LAVAL, Que. (CP) - In a city that talks hockey 12 months a year, much of the summer chatter dealt with one sentence from Saku Koivu.
The team captain told a reporter the Canadiens definitely have a team to make the NHL playoffs, but not to win a Stanley Cup.
It was a fair assessment, but not the message some felt the captain should be passing on to a young team that missed the post-season last spring.
But it made general manager Bob Gainey smile and say Tuesday that "Saku spoke one line too many.
"Instead of the 40-second clip, he should have gone with the 20-second clip, because if we are in the playoffs six or seven months from now, we will have a chance to win the Stanley Cup and we can evaluate that question at that time."
The occasion was the Canadiens annual charity golf tournament at Laval-Sur-La-Lac - traditionally the first time the team gets together before the start of training camp, when newcomers like defenceman Roman Hamrlik and forwards Brian Smolinski and Tom Kostopoulos meet their teammates.
They got to see a mass of media descend on Koivu.
"I said that on paper, we're not the favourite to win the Stanley Cup, but I'm very positive we will make the playoffs and from there on, everything's open," said Koivu.
"In 1993 when the Canadiens won the Cup, no one picked them to win, but they did. That's how I want to see it. We have to focus on what we have here, not on who's not here."
Few are picking the Canadiens even to make the playoffs. The Hockey News rates Montreal 13th in the Eastern Conference.
The predictions are based largely on off-season free agent signings, which saw Montreal strike out in a bid to land Buffalo centre Daniel Briere and lose hard-firing point man Sheldon Souray, who took his 26-goal season to Edmonton.
Briere opted for an eight-year US$52 million deal with Philadelphia, spurning Montreal's six-year offer.
"I don't know if in recent years, regarding the Canadiens, I've ever been more disappointed," team owner George Gillett said of Briere. "We honestly thought that he was coming here.
"We were enthusiastic and supportive and so was he. And, as of less than a half hour before the final decision was made, we had reason to believe he was coming here. So it was a shock."
But Gainey is confident the Canadiens will be better this season, largely from the continued progression of a strong group of young players.
The whole organization also got a boost when its top farm club, the Hamilton Bulldogs, won the Calder Cup with blue-chip prospect Carey Price in goal.
Price will battle with veteran Cristobal Huet, who fought injuries and inconsistency last season, and prospect Jaroslav Halak for a spot on the NHL club.
"Right away, I believe we're better in goal," said Gainey. "It's the only position by itself that can swing a game.
"We have talent, we have depth, we have competition from within, and I think it will provide us with the backbone for the other parts of our team."
Gainey sees no reasons why Price could not be kept with the NHL team even if Huet remains the starter, but coach Guy Carbonneau said the 20-year-old would be better off getting regular work in Hamilton than riding the bench in Montreal.
After the goaltenders, the Canadiens are looking for a young core of players including defenceman Mike Komisarek and forwards Chris Higgins, Michael Ryder, Guillaume Latendresse and Andrei Kostitsyn to make more impact.
And Gainey feels that some of the Calder Cup team, including centre Kyle Chipchura, defenceman Ryan O'Byrne and others, may be ready for NHL action.
There are openings heading into camp, even though Smolinski looks poised to replace departed third-line centre Radek Bonk and veteran defenceman Patrice Brisebois, the former whipping boy of Bell Centre fans, has returned after two seasons in Colorado.
Brisebois got a big hug from Koivu on his arrival at the golf club.
He will see power-play action and so will Hamrlik, who has even taken over Souray's old No. 44.
"I know he has a hell of a shot and he scored lots of goals," Hamrlik said of Souray. "He helped a lot on the power play. I think I can do the same thing he did."
Kostopoulos, a Mississauga, Ont., native, surprised the team and the media by doing interviews in French.
And Gainey looked looser than he has since his daughter Laura was lost at sea while working on a tall ship last winter.
"I think I'll be better this year - I'll be fresher for reasons we can all understand," Gainey said. "I think our coaching staff will be better - we had two (Carbonneau and assistant Kirk Muller) who were first-year coaches last year.
"There are all kinds of small areas (of improvement) that don't add up to headline on the first of July. We feel that we'll be a good, exciting, competitive team and it's up to us to prove it."