For the past two seasons, the Montreal Canadiens
have been criticized for the same deficiency -- a lack of size and toughness.
This offseason was no different.
And Canadiens General Manager Pierre Gauthier couldn't care less.
"We have a pretty clear identity -- we're a team that plays well defensively and which is very quick," Gauthier said. "We are always looking to maintain that balance. But we have some young players coming up and Mr. (Erik) Cole certainly helps address that. But we wanted to have balance on all of our lines. We talked about that at the end of (last) year. Against Boston, it was their third line that really made a big difference. So we wanted to balance things out in terms of our forwards, especially at 5-on-5."
Gauthier succeeded in doing that with the addition of Cole, and the returns from injuries of Max Pacioretty
, Josh Gorges
and -- hopefully -- Andrei Markov
stand to make the Canadiens a much improved team.
There's also the continued maturation of young players like Carey Price
, P.K. Subban
, Lars Eller
and David Desharnais
that gives the Canadiens hope of dethroning the Boston Bruins
atop the Northeast Division.
But one thing that will be crucial above all else for this team is health, something that was in short supply last season and forced Gauthier to trade for three defensemen along the way to fill gaps created by injuries. With that in mind, Gauthier enters this season with nearly $4 million in available salary cap space in case he needs to scramble again.
"We're so close around the League that we have to be ready to read and react as we go along, just as we had to do last year with the injuries," Gauthier said. "So certainly when you have space it's better than when you don't."
This group of Canadiens forwards is the deepest it's been during coach Jacques Martin's tenure.
With Cole, Pacioretty, Eller and Desharnais being added to the core group of Tomas Plekanec
, Scott Gomez
, Michael Cammalleri
, Brian Gionta
and Andrei Kostitsyn
, Martin will be able to form three legitimate scoring lines.
"The big advantage is when you look at the top teams in the National Hockey League, most of them have three lines that can produce on a regular basis," said Martin, who enters his third season with the Habs. "That's what separates those teams from the rest -- they have more scoring punch. This year, we would hope the addition of a Cole, the improvement of a Lars Eller
and a David Desharnais
, will give us more depth in our top nine forwards."
It also will create a new sense of accountability among the forward group.
Last season, for instance, when Gomez was struggling through the worst season of his career, Martin had no way of threatening him with a demotion simply because there was no viable replacement on the roster.
That's no longer the case.
IN: Peter Budaj
, G (free agent, Avalanche); Erik Cole
, LW (free agent, Hurricanes); Jeff Woywitka
, D (free agent, Stars)
OUT: Alex Auld
, G (free agent, Senators); Jeff Halpern
, C (free agent, Capitals); Roman Hamrlik
, D (free agent, Capitals); Paul Mara
, D (free agent); Alexandre Picard, D (free agent, Penguins); Benoit Pouliot
, LW (free agent, Bruins); Tom Pyatt
, C (free agent, Lightning); Brent Sopel
, D (free agent, Novokuznetsk, Russia); James Wisniewski
, D (trade Blue Jackets)
"It gives the coach options in terms of how he wants to play people and it kind of puts a shorter leash on all of us, because you've got to get out there and perform well with the guys you want to perform with," Cammalleri said. "If you don't, the next day in practice you may have a different-colored jersey on."
The added depth also should improve the fourth line, with Mathieu Darche
and Travis Moen
likely manning the wings. Ryan White
or perhaps rookie Andreas Engqvist
could center that line.
The outlook for the blue-line group largely is dependent on Markov's right knee.
Nine months removed from his second ACL surgery, Markov was not ready for the start of training camp -- though he was skating on his own -- and could miss the start of the season.
The Canadiens and Markov himself say the delay is based on prudence and that his long-term return is the ultimate goal.
Once Markov returns, the defense should be a nice mix of mobility and stay-at-home awareness.
The top two pairings could wind up being Markov with Gorges -- who is returning from his own ACL surgery -- and Subban with Hal Gill
, giving each pairing an offensive threat and a defensive specialist.
Veteran Jaroslav Spacek
likely will anchor the third pairing, with either Yannick Weber
or Russian newcomer Alexei Yemelin
, who would add a physical element the group clearly lacks.
Yemelin, 25, has good size at 6-foot-2 and 223 pounds, and over his seven seasons as a professional in Russia, he built a reputation as a big hitter who forced opposing forwards to be aware of him at all times.
Weber, meanwhile, had an excellent playoff for the Canadiens last season and has been waiting for his chance. With a strong, accurate shot from the point and an ability to move the puck, Weber would help offensively, but his defensive game remains a question.
CANADIENS 30 IN 15 RELATED STORIES
One wild card could be Raphael Diaz
, a 25-year-old free agent signed out of Zug of the Swiss league. Though Diaz likely will start the season in the American Hockey League, a strong start in the minors could see him in Montreal at some point in the season. Through the early part of training camp, Diaz has shown impressive poise with the puck and great offensive instincts. But, like Weber, his defensive abilities at the NHL level remain unproven.
Price played a career-high 72 games last season, but Gauthier's off-season signing of free-agent Peter Budaj
to a two-year, $2.3 million contract likely was done to bring that number down.
Martin said the arrival of Budaj upgrades the team's goaltending from last season's combination with Price and Alex Auld
as backup. Martin didn't show much confidence in Auld, giving him just 12 starts, with only one of them coming against a team that eventually made the playoffs.
Budaj's numbers in Colorado last season weren't great -- he was 15-21-4, with a 3.20 goals against average and .895 save percentage. However, he's only 29 years old and has played in nearly 250 NHL games, a combination Gauthier said made Budaj attractive.
Another factor in Budaj's development that will change drastically this season will be his exposure to Canadiens goalie coach Pierre Groulx.
"I wouldn't say it's limited me, but having a third person looking at your position who understands it, it's very important," Budaj said. "Over the course of 82 games, you can fall into a routine and you just go through drills, but when you have someone who can offer another perspective and see the tendencies and decide to do something different, it is really important."
Even if Budaj gets more work than Auld did last season, he shouldn't get more than 20 starts. This remains Price's show, and his performance largely will dictate where the Canadiens fit in the Eastern Conference standings.