NHL.com continues its preview of the 2013-14 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout September.
The overriding question facing the Montreal Canadiens as they enter the new season is whether their second-place finish in the Eastern Conference in 2012-13 is a true indicator of their quality as a team.
The Canadiens had seven regulation losses in their first 35 games last season, then had seven over their final 13 of the regular season before losing four of five games against the Ottawa Senators in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
"We changed a lot of things, especially the mentality of our group. I think that's important," defenseman Josh Gorges said. "But the big picture is that each year we come in with the same goal of winning the Stanley Cup, and all 30 teams have the same goal. If you don't have that as the main goal, you shouldn't bother. I'm sure every team would say the same thing. So if you don't succeed in the playoffs, it's a failure."
So why did they fail and what will prevent it this season?
There are many facets to that answer, but here are three areas they'll have to address:
1. Can the defense and goaltending keep pucks out of the net? -- Goaltender Carey Price and the defense in front of him had a very difficult finish to the season, a leading cause of Montreal's late-season slump.
With 31 goals allowed in their final eight regular-season games, the Canadiens went from a being a team with a tight defensive system to one that allowed numerous high-quality scoring chances every game. While the play of the forwards had something to do with that, the defense and goaltending were the leading causes.
The Canadiens attempted to address the goaltending situation by getting a new coach for Price, hiring Stéphane Waite away from the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks.
But on defense, the problems that plagued that group remain largely because Montreal will be without Alexei Emelin for at least the first two months of the season. His injury April 6 exposed a lack of depth on the blue line, and Therrien will attempt to plug the hole left by Emelin by pushing Raphael Diaz into a top-four spot playing alongside Andrei Markov.
"I want to give them some time," Therrien said of his second defense pairing. "I believe in stability whether it's with the defensemen or with the forwards as long as the results are there. When the results aren't there, that's when we have to try other experiments. But I want to give them at least the opportunity to get to know each other."
2. Can Daniel Briere turn things around? -- When Briere was bought out by the Philadelphia Flyers, he was approached by about half the teams in the League. He ultimately considered three offers before deciding to sign with his childhood team in Montreal.
While there was a certain degree of nostalgia attached to the decision, Briere was also influenced by the role he would play.
"It's always been my role everywhere I've been before last year," Briere said. "Even when I started in Phoenix, I barely played and I spent a lot of time in a fourth-line role, but I was always on the first unit going out on the power play. It was a little weird. So last year was definitely tougher, but it was a bit of my fault too. I put myself in that position with the injuries and having some bad games here and there. I want to make sure I take advantage of this chance."
Briere's offensive production has gone down in each of his last two seasons and he turns 36 on Oct. 6, an age at which few players are able to reverse a downward trend in their career.
But Briere's opportunity to play on Montreal's top power-play unit this season could help him do just that.
3. How will the Canadiens benefit from the lessons of last season? -- The Canadiens did not have a full training camp last season under Therrien, meaning a lot of the learning they did of the new coach's system was done on the fly. That didn't stop the Canadiens from getting off to a 6-2-0 start, paving the way for their turnaround season.
This time around, Montreal not only had a full training camp, but they had very little turnover from last season and a system that was already in place.
"Last year was a real change. We went to a completely different style to what we were used to," Gorges said. "Now, coming in this year with most of the guys returning, it's about fine tuning those things. We know what to expect, we know what we want to do, not a lot has changed. So now how do we go from being good at what we did to being great at what we're going to do?
"We're used to this system, we're used to what we're supposed to do on the ice. Now it's time to take it to that next level."
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