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Markov, young stars among six questions facing Habs

by Arpon Basu

The Montreal Canadiens are coming off one of the worst seasons in franchise history, and that alone would suggest the questions facing this club for the upcoming season are numerous.

But with a new general manager in Marc Bergevin, a vastly revamped front office and a new coaching staff led by Michel Therrien, the potential for questions grows exponentially.

Narrowing that list is no easy task, but here are the top six of what is a long list of questions the Canadiens face heading into the 2012-13 season.

1. Can Andrei Markov still be the Andrei Markov of old?

No player among the Montreal Canadiens' skaters is as important to the team's success as Markov.

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Reinserting Markov as the team's No. 1 defenseman has a ripple effect on the remainder of the defense. P.K. Subban would no longer be leaned on as hard to both shut down the opposition's top forwards and also produce offensively, perhaps allowing him some latitude to further exploit his exceptional offensive gifts. Tomas Kaberle would become a third-pairing defender and second-power-play-unit quarterback, which makes him a luxury.

Alexei Emelin would have a Russian mentor on the bench to help him make adjustments and continue the remarkable improvement he showed last season as a hard-hitting, physically intimidating defenseman. Overall, the group would be playing in roles they are suited for.

Markov's impact on the Canadiens' power play is easy to forget because he's been hurt for so long, but he was a major reason why Montreal had a top-five power play in 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2010.

Recovering from two consecutive anterior cruciate ligament tears in his right knee, Markov has worked extremely hard to have an opportunity to prove he can still perform at that game-changing level. The Canadiens' chances for success in 2012-13 rest largely on his ability to do just that.

2. Is David Desharnais a legitimate No. 1 center?

Former Canadiens coach Randy Cunneyworth was asked this very question last season in the midst of a torrid scoring stretch from Desharnais.

"Please," Cunneyworth responded, "go ask him that question yourself."

Cunneyworth obviously recognized that much of the success Desharnais has known at every level of hockey he has played – from major junior to the ECHL to the AHL to the NHL – has been fueled by his desire to prove his doubters wrong.

Listed at 5-foot-7, 177 pounds, Desharnais pounced on the opportunity he was given to center Max Pacioretty and Erik Cole to post a 60-point season, 20th among NHL centers and beating out decorated colleagues Stephen Weiss, Ryan Getzlaf and Paul Stastny.

Desharnais is entering the final year of his contract and the questions regarding his legitimacy as a top-line center will probably remain unless he's able to repeat his performance from last season.

Of course, those continued questions may very well be the fuel Desharnais needs to silence them for good.

3. How has Michel Therrien changed from his previous tenure in Montreal?

As popular as the hiring of Marc Bergevin as the team's new general manager appeared to be among the Canadiens fans and media, the rehiring of Therrien as coach was met with a chorus of indignation.

Many fans and media were still hot over their belief that Therrien cost the Canadiens a second-round Stanley Cup Playoff series against the Carolina Hurricanes in 2002, when his unsportsmanlike conduct penalty in Game 4 paved the way for a three-goal Hurricanes' comeback in the third period to tie the series 2-2. Montreal went on to lose the series in six games, and Therrien was fired the following season.

After a very successful stint in the American Hockey League, Therrien coached 272 regular-season games with the Pittsburgh Penguins from 2005 to 2009, and in his first full season the club improved from 58 points in 2005-06 to 105 points in 2006-07 before reaching the Stanley Cup Final in 2007-08.

The Canadiens are banking on the improvement of young stars like Price and Subban to take the team's performance to the next level. (Photos: Getty Images)

So in his two NHL head coaching stints, Therrien has proven an ability to have a positive impact on a struggling club. But Therrien's history in Montreal will make it so a rough start to the season – or even a little slump at some point – could shine a bright spotlight on the coach.

His ability to handle the inevitable firestorm over any swoon the team may experience will be very telling as to the ability of Therrien version 2.0 to handle the Montreal market.

4. How much can the team's young stars improve?

While Markov is an extremely important piece of the puzzle, the Canadiens are being built around Carey Price in goal, Subban on defense and Pacioretty at forward.

Price signed a six-year, $39 million contract extension July 2, giving him the third-highest cap hit among NHL goalies behind Nashville's Pekka Rinne and the Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist. Price finished 20th last season in save percentage at .916 and 18th in goals-against average at 2.43, but on many nights he was the only thing separating a one-goal Canadiens loss from an embarrassing blowout. With his 25th birthday coming up Aug. 16 and the possibility of a more structured team in front of him, there's no reason to believe Price won't improve -- even though the pressure to do so will be enormous.

Subban, 23, finished fifth in scoring on the Canadiens with 36 points while facing the opposition's top forwards every night at even strength and on the penalty kill. His entry into the NHL has been very impressive, but he's also been the target of a lot of criticism for the way he plays the game, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. However, his next step will be to become a team leader, a quality that will need to emerge this season.

Finally, Pacioretty, also 23, led the Canadiens in scoring with 65 points and showed that he is ready to emerge as one of the NHL's top power forwards, but the pressure is on him to repeat last season's performance.

5. Will the Canadiens' underachievers turn it around?

The poster boy for the underachiever label on the Canadiens is Scott Gomez, the team's highest-paid player, who produced 11 points in 38 games of an injury-riddled season. Since being acquired in a much-maligned trade from the New York Rangers on June 30, 2009, Gomez's production has gone from 0.76 points per game in 2009-10 to 0.48 in 2010-11 to 0.29 in 2011-12. There's little reason to believe Gomez will be able to turn it around in 2012-13, but at 32 years old, it's not completely outside the realm of possibility.

A more legitimate candidate to bounce back would be Rene Bourque, who scored 27 goals in back-to-back seasons with the Calgary Flames in 2009-10 and 2010-11, but never found his niche in Montreal after a Jan. 12 trade to the Canadiens. While Bourque has been a target for criticism for his lack of consistency and unwillingness to effectively use his physical gifts, he is far from done at age 30 and could benefit from having a full season with the Canadiens to bounce back and put up similar numbers to his two previous years in Calgary.

6. How much tougher will the Canadiens be?

A consistent criticism of the Canadiens over the past few years has been their lack of size and physicality.

Bergevin clearly felt the same way.

Brandon Prust
Brandon Prust
Left Wing - MTL
GOALS: 5 | ASST: 12 | PTS: 17
SOG: 68 | +/-: -1
Playing in a Northeast Division where the rough and tough Boston Bruins are king, Bergevin increased the truculence quotient of his team by signing New York Rangers tough guy Brandon Prust to a four-year, $10 million contract on July 1. While the dollar figure for the League's co-leader in fighting majors (tied at 20 with Boston's Shawn Thornton) was high, Prust's ability to stand up for his teammates while also serving as an effective penalty killer who doesn't hurt the club at even strength added a needed element to the Canadiens.

"I think they're lacking someone like me in their lineup," Prust said when he signed with Montreal.

The addition of Prust coupled with the re-signings of Travis Moen and Ryan White gives the Canadiens three forwards who aren't afraid to drop the gloves. Free-agent acquisitions Colby Armstrong at forward and Francis Bouillon on defense are also tough customers in the sense that they play a physical game, but both have a history of injuries as a result of that style of play.

Still, a potential fourth line of Prust, White and Moen gives the Canadiens a physically intimidating presence the team has lacked for years. If bangers Armstrong and Bouillon can remain healthy while Emelin continues his progression to becoming one of the League's elite open-ice hitters, the Canadiens may not carry the reputation of being an easy opponent for much longer.

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