In each of the two seasons since Marc Bergevin took over as general manager and Michel Therrien as coach of the Montreal Canadiens, they have made a significant leap forward.
Two years ago, the Canadiens went from last place in the Eastern Conference to winning their division before bowing out in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Last season, the Canadiens finished third in the Atlantic Division, but reached the Eastern Conference Final before being knocked out in six games by the New York Rangers.
The next step will be a difficult one for the Canadiens, but the answers to these five questions may determine whether they are ready for it.
1. Who will fill the leadership void? -- The departure of captain Brian Gionta as an unrestricted free agent to the Buffalo Sabres was hardly a surprise, but the trade of his long-assumed successor Josh Gorges to the same team most definitely was.
With two of the three Canadiens players who wore a letter on their jersey now gone, the identity of their next captain has been a topic of debate in Montreal ever since defenseman P.K. Subban signed his eight-year, $72 million contract Aug. 2.
Many have suggested that the length of the contract and his status as arguably the Canadiens' best player, and definitely their best skater, makes Subban an ideal candidate to take over for Gionta. A counter-argument would be that Subban doesn't need the added burden the captaincy brings.
Subban's occasional recklessness might be one of his strongest attributes, and maybe he would feel inclined to dial that back if he were captain.
"I think the interesting thing about our team is that we have a lot of guys who are leaders, and guys that are growing into leaders," Subban said. "At the end of the day that's management's decision, they'll make the decision as to who they feel fits the best mold as a captain."
Therrien said the question has yet to be addressed and that it will be tackled once training camp starts next month.
But considering how both Therrien and Bergevin value loyalty, character and work ethic, it would not be the least bit surprising to see the job handed to defenseman Andrei Markov, freshly signed to a three-year, $17.25 million contract. Markov has played his entire 14-year career in Montreal and is universally respected by his teammates.
The one thing that might prevent Markov, a private person who has always shunned the spotlight, from being named the next captain is if he doesn't want the job.
2. Who will grab the available spot among the top nine forwards? -- Gionta's departure also creates a hole at right wing on one of Montreal's top three lines.
Bergevin acquired right wing Pierre-Alexandre Parenteau from the Colorado Avalanche in a trade for Daniel Briere, and Brendan Gallagher fills another right wing spot on a scoring line. But Therrien generally likes to have three offensive lines, and it is unclear who the third right wing will be among his top nine forwards.
The candidates are led by Czech free agent signing Jiri Sekac, 22, who played the past three seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League. Sekac was pursued by about a dozen NHL teams and should get an opportunity to grab that spot, even though he prefers playing left wing.
Second-year forward Michael Bournival could be given a chance to play a more significant role, while prospects Sven Andrighetto and Jacob De La Rose may also get a look in camp.
3. What will be the impact of Markov and Subban playing together full time? -- Part of the reason Gorges was traded to Buffalo was to create room to move Alexei Emelin to his natural left side. That means Emelin can no longer play with his regular defense partner Markov, who also plays on the left.
Defense - MTL
GOALS: 7 | ASST: 36 | PTS: 43
SOG: 131 | +/-: 12
Markov was, by far, Subban's best defense partner last season. According to stats.hockeyanalysis.com, Markov was the only one of Subban's three most frequent partners last season who had a positive impact on Subban's possession numbers. Yet Subban played 41.7 percent of his even-strength minutes alongside Markov.
That should change this season, meaning the Canadiens will benefit from the increased offensive zone time that pairing has shown an ability to manufacture against top opposition on a more regular basis.
4. Who will claim the sixth defense spot? -- The departure of Douglas Murray and the strong possibility of veteran Francis Bouillon also not returning leaves a hole to the left of Mike Weaver on Montreal's third defense pairing.
The two principle candidates to fill it are Nathan Beaulieu and Jarred Tinordi, but Beaulieu has the clear inside track.
Beaulieu played well during Montreal's run to the conference final last spring, and his ability to move the puck makes him a better fit with the defensive-minded Weaver.
Beaulieu and free agent signing Tom Gilbert can also provide Therrien with a good pairing for the second power-play unit, something he has not had in his two seasons as Canadiens coach.
5. Will the power play improve? -- It will have to, and the potential of having Gilbert and Beaulieu could be a game-changer.
Last season, the Canadiens were 19th on the power play, but they were one of the worst in the League over the second half.
Of the 946:02 of combined power play ice time available for the two Canadiens defensemen on the ice last season, Subban and Markov took up 78 percent of it. Subban and Markov were also on the ice for 42 and 41 power-play goals scored, respectively. The next highest number for a Canadiens defenseman was four.
A strong second defense pair should help the Canadiens' power play immensely.
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