting better and better," he said. "Hopefully I'll be ready for the first game of the season.
"I wish I was going to be playing tomorrow. It's not going to happen tomorrow but it's going to happen one day. I'm just excited about the season and the team. I want to practice with them as soon as possible."
The team's veterans reported for fitness tests and medical exams full of optimism that they will be an improved squad from the one that lost in Game 7 overtime to eventual Stanley Cup champion Boston in the first round of playoffs in April.
They remain a quick, puck-moving team and feel they have improved with the signing of big winger Erik Cole.
But they were counting on having defencemen Markov and Josh Gorges back fully healthy. Both are returning from lengthy rehab after ACL surgery that caused them to miss more than half of the 2010-11 campaign.
Gorges pronounced himself ready to go, but Markov's condition is a concern.
He has played only 52 games over the past two seasons, first with a deep skate cut on an ankle and then twice with ACL damage to the same knee.
Markov last had surgery on Dec. 8, and nine months later he is still not ready. He saw surgeon James Andrews a month ago and came away optimistic.
"He said the healing is good," said Markov. "Everything in the knee and the bones and muscles is good. But I had a little swelling and he said it's normal with that type of surgery.
"It's the second surgery and sometimes it gets swollen, but I don't feel any pain or discomfort."
After medicals on Friday, Markov was seen skating by himself at the team's suburban training centre.
General manager Pierre Gauthier had enough confidence in Markov's recovery that he signed the potential free agent to a $17.25 million US three-year contract on June 23.
The Canadiens have a solid top-4 on defence with Markov, P.K. Subban, Gorges and Hal Gill, and they have veteran Jaroslav Spacek for their third pairing to go with Yannick Webber or perhaps one of rookies Alexei Yemelin or Rafael Diaz.
In the past two seasons when Markov was injured, Roman Hamrlik took on extra ice time, but he was allowed to leave as a free agent. And James Wisniewski and Brent Sopel, who were acquired as injury replacements last season, also moved on.
This season, Gauthier picked up some insurance by signing Jeff Woywitka from the Dallas Stars, a veteran of 251 NHL games, to fill in if injuries hit again.
But none match Markov, who had his best season with 12 goals and 64 points in 78 games 2008-09, just before his run of injuries.
Gill said Markov brings a higher dimension to the blue line.
"You play against him and you're aware of him but you don't realize how steady he is, all around defensively," said Gill. "That's what he brings to the team.
"He plays a lot of minutes with a steadying influence. Nothing is ever a big deal. He makes everything look smooth. It's similar to (Detroit captain Nick) Lidstrom in that you don't really notice him, but all of a sudden he's got two points and he's plus-3 at the end of the game. We just hope he's healthy and can do that."
It also helps that the slick-skating Subban, who had 14 goals as a rookie last season, is quickly developing into a No. 1 defenceman and power play quarterback.
It remains to be seen how coach Jacques Martin will use them. The towering Gill had good chemistry with both Gorges and Subban last season, while Gorges and Markov made a strong pair in the past.
"It'll be fun to see where everyone fits in, and what role we'll all play and who we'll play with and how it pans out," said Gill. "Hopefully we have an injury-free ride this year.
"We've got a lot of guys, and depth is a good thing to have."
They also have Brendon Nash, a six-foot-three point man signed last year out of Cornell University, and their last two first round draft picks are defenceman — six-foot-six Jarred Tinordi of the London Knights in 2010 and the slick Nathan Beaulieu from the Saint John Sea Dogs this year.
Yemelin, a two-way player said to have a mean streak who was a 2004 draft pick, and Diaz, an attack-minded rearguard, are both 25-year-olds looking to break into the NHL.
Diaz signed as a free agent with Montreal, hoping to follow in the footsteps of fellow Swiss defencemen Weber and Mark Streit, who began his NHL career in Montreal before moving on the New York Islanders.
"I want to get better and make my next step," said Diaz, a dual Swiss-Spanish citizen from the Zug club who played at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.
The Canadiens kept all 31 players from their rookie camp, including eight on try-outs, and have 64 in the main camp.