LAVAL-SUR-LE-LAC, Quebec -- The Montreal Canadiens arrived at their annual charity golf tournament Tuesday facing expectations that didn't exist prior to last season.
After jumping from last place in the Eastern Conference to second in a span of a year, the Canadiens hope to build on the success of the 2012-13 regular season while forgetting a late-season slump that spilled into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Two areas of Montreal's game that went south were defense and goaltending, and that is where the biggest question marks surrounding the 2013-14 Canadiens can be found.
Goaltender Carey Price had an .856 save percentage while losing six of his final eight regular-season starts, and he had an .894 save percentage with a 1-2-0 record in four playoff starts.
In an attempt to rectify the situation, general manager Marc Bergevin hired goaltending coach Stephane Waite away from the Chicago Blackhawks. The hope is a new voice can help Price get out of slumps quicker than he did last season.
"You guys all watched the first 35 games; Carey was up to par," Bergevin said. "The timing was that he struggled at the end, and that's all people remember. But I remember games and stretches where he was very good for us.
"He went through a tough patch, and a lot of good goalies go through tough times. It's about maturing, and surrounding him with Stephane Waite we believe will help him a lot."
The Canadiens' chances of making the playoffs in a difficult Atlantic Division that includes the Boston Bruins, Detroit Red Wings, Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators rest heavily on Price's ability to display his form of 2010-11, when he went 38-28-6 with a .923 save percentage and 2.35 goals-against average.
With three guaranteed playoff spots in the division, every game will be important, and Price will need to be on top of his game from the start.
"I look at a hockey team like a house," Bergevin said. "The goaltending and the defense is your basement, your foundation, and the rest is the top. So if your foundation is shaky, the rest is not going to hold.
"We feel having [Price] surrounded by good players and bringing in Stephane Waite is going to help him be the best he can, and I believe he can be very good."
The added motivation for Price this season will be the potential of earning the starting job for the Canada Olympic team, but he said that will not change how he views the NHL season.
"Bottom line is I want to play well no matter what," Price said. "Whether I'm trying to make the Olympic team or just play well here, it shouldn't really make that big of a difference in terms of the way I look at playing."
The other part of Bergevin's foundation struggled at the end of last season: the defense. One of the reasons was the loss of Alexei Emelin to a torn ACL and MCL in his left knee on April 6. The original best-case scenario was for Emelin to be ready to play by late November, but Bergevin said a more realistic timeframe is now sometime in December.
"He brings a big, physical element to our team, he imposes his will physically to other teams, and I think that's an asset that's hard to replace," defenseman Josh Gorges said. "The second part of that is it disrupts the pairings. Things were moving well, we were like a well-oiled machine, and when something happens there's a chink in the chain and it disrupts things. I don't think we responded the right way."
Bergevin and the Canadiens are hopeful free-agent acquisition Douglas Murray can provide a similar physical presence.
After waiting most of the summer to find a new team, Murray signed a one-year, $1.5 million contract with the Canadiens on Aug. 22 and will compete with Raphael Diaz, Francis Bouillon, Davis Drewiske and rookie hopefuls Jarred Tinordi and Nathan Beaulieu for the three spots below Norris Trophy winner P.K. Subban, Andrei Markov and Gorges on the blue line.
"Douglas Murray plays within the dots, he's a really good penalty killer, he's got size, he punishes people," Bergevin said. "We feel that if he's matched up with the right partner, he could help us. We looked at him in the playoffs [with the Pittsburgh Penguins] and we looked at him in San Jose, and sometimes players have more success if they're in the right fit. We feel that Montreal is a good fit for him."
Murray said that fit was a big reason he chose to sign with Montreal, stating that Bergevin's vision for his role was something he liked.
"I agreed with how he viewed me as a player and who I should be playing with if I'm successful," Murray said. "I feel I can be a better fit here, but that remains to be seen."
Murray is one of three acquisitions the Canadiens made over the summer, along with forwards Daniel Briere and George Parros. Briere will be looked upon to provide leadership and replace some of the offense lost when Michael Ryder signed with the New Jersey Devils as a free agent. Parros is expected to help in a division where the Maple Leafs, Senators and Buffalo Sabres play a rougher style of game.
But Murray's ability to help keep the defense afloat until Emelin's return may in fact have the biggest impact, and Price's ability to backstop that defense will go a long way in determining if Montreal will be in the playoff hunt in the Atlantic.
The Canadiens' foundation, in other words, remains the biggest question mark they face.
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