NHL.com is providing in-depth analysis for each of its 30 teams throughout August. Today, the biggest reasons for optimism and the biggest questions facing the Montreal Canadiens.
The Montreal Canadiens will take the ice this season significantly different then how they ended one of the most discouraging seasons in their history.
Goalie Carey Price and defenseman Shea Weber will give Montreal a sneak peek at what awaits this season when they play for Team Canada at the World Cup of Hockey 2016. The return of Price from a sprained right MCL is a godsend in Montreal. Weber, his booming shot and tough physical play came at a high cost when the Canadiens acquired him in a trade with the Nashville Predators for defenseman and fan favorite P.K. Subban.
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Here are four reasons for optimism entering this season:
1. Carey Price is back
The Canadiens started last season on a historic run that put their record at 19-4-3 after a 2-1 win against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Dec. 1. For the next four months, Montreal was the worst team in the NHL at 15-32-3.
Take a moment to let that sink in: The Canadiens had a .330 point percentage over 50 games from Dec. 3 through March 26.
The Canadiens had to cope with the loss of one of the best players in the game, and there is nothing better that could happen to them than the return of a healthy Price.
2. The presence of Shea Weber
Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews took to Twitter to display his perspective on having to face less of Weber after the trade.
"Hey Webs good luck in Montreal thanks for leaving our division! #relief" read the tweet that spoke volumes about the price Weber makes opponents pay to get near the crease.
Price figures to be the prime beneficiary of the 6-foot-4, 236-pound defenseman's no-nonsense approach. There is no understating the importance to the Canadiens of ensuring that their most valuable asset is properly protected.
Montreal's run in the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs was short-circuited when Price sustained a right knee injury in a collision with New York Rangers forward Chris Kreider in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final. Price got a small measure of payback when he knocked Kreider down behind his net last season, but the Canadiens can't afford to put the onus on him to defend himself.
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3. The return of Kirk Muller to fix the power play
It is difficult to understand why the Canadiens power play struggled to produce in recent seasons with Subban, Max Pacioretty, Andrei Markov, Brendan Gallagher, Jeff Petry, Tomas Plekanec and Alex Galchenyuk among the mix. Whatever the reasons, the numbers don't lie.
Montreal's lack of power-play production was particularly evident during the 2015 playoffs. The Canadiens scored two goals in 36 opportunities over 12 games, and the problems were not fixed last season. Montreal finished 25th in the League with a 16.2 success rate and tied for 23rd with 42 power-play goals.
Muller is back for a third go-round, this time as an associate coach tasked with improving the power play. After winning the Stanley Cup with Montreal as a player in 1993, he helped the Canadiens consistently have one of the top producing power plays in the League during five seasons as an assistant coach from 2006-11. Muller had similar success running the power play the past two seasons with the St. Louis Blues, who finished sixth (21.5 percent) with the man-advantage last season after finishing fourth (22.3 percent) the previous season.
4. The emergence of Alex Galchenyuk as a top-line center
Since debuting in the NHL as an 18-year-old in 2012-13, Galchenyuk played the majority of his first three seasons at left wing. Canadiens coach Michel Therrien preached patience in developing Galchenyuk as a player and remained cautious about shifting him to center, his natural position.
Galchenyuk appears to have broken through to become that top-line center between Pacioretty and Gallagher. The line clicked at the end of the season, and Galchenyuk and Pacioretty each scored 30 goals.
Video: TBL@MTL: Galchenyuk nets his second goal of the game
Here are three key questions facing the Canadiens:
1. Will Carey Price remain healthy all season?
There is no understating Price's value to the Canadiens. He won 10 of 12 starts before his season came to an end. The hot start followed his Canadiens record 44 wins in 2014-15, when he won the Hart and Vezina trophy with nine shutouts, leading the League with a 1.96 goals-against-average and .933 save percentage.
"What is sometimes forgotten, and I strongly believe this, is that we were missing Carey Price, our No. 1 goaltender, for pretty much the whole year except for 12 games," Bergevin said last month. "That was a big, big blow to our team. We needed to play about .500 after about Dec. 5. If we had, we'd have been around 100 points, which gets you in [the Stanley Cup Playoffs]. We weren't able to do that."
2. Will Alexander Radulov make a positive impact in Montreal?
Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin took a chance when he signed Radulov to a one-year, contract reportedly worth $5.75 million on July 1, but there is potential for a payoff.
Radulov scored 169 goals and 492 points in 391 games in eight seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League. He had 47 goals and 102 points in 154 games during two stints with Nashville (2006-08; 2011-12).
"What's happened in the past is in the past," Radulov said after he signed with Montreal. "The NHL is the best league, obviously, and I'm in a good time in my age (30), and it feels good and I really want to come back and play in the best league against the best players, compete and obviously try to win the Stanley Cup."
3. Are the Canadiens the team that started 2015-16 or the one that fell apart?
It's hard to believe that the loss of one player could have such a dramatic impact, but at first glance it sure looks like losing Price two months into the season changed everything for the Canadiens.
But there were other significant players lost to injury along the way. Gallagher was limited to 53 games because of two injuries, though he managed 19 goals and 40 points. Petry also was sidelined twice, including by a sports hernia that required season-ending surgery.
The stark contrast between the early success the Canadiens enjoyed before their season went south leaves many wondering what they are really made of.