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Habs hope changes trigger return to playoffs

by Arpon Basu

In the past calendar year, the Montreal Canadiens have dealt with more hardships, turmoil and upheaval than perhaps any other 12-month period in the organization's long and successful history.

Since August 2011, the Canadiens waved goodbye to two head 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.

So 2012-13 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 also fill a 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 Canadiens bench, and he will be assisted by newcomers Gerard Gallant and Jean-Jacques Daigneault, and Clement Jodoin, who worked as an assistant in Montreal once before.

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

And Therrien doesn't necessarily see that as a problem.

"This team has potential. We can't forget that,” Therrien 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, three players who 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 have been informed by the club that their services will no longer be needed). In their place, Bergevin landed forwards Brandon Prust and Colby Armstrong and defenseman Francis Bouillon on the free-agent market, three players known for their character, grit and toughness – qualities both Bergevin and Therrien identified as areas of weakness on the club.

"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 new additions do indeed add 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.


Additions: D Francis Boullion, RW Brandon Prust, RW Colby Armstrong, G Cedrick Desjardins

Subtractions: RW Brad Staubitz

UFAs: LW Mathieu Darche, D Chris Campoli

Promotion candidates: D Nathan Beaulieu, C Gabriel Dumont, RW Brendan Gallagher

The Canadiens' offense last season was massively dependent on the line of Pacioretty, Desharnais and Cole to produce, 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 bicep muscle – would not only help remedy that one-dimensional attack with his own production, but it would likely improve the performance of Plekanec, who had a merry-go-round of wingers surrounding him last season and scored just 17 goals as a result, his lowest total since his rookie season.

The Canadiens are also hoping 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 conceivably make the club at center, 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 his last complete season in 2008-09, the Canadiens could very well be a vastly improved club.

In spite of their lowly finish in the standings, the Canadiens had a goal differential of just minus-7 (once the "goals" for shootout wins and losses are taken away), 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 very well propel this club back into the playoffs in 2012-13.

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