The Montreal Canadiens enter the 2013-14 NHL season as a reigning division champion and second-place finisher in the Eastern Conference. But they are a team that lost nine of its last 14 games, including four of five in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
So if there is one question that needs to be answered for the Canadiens, it is to find out which of those two facts best represent the truth?
There are several elements to the answer; six are addressed here:
1. Is Carey Price an elite goaltender? -- Price is certainly paid like one, topping the Canadiens payroll with a $6.5 million salary-cap charge, and he definitely has the talent to be among the NHL's best. However he has yet to reach the upper echelon of his profession, and having turned 26 this past Friday, Price is leaving the realm of being considered young.
He had his best season in 2010-11, the first after the Canadiens traded Jaroslav Halak and made Price their undisputed No. 1. He led the League with 38 wins and was sixth in save percentage (.923), suggesting that at age 23 Price was ready to assert himself as one of the NHL's best.
It hasn't worked out that way. His save percentage has dropped in each of the past two seasons to .916 in 2011-12 and .905 last season, placing Price 35th in a League where there are 30 No. 1 goaltenders. Even before finishing the season with an .856 save percentage in his final eight starts, Price had a pedestrian .916 mark in 31 games.
Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin decided to drop Price's goalie coach Pierre Groulx in favor of Stephane Waite, who helped two relatively unheralded goaltenders, Antti Niemi and Corey Crawford, win the Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks. Now Waite will be working with a prime talent who has yet to reach his potential, and he's excited for the challenge.
"I have an idea of what I want to do with Carey, little things," Waite said the day he was hired. "They won't be big changes. Carey's one of the good goalies in the League. I'm not here to change him from A to Z. He doesn't need to be changed from A to Z, far from it. He has qualities, and I'm going to work around those qualities."
There would be no better time than now for Price to start showing off those qualities on a more consistent basis.
2. Can the defense survive an 82-game schedule? -- The left knee injury that ended Alexei Emelin's season April 6 and will keep him out until at least late November showed to what extent the Canadiens lack depth on the blue line. Up to that point the unit managed to stay healthy, and the top four of P.K. Subban, Josh Gorges, Andrei Markov and Emelin were effective.
But once Emelin went down, Markov's play slipped significantly at even strength as the rigors of a long season split between the Kontinental Hockey League and NHL began to show, and there was a severe trickle-down effect. In the 10 regular-season games Emelin missed, the Canadiens allowed 34 goals.
In Emelin's continued absence, it's not clear how the defense will shape up to start the season. Subban and Gorges are likely to stay together, and Markov will get a lot of minutes, but after that there will be a battle between Raphael Diaz, Jarred Tinordi, Francis Bouillon, Davis Drewiske and perhaps Nathan Beaulieu and Greg Pateryn to fill out the remaining three spots.
It's a group that shows to what extent the Canadiens are vulnerable to injuries. Over an 82-game season, injuries will be inevitable.
3. Does Daniel Briere have enough left in the tank to bounce back? -- The prior time Briere had as poor an offensive performance as he did last season with the Philadelphia Flyers, he was a 22-year-old second-year player with the Phoenix Coyotes, and the world was freaking out about the Y2K bug.
That was 13 years ago, when Briere had two points in 13 games during the 1999-00 season. His production last season was better than that, but Briere's 16 points in 34 games represented his worst point-per-game output since fully establishing himself in the NHL.
The Flyers may have bought out Briere's contract regardless of how he produced, but his difficult season surely made the decision a little easier for GM Paul Holmgren.
Briere turns 36 Oct. 6, a few days after the season starts, and it's difficult to imagine a player his age reversing what appears to be a rather steady decline. Since recording the fourth-highest points-per-game average of his career in 2010-11, Briere's number has dropped in each of the past two seasons.
But he is determined to prove he can do it, and playing for the team he rooted for as a boy adds to his resolve.
"I've always had highs and lows over my career, and every time I had a tough season I used it as motivation," Briere said. "So to me, I see it as motivation, giving me several reasons to be motivated for next season. It's behind me and I'm going to use that to come back strong."
The Canadiens are banking on the fact Briere is a clutch playoff performer, with 109 points in 108 postseason games. But Montreal needs him to produce in the regular season for that asset to be relevant.
