NHL.com continues its preview of the 2013-14 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout September.
When viewed from the outside, it would be difficult for anyone to consider the 2012-13 season as anything but a rousing success for the Montreal Canadiens.
Coming off a season in which they finished last in the Eastern Conference, leading to a complete overhaul of management and the coaching staff, the Canadiens won the Northeast Division and finished second in the conference.
|ONES TO WATCH
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Montreal finished tied for fourth in the NHL in goals per game, was sixth in 5-on-5 goals for/against ratio, fifth in power-play efficiency and fifth in shots against per game, all signs that the team had made a serious turnaround from the nightmare season that preceded it.
But on the inside, all of those positives were wiped out in the span of one week in May, when the Canadiens were ousted in five games in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs by the seventh-seeded Ottawa Senators.
The season, for the most part, was seen as a failure in the Canadiens' dressing room.
"You have to be happy with the steps we made, we did some good things," captain Brian Gionta said. "You finish first in your division, you finish second in the conference, those are big accomplishments that make a difference. But at the end of the day, it's what you do in the playoffs. I think it was a learning experience for some of our guys, and this year we can build off that."
Much of that building will come from the continuity and familiarity coach Michel Therrien benefited from in training camp -- the polar opposite of what he had during a shortened camp in January when he had to introduce a new system while experimenting with line combinations as he learned the strengths and weaknesses of his players.
This time, right from the start Therrien used the forward lines and defense pairings he plans to start the season with, and those combinations have had two weeks to build on chemistry that was already established last season in most cases.
The Canadiens will use the same balanced attack that worked so well for them last season when they didn't have a player among the top 30 in points yet still finished fourth in goals per game as a team.
Montreal will come at opponents in waves with talent sprinkled evenly throughout the top nine forwards, making life difficult for opposing coaches when deciding how best to deploy their top defensive players. Every night, one of the top three lines for the Canadiens winds up with a favorable matchup, and often times that is the line that will do the most damage.
"The Montreal Canadiens have been tough to play against, especially last season, because you can't key on just one guy," said free-agent acquisition Daniel Briere, the only newcomer to Montreal's top nine forward group. "The stars are [goaltender Carey] Price and [defenseman P.K.] Subban, and you can't put someone on Price and shadow him. Those guys are tougher to stop. But offensively what made it tough playing against Montreal was they were fast, they kept coming at you, they have lots of depth and I think we added to that this summer."
Therrien likes to use his forward lines based more on what zone the faceoff is than the players the opposing team sends out, and the trio that should get the bulk of the offensive zone opportunities will be Briere's new line.
He was placed on right wing with the well-established duo of center David Desharnais and left wing Max Pacioretty from the start of camp; line showed signs of growing chemistry as camp progressed.
Desharnais had a difficult time last season with just 10 goals and 28 points in 48 games, a big drop-off from his 60 points in 81 games a season earlier despite getting significant power-play time and spending the bulk of the season playing with Montreal's top wing, Pacioretty.
He will benefit from that luxury again this season. Pacioretty was clearly Montreal's best forward through training camp, showing improved speed to go with his size and lethal shot to score five goals in four preseason games, tied for first in the NHL in that category before the final two days of games.
"He's always been known as a power forward, but I think he's raised his level a notch," Therrien said. "In his understanding of the game with and without the puck, we can see a player who isn't as hesitant in certain situations because he understands how we want to execute and how we want to play. It's become second nature for him in certain situations and he's thinking less."
Therrien's go-to line in defensive zone situations will again be centered by Tomas Plekanec with Gionta on the right wing and Rene Bourque on the left. That line was Montreal's best last season until Bourque went down with a concussion on Feb. 23 and missed 21 games.
Center - MTL
GOALS: 8 | ASST: 22 | PTS: 30
SOG: 84 | +/-: 8
The wildcard in the group is the line centered by Lars Eller
with sophomores Alex Galchenyuk
and Brendan Gallagher
on the wings, a trio that has been dubbed the "EGG Line" by fans on social media. At 24, Eller is the line's wise old man, and this youthful group may have the biggest impact on Montreal's improvement this season.
Eller is coming off his best NHL season with 30 points in 46 games, including 13 in his final 12. Galchenyuk also finished strong playing on Eller's wing, with 12 of his 27 points coming in his final 13 games. Gallagher played with Eller and Galchenyuk over the final few games of the season; he tied for the team lead in goals with 15 and was runner-up in the Calder Trophy voting.
According to behindthenet.ca, Gallagher was 10th in the NHL last season in points per 60 minutes played among those who played a minimum of 20 games, while Galchenyuk was 13th and Eller was 17th. In theory, if these three get more ice time, their production should increase.
The trio got a lot of ice time in the preseason with underwhelming results, but they showed some signs of life in the finale Thursday, a 3-1 win against the Senators.
"I thought that line, that was their best game of the preseason," Therrien said following the game. "I did have a meeting with them before the game and let them know how I feel about their performance so far, but they responded well. They played the way they're supposed to play."
There will be lots of competition for time on the fourth line, with Brandon Prust being the only member who has no real threat of being a scratch on any given night. Newcomer George Parros will be used on nights when his skills as an enforcer will be called for, meaning one of Travis Moen and Ryan White will have to sit out those games. Those two will also have to hold off rookie Michael Bournival, who was the revelation of training camp and used his NHL-level speed and a motor that doesn't stop to create turnovers and scoring chances.
