Montreal Canadiens season preview
2007-08 result: 47-25-10, first in Eastern Conference (lost in second round to Philadelphia)
Key arrivals: G Marc Denis, D Alex Henry, F Robert Lang,F Georges Laraque, F Alex Tanguay
Key departures: D Mark Streit, F Michael Ryder, F Bryan Smolinski
Offence: The key to Montreal's high-powered attack is no secret. A lethal power play that converted an astounding 24.1 per cent of its chances (best in the NHL last season) fuelled an offence that ranked behind only Ottawa's with 3.13 goals per game. And staying out of the box is easier said than done for opponents: only four teams drew more than Montreal's 374 power-play chances.
But can the star of the show match his production from last season? Alex Kovalev netted 17 goals with the man advantage en route to reaching 35 overall, easily his best tally since arriving in Montreal in 2004. The good news for the Habs is that the mercurial Russian has something to play for: he's an unrestricted free agent at season's end.
Ditto for captain Saku Koivu and new acquistions Lang and Tanguay. General manager Bob Gainey imported the latter from Calgary on the heels of a disappointing 18-goal, 58-point campaign, Tanguay's least productive since 2001-02 with Calgary. Lang averaged 53 points over the last two seasons with Detroit and Chicago.
Defence: Despite giving up a whopping 31.6 shots per game last season — fifth-most in the league — the Canadiens ranked near the middle with 2.63 goals allowed. It will again be essential for Montreal to get solid goaltending while forcing opposing attackers to fire from the perimeter. There's also room for improvement in the penalty-killing department, where the sometimes-undisciplined Habs ranked 15th.
The Habs lost an offensive threat when No. 3 scorer Streit signed with the Islanders. But Andrei Markov (58 points) will continue to offer plenty of firepower from the blue-line, while rock-solid Mike Komisarek has emerged as a premier body checker and shot blocker.
Goaltending: Twenty-year-old Carey Price grew up faster than expected last season, posting an excellent .920 save percentage and 2.56 goals-against average in 41 games while wresting the No. 1 goalie job from Cristobal Huet.
But the laid-back Price cracked in the playoffs, letting in some soft goals in Montreal's tougher-than-necessary win over Boston in the first round. The youngster was briefly yanked in favour of backup Jaroslav Halak, and struggled to recapture his form as the Canadiens bowed in five games to Philadelphia in the second round.
Price is too talented to stay down for long, but his ability to recover from the disappointment and criticism he endured last spring could be the x-factor in Montreal's season.
Coaching: A defensive whiz in his playing days, Guy Carbonneau proved his mettle as a coach last season by allowing his smooth-skating young roster to play a wide-open style. He also took a gutsy approach in promoting the talented but green Price to the No. 1 netminder job. That decision could pay big dividends this season as Price now has the experience of a pressure-packed playoff drive under his belt.
Outlook: The Habs were one of the league's biggest surprises last season in claiming the top seed — in the Eastern Conference, but their notoriously demanding fans will want more this time around. Adding to the pressure will be the team's 100th anniversary festivities, which promise to be no small affair given the Canadiens' knack for celebrating their accomplishments like no other franchise in sports.
But even with all the pomp and pageantry — including the all-star game in January — it's hard not to like the Habs as a Stanley Cup contender. Price could be even better now that he's got more seasoning, and emerging forwards Tomas Plekanec, Andrei Kostitsyn and Christopher Higgins figure to provide even more scoring punch.
If Kovalev can stay motivated and the power play can avoid another playoff burnout, the Canadiens could cap their centennial with the biggest party of all.