MONTREAL - It will be up to the young players to make the difference on the Montreal Canadiens.
After failing to land any free-agent stars on attack and losing power-play point man Sheldon Souray as a free agent to Edmonton, the Canadiens will be hard pressed to avoid a second straight season out of the playoffs.
That is, unless a core of young talent that includes forwards Chris Higgins, Guillaume Latendresse, Tomas Plekanec, Andrei Kostityn and Maxim Lapierre and defenceman Mike Komisarek take another step forward in their development as front-line players.
Second-year coach Guy Carbonneau insists his team will make it to the post-season "just on the fact that the younger players will get better."
And his strong goaltending duo of veteran Cristobal Huet and sophomore Jaroslav Halak will be pushed by the top prospect in the organization, Carey Price, who has graduated from junior hockey and is expected to start the season with the AHL's Hamilton Bulldogs, where he will be available for call-up at any moment.
The Canadiens struck out in bids to sign Daniel Briere and Ryan Smyth this summer, but added defensive help from the free-agent pool in veteran blue-liners Roman Hamrlik and Patrice Brisebois and checking forwards Bryan Smolinski and Tom Kostopoulos.
They replace Souray and departed checkers Radek Bonk and Mike Johnson. Also gone are unhappy forward Sergei Samsonov and spare defenceman Janne Niinimaa.
A veteran core includes captain Saku Koivu coming off a career-high 75-point season, the sporadically brilliant Alex Kovalev coming off a miserable 47-point year and sniper Michael Ryder from a second-straight 30-goal campaign.
And Andrei Markov emerged last season as the club's top defenceman, forming a solid duo with big Komisarek.
The first project will be rebuilding the power play without Souray's cannon shot at the point, which produced 19 of his 26 goals last season.
The Canadiens struggled at even strength in 2006-07, but were among the league leaders with the man advantage.
Brisebois will likely get some of that work and the versatile Mark Streit, who can play forward or defence, is a strong point man. Hamrlik's strength is his defensive play, an upgrade from Souray's sometimes spotty play in his own zone.
"Losing Sheldon will be a hole to fill, but I think we can tweak some things on the power play to get those 26 goals back," said Carbonneau. "And defensively, we're a better team than last year.
"If we can cut 30 or 40 goals, we'll be a better team all around."
Another question is leadership, particularly from the loss of Souray and Craig Rivet, who was traded to San Jose last March. Both were vocal alternate captains.
Komisarek, Higgins and perhaps Streit or Hamrlik may fill that void.
A major boost for the franchise came from Hamilton winning the AHL championship in the spring - with Price in goal.
From that team, six-foot-five defenceman Ryan O'Byrne and centres Kyle Chipchura and Mikhail Grabovski could crack the NHL lineup this season.
But the tempo should be set by the emerging young players, particularly Kostitsyn, the 10th overall pick in the 2003 draft who looks ready for a breakout season. The clever passer and strong skater had 11 points in 22 games after he was called up late last season.
Plekanec, coming off a 20-goal campaign, may have been Montreal's best forward in the second half of the season as centre on the second line.
Latendresse scored 16 goals as a 19-year-old and the budding power forward reported to camp 12 pounds fitter and more confident.
The speedy Higgins had his breakout year foiled by injuries and is coming off summer shoulder surgery.
The coaching staff may also improve, with Carbonneau and assistant Kirk Muller both entering their second seasons, while general manager Bob Gainey looks to be rebounding from the loss of his 25-year-old daughter Laura in December in a sailing accident, an incident that put the entire team in a funk.
Gainey likes Smolinski, who isn't the quickest skater but is a heady two-way player, and Kostopoulos, a former Los Angeles King.
"When the games are more difficult and there's more to be won and lost, his play goes up, not down," Gainey said.
Returning on defence is the duo of Francis Bouillon and Mathieu Dandenault, the latter of whom could be battling Brisebois and O'Byrne for ice time.
Veteran checkers Steve Begin and Garth Murray may also have to hold off young guns from taking their jobs.
Most prognosticators are picking the Canadiens to finish well out of the playoffs, but naturally, Gainey disagrees.
"We feel that we're going to be a good team," he said. "We feel we'll be exciting, competitive and that we're going to succeed. It's up to us to prove it."