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Canadiens hope changes trigger return to playoffs

by Arpon Basu

In the past 18 months, the Montreal Canadiens have dealt with more hardships, turmoil and upheaval than perhaps any comparable period in the organization's long and successful history.

Since August 2011, the Canadiens have waved goodbye to two coaches (Jacques Martin and Randy Cunneyworth), a general manager (Pierre Gauthier), a former playoff hero (Michael Cammalleri), two veteran defensemen (Hal Gill and Jaroslav Spacek), an underachieving yet talented forward (Andrei Kostitsyn) and -- most importantly -- the team's four-year streak of playoff appearances.

In a two-year span, the Canadiens went from being one of the final four teams left in the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs to finishing last in their conference for the first time in franchise history.

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An overhaul was not only necessary, it was welcomed.

The 2012-13 season will be the first chapter of the Marc Bergevin regime in Montreal, and the team's new general manager wasted little time putting his stamp on the Canadiens.

In came his former mentor Rick Dudley to serve as his assistant, former teammate Scott Mellanby to fill the new position of director of player personnel, Martin Lapointe to fill another new position as director of player development, and former Canadiens defenseman Patrice Brisebois to serve as a player development coach.

Bergevin also hired Michel Therrien for a second tour of duty behind the bench. He will be assisted by newcomers Gerard Gallant and Jean-Jacques Daigneault, as well as Clement Jodoin, who worked as an assistant in Montreal once before.

Though the changes in the front office and on the coaching staff have been drastic, the product on the ice should look similar to the one that finished last season with seven wins in its last 23 games.

Therrien doesn't necessarily see that as a problem.

"This team has potential. We can't forget that," he said when he was hired. "There are some good, young players to work with here."

Indeed, the 2012-13 Canadiens will still be built around its young pillars at each position: Carey Price in goal, P.K. Subban on defense and Max Pacioretty at forward. All three players are still on the upswing of their respective development curves.

Departed from the team that finished last season are forwards Mathieu Darche and Brad Staubitz, and defenseman Chris Campoli -- Darche and Campoli are still unrestricted free agents but were informed by the club that their services will no longer be needed. Also gone is center Scott Gomez, who was sent home on the first day of training camp and will be bought out next summer -- the Canadiens don't want to risk the possibility of a long-term injury. In their place, Bergevin landed forwards Brandon Prust and Colby Armstrong and defenseman Francis Bouillon on the free-agent market. All three players are known for their character, grit and toughness -- qualities Bergevin and Therrien identified as areas of weakness on the team.

"I like these guys. They bring character, they bring sandpaper, they bring personality to our club, which I feel was missing last year," Bergevin said of his free-agent signings. "From Day One, I wanted to build this team around character guys who put the team first, and that's what I think we did."

Though the additions do bring certain intangibles that should make the Canadiens a more difficult opponent in 2012-13, none are expected to put up gaudy offensive numbers. That responsibility will fall on the shoulders of incumbents Pacioretty, Erik Cole, David Desharnais, Tomas Plekanec and captain Brian Gionta.

The Canadiens' offense last season was massively dependent on the line of Pacioretty, Desharnais and Cole, with the trio accounting for 84 of the team's 207 goals (40.6 percent) and 66 of 148 goals at even strength (44.6 percent).

A healthy season from Gionta, who missed the final 40 games of last season with a torn biceps muscle, would not only help remedy that one-dimensional attack, but it would likely improve the performance of Plekanec, who had a merry-go-round of wings surrounding him last season and finished with 17 goals, his lowest total since his rookie season.

"From Day One, I wanted to build this team around character guys who put the team first, and that's what I think we did." -- Montreal GM Marc Bergevin

The Canadiens are also hopeful midseason acquisition Rene Bourque will find the form that allowed him to post consecutive 27-goal seasons before plummeting to 18 last season, including five in 38 games after his acquisition from the Calgary Flames. Then there's the wild card of Alex Galchenyuk, the No. 3 pick in the 2012 NHL Draft, who could make the club at center after a solid showing for the United States at the World Junior Championship, as well as young forwards Lars Eller and Louis Leblanc, who could be poised for breakout seasons.

On defense, the biggest change will be a healthy Andrei Markov. When he is on top of his game, Markov is the Canadiens' most important player. However, Markov was clearly not himself in the 13 games he played last season, exhibiting tentativeness and a lack of timing after rehabbing knee injuries for the better part of two years.

If Markov can return to the form that saw him finish second among the League's defenseman in points in 2008-09, his last complete season, the Canadiens could be a vastly improved club.

In spite of their lowly finish in the standings, the Canadiens had a non-shootout goal differential of minus-7, which was seventh-best in the Eastern Conference. Some continued improvement from their young core, some rebounds from veterans coming off a bad season, and a jolt of energy created by the new blood in the front office and coaching staff could propel this club back into the playoffs in 2012-13.

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