4. Who is the second-line center? -- It is understood that Tomas Plekanec is the team's top center -- really, it would be impossible to think otherwise -- but it is not nearly as clear who will play the second-line role.
David Desharnais is the incumbent, and his status as Max Pacioretty's preferred partner gives him the inside track. Except by the end of last season, it was rather evident Lars Eller was far more effective than Desharnais and he essentially took over the role over the final month.
After Desharnais scored 60 points in his breakout season in 2011-12, he had trouble maintaining the pace last season and his play appeared to dip after he signed a four-year, $14 million contract extension March 15. He finished with 28 points in 48 games and continued to get quality ice time from coach Michel Therrien, used regularly for offensive-zone faceoffs and receiving consistent power play time.
"Two years ago he had a great season, but sometimes those types of players, a short season could hurt them," Therrien told TSN 690 last week. "David was an outstanding player for us two years ago and I believe he's going to have another good season. We believe in him and we're going to work with him."
Eller finished last season with a career-high 30 points, two better than Desharnais playing two fewer games, receiving 88 fewer seconds of ice time per game and more than two fewer minutes per game on the power play. In even-strength scoring, no one on the Canadiens had more than Eller's 25 points except linemate Alex Galchenyuk (26) and Pacioretty (27). In April, Eller had 13 points in 14 games and, for all intents and purposes, had grown into more of a second-line role.
Will that continue this season? Much of that will depend on Desharnais, who likely will get an opportunity to rekindle the magic he had with Pacioretty two seasons ago. Should Desharnais falter, it is hard to imagine Therrien sticking with him for as long as he did last season, especially with Eller ready to take on a bigger role.
5. Can Alex Galchenyuk become an elite point-producer this season? -- Galchenyuk was the youngest regular player in the NHL last season, and as a result Therrien sheltered the 19-year-old a great deal by giving him 12:19 of ice time per game, tied for 612th in the NHL. He often watched from the bench in the third period of tight games and was almost never sent out for defensive-zone faceoffs.
Galchenyuk's production of nine goals with 18 assists in limited ice time was impressive. According to behindthenet.ca, Galchenyuk's 2.83 points per 60 minutes at even strength was 13th in the NHL, better than Rick Nash (2.77), Martin St. Louis (2.77), Ryan Getzlaf (2.76), Patrick Kane (2.67) and Steven Stamkos (2.65).
Galchenyuk went through a rough patch between Feb. 25 and April 1, with three assists in 17 games. But he finished with a flurry of 12 points in 13 games playing on Eller's wing. Over his final seven games, Galchenyuk averaged 11:17 of ice time and managed three goals and three assists.
Therrien was annoyed by repeated questioning from the media toward the end of the season regarding Galchenyuk's ice time, and it's possible the coach will limit Galchenyuk again this season considering he's still eligible for junior hockey.
But if Therrien decides to turn Galchenyuk loose, look out.
6. How much better can P.K. Subban get? -- A lot better.
It's easy to forget Subban's Norris Trophy-winning 2012-13 season began on the sidelines, waiting out a contractual impasse with the Canadiens that cost him the first six games of the season. Then, once he did join the team, Therrien was reluctant to mess with a winning formula; the Canadiens were 4-2-0 by the time Subban played a game.
Subban began the season with Francis Bouillon as his defense partner on Montreal's third pairing, and was anchoring the team's second power-play unit with Raphael Diaz opposite Andrei Markov on the first unit.
Subban did not play more than 23 minutes until his 16th game. He had six points in his first 10 games, but over his next 26 Subban would score eight goals with 22 assists.
Subban will be entering training camp with his teammates and already has Therrien's trust, so his days on the third pairing should be long behind him. Add in the motivational factor of aiming for a spot on the Canadian Olympic team and playing for a lucrative, long-term contract he didn't get from the Canadiens last year, and you have the potential for a more productive season.
"I don't think there's anybody that has bigger expectations than myself," Subban said last week at Therrien's charity golf tournament. "I always put a lot of pressure on myself to continue to get better. I've said it many times before, my job is to come to the rink every day and get better, and every year get better, so there's no doubt in my mind that next year I'll improve again."
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