NHL.com continues its preview of the 2014-15 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout August.
The Montreal Canadiens entered the 2013-14 season coming off an impressive turnaround, jumping from last place in the Eastern Conference to the second seed in the East in the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Canadiens were eliminated in five games in the first round of the 2013 playoffs by the Ottawa Senators, so general manager Marc Bergevin and coach Michel Therrien both attempted to temper expectations for their team in Montreal, a city hungry for a Stanley Cup contender.
Bergevin and Therrien each constantly repeated last season that the goal for the Canadiens was simply to qualify for the playoffs and see where that led them.
It led them farther than the Canadiens have been since their last Stanley Cup in 1993, coming two wins shy of reaching the Final in losing in six games to the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference Final.
Entering this season, as much as Bergevin and Therrien might try, it will be difficult to temper expectations in Montreal.
The Canadiens are built around a young star at each of the three positions in goaltender Carey Price, 27, left wing Max Pacioretty, 25, and defenseman P.K. Subban, who is also 25 and signed the richest contract in franchise history over the offseason at eight years and $72 million, making him the defenseman with the highest salary-cap charge in the NHL.
All three of those cornerstone players are signed at least through the 2017-18 season, when Price is due to become an unrestricted free agent, and they are supported by emerging young forwards Brendan Gallagher and Alex Galchenyuk.
The Canadiens' clock to contend, while far from expiring, has begun to tick.
"I like the progression of our team, I like the direction our team is taking," Therrien said. "We had an enormous challenge when we arrived here two years ago, but I like the commitment and the way things have gone so far. But we haven't reached the goal yet."
That goal is snapping the longest Stanley Cup drought in franchise history, now sitting at 21 years, and this season will be telling as to whether the Canadiens are really nearing that goal or if last season's playoff run was a fluke.
CANADIENS' OFFSEASON OUTLOOK
2013-14 record: 46-28-8, 100 points, 3rd in Atlantic Division, 4th in Eastern Conference
2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Lost 4-2 to New York Rangers in Eastern Conference Final
Top 2014 NHL Draft pick: F Nikita Scherbak (No. 26)
Bergevin shipped out a big portion of the team's leadership core during the offseason, saying it was time to turn the team over to the young veterans that represent the Canadiens' future, a future that is now far more immediate.
Gone are captain Brian Gionta and his potential successor Josh Gorges, two of the top leaders in the Canadiens dressing room who will now be mentoring a young Buffalo Sabres team. Veterans Douglas Murray and George Parros are also gone, and forward Daniel Briere was traded to the Colorado Avalanche for right wing Pierre-Alexandre Parenteau. Defenseman Francis Bouillon remains unsigned as an unrestricted free agent, but Bergevin said it remains a possibility he will return.
The offseason moves were drastic for a team that came so close to the Stanley Cup Final, but they were deemed necessary by Bergevin in an attempt to fast-track the maturing process of his roster.
"It's time for the young people to take a bigger role," Bergevin said on July 1. "There's always a rotation and we're at that crossroads now."
In addition to Price, Subban and Pacioretty, the Canadiens have veteran defenseman Andrei Markov, 35, signed for three more years, defenseman Alexei Emelin for four years, center Lars Eller for four years and center David Desharnais for three years.
Once Gallagher, Galchenyuk and promising young defensemen Nathan Beaulieu and Jarred Tinordi sign their second contracts next summer, the core of the team will be set for the foreseeable future. This season could provide a first indication whether that core will be good enough to compete for a Stanley Cup.
"I see this much more as a nice challenge for our young veterans," Therrien said. "We have a lot of confidence in them. It's a group of guys that are signed long term, which is important not only for management, but for the coaches as well.
Bergevin stressed following last season's loss in the Eastern Conference Final that he didn't believe the Canadiens had fully matured as a team. By the time he assesses this season at some point next spring, he should have a far better idea whether or not the roster he has assembled will ever reach that maturity.
The Canadiens' window to contend has been opened wide by Bergevin. The onus is now on the players and Therrien to step through it.