The Montreal Canadiens are one of the NHL's most difficult teams to read entering the 2013-14 season.
On the one hand there's the team that got off to a 20-5-5 start last season under a new coaching staff led by Michel Therrien, effectively erasing all memory of a nightmarish 2011-12 season that saw the Canadiens finish 15th in the Eastern Conference and 28th in the League.
But the Canadiens finished the regular season on a 3-5-0 slide, and the slump continued in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs when Montreal was eliminated by the Ottawa Senators in five games.
So which team does general manager Marc Bergevin believe he has? The one that dominated opponents through the first 30 games, or the one that struggled once the games became more important and the level of competition went up a notch?
Bergevin appears to want to wait and use the 2013-14 season as a litmus test, leaving his team largely intact and avoiding any long-term commitments to players during the offseason. He allowed unrestricted free agents forwards Michael Ryder and Colby Armstrong to walk, and waiver pickup Jeff Halpern remains unsigned. In their place, Bergevin signed Daniel Briere to a two-year, $8 million deal after the Philadelphia Flyers used one of their compliance buyouts to set him free, and acquired veteran enforcer George Parros in a trade with the Florida Panthers.
Bergevin was spurned, however, in his attempt to lure another star player who was bought out by his team when Montreal native Vincent Lecavalier chose to sign with the Flyers for five years and $22.5 million. Bergevin said he was unwilling to match the term and dollar figure on the Lecavalier contract because the GM has an eye on the future and the money that eventually will be needed to keep his young talent in Montreal.
"I'm paying attention to where we are headed," Bergevin said July 5, the first day of free agency. "I have to leave us a cushion for things that might happen down the road."
A big part of the future of the franchise already is on the roster, and the financial cushion Bergevin referred to ultimately will be used to keep that young core intact.
In the meantime, the Canadiens' hopes for 2013-14 rest on those players taking another big step in their development.
Defenseman P.K. Subban, 24, won the first Norris Trophy of his career last season, and forwards Max Pacioretty (24), Lars Eller (24), Alex Galchenyuk (19) and Calder Trophy runner-up Brendan Gallagher (21) are on the upside.
They will be surrounded by veterans Briere, Tomas Plekanec, Brian Gionta and Rene Bourque, with David Desharnais looked upon to bounce back from what was a difficult 2012-13 season and return to the form that saw him score 60 points a season earlier.
That group of nine forwards should allow Therrien to enjoy the same level of offensive depth he had last season, when Montreal finished tied for fourth in the NHL with 3.04 goals per game despite not having a player among the NHL's top 30 in scoring.
Much of the problem for the Canadiens late last season could be found at the other end of the ice.
The Canadiens allowed 31 goals in their final eight regular-season games, then gave up 20 goals in the five-game playoff loss to the Senators. That’s 51 goals in 13 games, an average of 3.92 after allowing 2.32 per game over their first 40.
A left knee injury to rugged defenseman Alexei Emelin on April 6 was the catalyst for the struggles, exposing a lack of depth on the back end that was not addressed during the offseason and which remains a problem with Emelin not expected to be ready to play before late November at the earliest.
"We have what we have in terms of our cap, and it's something that is often tough to manage," Bergevin said. "Would I like a big, tough defenseman who can play 25 minutes? Yes, I think every team wants that. But first of all you can't get them, and second of all you have to pay for them."
Though Bergevin was unable to address his defensive depth, he did make an acquisition that could allow his team to keep more pucks out of its net and which doesn't count against the salary cap.
Goaltender Carey Price will have a new mentor this season after the Canadiens decided not to renew the contract of goaltending coach Pierre Groulx; instead, they hired Stephane Waite away from the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks.
Price's performance suffered greatly down the stretch and in the playoffs, never recovering from an April 13 start at the Toronto Maple Leafs when he allowed three goals on four shots. Over his next 10 starts, including four in the playoffs, Price went 3-6-0 with a 3.20 goals-against average and an .878 save percentage.
There are very few players in the NHL -- if any -- who have to live with the kind of scrutiny Price is under in Montreal, and he admitted following the season it can be a burden he struggles with at times. Teaching him to manage that pressure and feel confident in himself is something that will fall on Waite, making him perhaps Bergevin's most important acquisition.
Price's ability to bounce back, and the play of the defense in front of him, will go a long way toward determining whether the Canadiens legitimately are one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference or if their late-season swoon was a better indicator of where this team fits in the standings.
CANADIENS' OFFSEASON OUTLOOK
UFAs: C Jeff Halpern
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