LAVAL-SUR-LE-LAC - Players are always brimming with optimism at the start of a new hockey season, and the good vibes were especially evident at the Canadiens' annual golf tournament at Club de golf Laval-sur-le-Lac on Monday morning.
The Habs may have failed to qualify for the playoffs last season, but the team chemistry they fostered throughout the 2018-19 campaign helped get them awfully close to competing for the Stanley Cup and is one of the main sources fueling their big hopes for the year ahead.
Of course, having Shea Weber - the captain and the pillar of their defense - healthy from the get-go will go a long way towards getting the Canadiens started off on the right foot.
"It makes a big difference, for sure. I'm sure he'd be the first one to tell you that. When a player has the full offseason to put in the time and work, I'm sure he's more comfortable, more confident," described Brendan Gallagher of the 34-year-old rearguard, who was on the shelf to start last season and didn't play his first game until late November. "I got the chance to spend a little time with him in the summer, and you can see first-hand his athleticism, and the strides he makes in the gym are always pretty impressive. When he's able to put in a full summer of working on it, I think we're all excited, he's excited for what he's going to bring to our group. We definitely missed him from the start of last year, and having him right from Day 1 is going to be big for our group."
Weber boasts 925 games of NHL experience with the Habs and Nashville Predators, and is thrilled he gets to return to the routine that helped establish himself as an elite NHL defenseman over the years.
"I'm obviously a lot more familiar with leading into the season this way, having a full summer to train, skate, and be ready. It's exciting," shared Weber, who scored 14 goals for 33 points in 58 games in 2018-19. "Last year coming back, there was just uncertainty of not knowing when I was going to be able to play, pushing and trying to get back as quickly as possible. Now I know that I'll be ready to go from the start and I'm excited for training camp."
Of course, Weber isn't the only one who's eager to get going. After the Habs missed out on the postseason dance by a hair - or, more precisely, a 44-win, 96-point finish which fell just short of the final Wild Card position in the East - the players are confident they can do better after coming oh, so close.
The fact that they played some strong hockey as they battled for a playoff spot until the bitter end is further justification for their confidence and optimism as training camp unofficially gets underway.
"Last year, I think we took a lot of steps forward. We know what we're capable of as a group. The No. 1 positive for me, to be honest, is the fact that we played in some playoff-like games the last 25 or 30 games, every single game," outlined Max Domi, who burst onto the scene in Montreal with a career-best 28 goals, 44 assists, and 72 points. "Those last 25 or 30, every other team was winning and we had to match that. We beat some really good hockey teams down the stretch. We came up a bit short, but we did take a lot of positive steps forward. It's something to build on, so we've got take that momentum going into this year and we'll be fine."
Centerman Phillip Danault also set new career highs with 41 assists and 53 points centering a line with Brendan Gallagher and Tomas Tatar, and is hoping to have as much of a blast coming to the office as he did in 2018-19.
"What we had last year and what we built, it was really fun. We had fun every night. We played for each other," beamed Danault, one of 26 players to hit the links on Monday. "With the additions we made during the summer, I think everyone will really fit into the group well. We're excited for things to get started."
Entering his fifth season in Montreal, veteran Paul Byron knows that joining the Canadiens is a rather unique experience. And as a member of the Club's leadership core, the speedy winger has taken it upon himself to make the transition as smooth as possible for the team's fresh faces.
"I think they're all shocked at how much attention there is here in Montreal. That's kind of the same way I felt. I just try and tell them to get used to it, give them some guidance on where to live, where to go, what to expect coming to the city," described Byron, who's scored 68 goals and 127 points in 281 games in a Canadiens uniform. "A lot of guys are excited to be here. You walk into that room for the first time, you see the names and numbers, the pictures... it's a historic place to play here in Montreal. Everyone's incredibly lucky to get this opportunity. Now, we're all really excited to get started because it's a fun place to play."
Defenseman Ben Chiarot signed with the Canadiens as a free agent in the summer. And while the allure of seeing those legendary faces immortalized on the walls of the team's locker room surely factored into his decision, it was some faces he knew he'd get to see in person that really sealed the deal for him.
"Shea is a guy that a lot of defenseman like me would look up to and try and take pieces of his game. Since I've been in the NHL, he's been a guy I've watched closely - what he does and how he plays. He's been a premier defenseman in the League for a long time and has done things the right way. He's definitely a great guy to learn from," praised Chiarot, a veteran of 305 NHL contests, all with the Winnipeg Jets. "[Playing with] him and having Carey Price behind me, those are two pretty attractive players to want to play with."
The newcomers are joining a young, up-and-coming team chock full of players hungry to see postseason action. For the captain, starting off strong will be crucial if the Habs are to get there, and he believes the Club's depth and determination are exactly what the doctor ordered for a successful 2019-20 campaign.
"Having that internal competition is good. It pushes the young guys, but it pushes guys that are here too to be better. Having a good start of the season is so important. I think every team will talk about that. If you get off to a slow start, it's hard to catch up and you're playing catch-up for most of the season," concluded Weber. "If we can get off to a good start and set ourselves up well, it bodes well for us for the rest of the season."