At various times last season, the Montreal Canadiens struggled to find goals. The front office hopes that some key acquisitions, and the return to health of some homegrown stars, will alleviate that problem.
As for the imports, there is a belief that veteran center Bryan Smolinski will give the club more versatility down the middle, allowing the Canadiens to feature a three-line attack. The 35-year-old had 44 points last year while playing for both Chicago and Vancouver. He added a couple of goals in Vancouver’s 12-game playoff run.
In-house, the Canadiens hope that Chris Higgins can turn in a full campaign and continue to deliver on his potential as a dominant first-line winger. Higgins, 24, missed 21 games last year, but still managed to score 22 goals.
He can only improve on those numbers by riding shotgun for captain Saku Koivu, who is the most gifted playmaker on the roster. The mercurial Alex Kovalev, who had an up-and-down season and finished with 18 goals, is an elite goal scorer when at the peak of his game.
The club also has some other young guns who are coming into their own. Guillaume Latendresse had 16 goals despite making the jump straight from junior hockey to the NHL. Tomas Plekanec, 24, is on course to have a 50-plus point season this year and Michael Ryder has back-to-back 30-goal seasons on his resume.
Veteran Steve Begin, meanwhile is a defensively adept player that also can play the type of high-energy, aggravating game that can drive opponents to distraction.
Montreal’s offensive woes would have been significantly more pronounced if not for their successful power play. The club scored 86 man-advantage goals, leading the NHL with a 22.8 percent conversion rate.
While that power-play unit certainly takes a hit with the departure of defenseman Sheldon Souray and his blasts from the point, which translated into a team-leading 19 power-play goals, the man-advantage attack is still loaded for bear. Koivu, Higgins, Kovalev and Ryder all know how to exploit the extra ice space and have the quick releases necessary for power-play success.
On the penalty kill, the Canadiens were a little more pedestrian, clocking in with an 83.5 percent kill rate, good for No. 13 in the League. An aggressive kill, the Canadiens did register 17 shorthanded goals. Higgins was the leader with three shorthanded markers in his shortened season.
Up and Coming
Kyle Chipchura – The Canadiens have cut ties with many of their defensive-minded forwards – Radek Bonk and Mike Johnson jump to mind – and that that means Chipchura might finally land a spot with the parent club. The first-round pick from 2004 is a defensive specialist who also brings a boatload of big-game experience at a young age to the table.
Max Pacioretty – Montreal’s second first-round pick this year, the 18-year-old Pacioretty is certainly a few seasons away from NHL duty. But the University of Michigan-bound forward has the potential to be the prototypical power forward that has too often been missing from Montreal’s arsenal of offensive weapons.
Ben Maxwell – An injury-plagued 2006-07 season somewhat diminished Maxwell’s star, but the teen still possesses the skills to develop into the natural goal-scoring talent Montreal envisioned when they drafted Maxwell in the second round last year. He will most likely play in the Western Hockey League again this year as he tries to regain his form.
Maxim Lapierre – The 22-year-old, selected in the third round in 2002, made a statement with his play last season in a 46-game shot with the Canadiens. His high-energy, defensively responsible game is ideal for lower-line duty with a club that is already awash in high-end talent.
Sergei Kostitsyn – Kostitsyn had a magical final junior season with London, playing a prominent role on the most dominating line in junior hockey. Playing with 2007 first-round picks Pat Kane and Sam Gagner, Kostitsyn scored 40 goals and 131 points. While that offensive production certainly pleases Montreal’s front office, it is his defensive game that might initially pave his way into the Canadiens lineup.
Andrei Kostitsyn – The elder of the Kostitsyn brothers played 22 games with the parent club last season and showed that he was ready for full-time NHL duty. A proven scorer – he averaged better than a point per game with Hamilton last year – Andrei Kostitsyn appears to have finally figured out the defensive side of the game enough to earn full-time action. Montreal would like to see him contribute 40 to 50 points this year.