– For a team that was knocked out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the first round, the Montreal Canadiens
appeared to be pretty content with the roster judging by a lack of offseason moves.
Aside from power forward Erik Cole
and backup goalie Peter Budaj
, general manager Pierre Gauthier stayed away from the unrestricted free agent market.
The inactivity from management sent a message to a group of players that lost in overtime of Game 7 to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins
that there was a belief in its ability to grow from that disappointment and become stronger as a result.
"We left last season on an optimistic note," Gauthier said Wednesday at the team's annual fundraising golf tournament just north of Montreal. "We were disappointed to lose in overtime of a seventh game, but with the injuries last season and the roles of the young players, a lot of the veterans were saying we have a good team."
Those veterans are still saying the same thing now as they look at a team welcoming back key defensemen Andrei Markov
and Josh Gorges
and emerging young forward Max Pacioretty
from injury, while youngsters P.K. Subban
, Lars Eller
and David Desharnais
are expected to build on their promising rookie seasons.
"It's a real positive thing to see that management wants to move forward with this group and try to win with this group and is adding to the team," forward Michael Cammalleri
said. "I like our team. It's an exciting group. We've learned how to play with one another and what we can do for each other as a team."
Two summers ago Bob Gainey and his then-assistant Gauthier ripped the Canadiens apart and basically built from scratch, bringing in Scott Gomez
via trade and signing free agents Cammalleri, captain Brian Gionta
, Jaroslav Spacek
, Hal Gill
and Travis Moen
. Last summer there was more drastic change, as Gauthier traded away playoff hero Jaroslav Halak
to the St. Louis Blues
to acquire Eller and move forward with Carey Price
This summer was defined by continuity with minimal movement among the core players, and Gauthier is eager to see the results of that change in direction.
"We're optimistic because we are coming back with mainly the same team," he said. "With all the changes we made in the last two years – only five players from prior to that time remain here – for the chemistry and cohesion of the team, that's a good thing."
However, question marks do remain about some of those returning players.
The biggest one involves Markov and his right knee, which underwent a second ACL reconstruction procedure in a span of less than a year. Markov was signed to a three-year, $17.25 million contract during the summer, but Gauthier confirmed Wednesday his rehabilitation is not yet complete and that "if games started tomorrow he wouldn't be ready, but that's normal."
The other Canadiens players coming back from major injuries last season – Pacioretty (neck, concussion), Gorges (knee), Eller (shoulder) and Desharnais (knee) – all said they are fully recovered, though Eller has yet to receive clearance from doctors to begin contact drills in practice.
However, in Markov's case, Gauthier could give no assurance he will be in the lineup when the Canadiens play the Maple Leafs in Toronto on opening night Oct. 6.
"We hope so," he said.
Another massive question mark for the team all summer is Gomez and his ability to recover from the worst season of his career, establishing new lows in goals (seven), assists (31), points (38) and plus/minus (minus-15).
"We left last season on an optimistic note. We were disappointed to lose in overtime of a seventh game, but with the injuries last season and the roles of the young players, a lot of the veterans were saying we have a good team." -- Canadiens' GM Pierre Gauthier
The day after their playoff elimination Gomez fell on his sword and took blame not only for his difficult season, but also for how much his performance hurt the team. However on Wednesday, Gomez did not wish to revisit what he called a "bad dream."
"That's last year, it's over," he said. "We start from here and let's go. I can't even comment on it because I've let that go."
Gomez said in an effort to avoid reliving that same nightmare he spent less time in his native Alaska this offseason and more time working on his conditioning with Canadiens strength coach Pierre Allard
"The older you get you've got to put in more work, and I had a good summer in that regard," he said. "I'm going to have a great year and I'm ready to deliver."
The same readiness was expressed by most of Gomez's teammates, who are not necessarily a popular preseason pick to be among the elite of the Eastern Conference. The players believe they have the elements in place to do just that.
"I'm really excited about the way our team looks," Gorges said. "Bringing in Cole, a big body presence who plays hard and plays physical but has that scoring ability to play in our top-six is a great addition for us. Getting to know him, he's a great guy. The depth on the front and back end is great and with Carey in net, just having him gives us a chance to win. So the makeup is there. Now it's about putting the product on the ice."