This is a group that has the most to prove because of the way last season finished.
The Canadiens allowed 31 goals in their final eight regular-season games, then surrendered 20 in the five-game playoff loss to the Senators. That's 51 goals in 13 games, an average of 3.92 after allowing 2.32 per game over their first 40.
Alexei Emelin's left knee injury April 6 was the catalyst for the defense becoming a mess, and though he started skating last week, he won't be available until early December at the earliest. Emelin emerged as Montreal's most physically intimidating player last season, regularly laying highlight-reel hits and causing opposing forwards to be aware of his presence when crossing the Canadiens' blue line.
In an effort to bridge the gap until Emelin's return, general manager Marc Bergevin signed Douglas Murray to serve as a physical presence and penalty killer, but he too sustained a lower-body injury in training camp and his availability for opening night on Tuesday is questionable.
That's where Jarred Tinordi comes in.
The rookie defenseman was called up to play in the playoffs last season, and he arrived in training camp determined to show the team he could provide what they lost with Emelin.
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In six preseason games Tinordi was a human battering ram, hitting everything in sight, and it paid off for him with a spot on the 23-man roster.
"We asked him to be physical, and that's what he did throughout training camp," Therrien said after announcing his final cuts Thursday. "He came here on a mission. We could see he put in the effort over the summer to get stronger, and that's what allowed him to play such a physical game."
If Murray isn't ready for opening night, Tinordi will start the season on the third pairing with Francis Bouillon playing to his right.
The top pairing remains unchanged from last season, with Norris Trophy-winner P.K. Subban playing to the right of Josh Gorges.
This was Subban's first training camp under Therrien; he missed the start of last season in a contract standoff with the Canadiens. The delayed start to Subban's season led Therrien to slowly integrate him into the lineup, with Subban beginning his season on the third pairing and second power-play unit while seeing no time on the penalty kill, a role he excelled at in his first two seasons.
Subban was 35th among NHL defensemen in ice time last season at 23:14 per game but still tied for the scoring lead with 38 points in 42 games, with 26 of those points coming on the power play.
Having Subban in camp to start the season on time may entice Therrien to use him more often, but he's not giving any hints as to whether that will be the case.
"I really liked P.K.'s camp," Therrien said. "We had a good talk and we established a plan, established a goal, established what we want him to accomplish. Me and P.K., we're on the same page. He's taken this camp really seriously, we can see it in the games, I like the way he's practiced, his focus is there.
"Performance on the ice will always dictate, it's the same with everyone. But one thing's for sure, right now P.K. Subban has his focus at the right place."
The team's leader in ice time was veteran Andrei Markov at 24:07 per game, but that may need to change because the veteran defenseman's game began to deteriorate towards the end of the season, particularly after Emelin, his partner, went down.
Markov will start the season playing with Raphael Diaz on the second pair while anchoring the first power-play unit with Subban, but the management of his minutes early on by Therrien will be something to watch.
IN: Daniel Brière
, RW (free agent, Flyers); Douglas Murray
, D (free agent, Penguins); George Parros
, RW (trade, Panthers)
OUT: Colby Armstrong
, RW (free agent, Sweden); Blake Geoffrion
, LW (retired); Jeff Halpern
, C (free agent, Finland); Tomas Kaberle
, D (buyout); Michael Ryder
, RW (free agent, Devils)
No single player will have a greater influence on the Canadiens' season than starting goaltender Carey Price, but that's a reality for just about every starting goalie in the NHL.
Price's game went south at about the same time as the Canadiens' defense, which has a certain chicken-or-the-egg element to it. He is being counted on to put that poor finish to last season behind him as quickly as possible.
Getting married over the summer likely helped Price forget ending his season with a knee injury at the end of regulation in Game 4 against the Senators. He claims last spring's troubles are already behind him.
"It's in the past now," Price said. "You have to come into training camp and look at it as a new year. I'm not really going to dwell on a whole lot from last season; it's not going to help you."
What could help him is the arrival of goaltending coach Stéphane Waite from the Chicago Blackhawks, who helped shape Antti Niemi and Corey Crawford into Stanley Cup-winning goaltenders.
Price's save percentage has dropped in each of the past two seasons, from .923 in 2010-11 to .916 two seasons ago to a career-worst .905 last season, so there are clearly some adjustments to be made.
Waite's influence on Price's technique was apparent in training camp, with one adjustment being that the goaltender no longer slides across the crease in his butterfly, instead staying on his feet for his lateral movements to be in a better position to react to a second shot.
"We're not changing much," Price said. "It's just simplifying things and trying not to get too out of control. Sometimes goaltenders think you've got to overcompensate and show your athleticism. But a lot of the really good goaltenders are compact; they don't make a lot of unnecessary movements. That puts you in better position for bad bounces and whatnot.
"When you're playing really well you don't want to be making a whole lot of flashy saves, or even be noticed. If it's hitting you in the chest, you know you're doing good."
Backup Peter Budaj did a fine job last season, posting an 8-1-1 record with a 2.29 goals against average and .908 save percentage in 13 appearances.