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Tuesday, September 30, 2008
Updated: October 3, 10:55 PM ET
2008-09 Team Preview: Montreal Canadiens

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Montreal forward Alexei Kovalev can become an unrestricted free agent on July 1.

OUR EXPERT'S TAKE

By Pierre LeBrun

The Montreal Canadiens are hoping not to follow in the footsteps of the New York Yankees by dampening a historic season with a flop. So, while the Yanks closed out historic Yankee Stadium by missing the playoffs for the first time since 1993, the Habs hope their 100th anniversary will instead be mirrored by a season to remember. And perhaps a first Stanley Cup since 1993?

On paper, at least, they have a club that once again will contend for first place in the Eastern Conference and possibly long playoff run.

Shrewd drafting and developing are paying off for a Canadiens team that seems to be deep at every position. The window of opportunity is now, and it just so happens to be a hugely important year in the team's history.

"We've been trying to move up as quickly as we could," Canadiens GM Bob Gainey told ESPN.com. "And most of those were [player] projections, in the past, without any real support. Certain players, I think, gave us support for our projections last year. And that's why expectations are up …

"Following that, yes, I think there's good energy in our city with our fans for our team and for the season," Gainey added. "With the last few pieces, the players have to become a team and they have to become a good team because the competition will be there to test us."

More: Montreal Canadiens

E.J. Hradek previews the Habs and the rest of the Northeast Division in ESPN The Magazine's 2008-09 NHL preview. Story

• Vote: Your take on N'east?

OFFENSE
Quick, the second-most prolific offense in the NHL last season? Probably not too many people would pick Montreal. But the team's 257 goals were second only to Ottawa's 258. And that was despite the fact that the Habs didn't have a skater among the top 10 NHL scorers. But a balanced offense and the NHL's No. 1-ranked power play (for the second straight season) proved to be a lethal combination.

Still, a second-round playoff loss to the Philadelphia Flyers exposed some holes in that offensive group. Gainey reacted by adding a trio of names: star winger Alex Tanguay, veteran center Robert Lang and, the NHL's premier tough guy, Georges Laraque. All of which cost nothing in return in terms of roster players. Tanguay and Lang join a talented top-nine forward group that also has Saku Koivu, Guillaume Latendresse, Alexei Kovalev, Tomas Plekanec, Christopher Higgins and the brother act of Andrei and Sergei Kostitsyn. In other words, deep up front.

DEFENSE
Mark Streit's loss via free agency was not insignificant. He was an important part of that No. 1-ranked power play. But, as far as the blue-line corps at even strength, Streit played most of the remainder of last season at forward. Otherwise, it's the same group that returns. Andrei Markov and Mike Komisarek headline a corps that doesn't knock your socks off but probably is as good as any in the East. (That's because all the great blueliners are in the West.) Francis Bouillon, Josh Georges, Roman Hamrlik, Ryan O'Byrne, Patrice Brisebois and Mathieu Dandenault (when he's not playing forward) round out the Habs' group.

GOALTENDING
It's somewhat unfair to pin so much on a 21-year-old, but the Canadiens might have reached the Eastern Conference finals this past spring had it not been for Carey Price's meltdown against the Flyers. Montreal dominated large stretches of that series but was crushed by weak goals allowed by Price. The good news is, he is indeed only 21 and he'll learn from that painful episode. The Canadiens obviously believe he remains a franchise goalie in the making. The Habs have depth in goal with the talented Jaroslav Halak (trade bait?) backing up Price and veteran Marc Denis coming at a rebate to fill the No. 3 role in the organization. Sneaky pickup by Gainey.

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.

FROM INSIDE THE GM'S BRAIN ...

By Jay Feaster

The biggest improvement in Montreal is the commitment the club made to anointing Carey Price as their goalie of the present, and future. Bob Gainey is one of the most confident, proud and high-character general managers in the game, and Montreal benefits from his decisiveness and leadership. When he determined, rightly, that Price could handle the load in net, he dispatched Cristobal Huet for a draft pick at last season's trade deadline. When he realized Mats Sundin felt he would be doing the Canadiens a favor by thinking about playing for them rather than recognizing the opportunity Montreal was presenting to him in its 100th season, Gainey withdrew his offer and moved on to Plan B. No GM does it with more class, dignity and stealth than Gainey.

The additions of Alex Tanguay and Robert Lang will help an already potent offense, particularly if Alexei Kovalev remains committed to the team concept. Tough guy Georges Laraque will see that Montreal's talented players have plenty of room to operate, and the blue line can both defend and chip in with offense, when needed. Repeating as Northeast Division champs and topping the East are real possibilities.

Jay Feaster served as general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning from 2001-02 season before resigning last season. He is a contributor to ESPN.com.

MONTREAL CANADIENS

EXTRA CREDITS
• Canadiens Home
• 2008-09 Schedule
• Complete Roster
• Photos
• Search: Canadiens

IN REVIEW
• Record: 47-25-10
• Division: First in the Northeast
• Conference: First in the East
• Playoffs: Ousted in second round vs. PHI

TOUGH STRETCH
• A six-game road trip Feb. 9 through 18 will test the Habs with stops in Calgary, Edmonton, Colorado, Vancouver, Washington and Pittsburgh.



COACH'S CORNER

Carbonneau

Guy Carbonneau
Experience: Two years
Record: 164-89-59-16
Playoffs: 5-7
Stanley Cup titles: 0

• Guy Carbonneau was a Jack Adams nominee for coach of the year last season after guiding the Canadiens from non-playoff team to Eastern Conference regular-season champs. He found a way to get the best out of Kovalev, no small feat. His decision to start Halak over Price in Game 4 of the second-round series with Philadelphia took guts, even though it didn't work out. His dexterity with the media, in both languages, should not be overlooked, either. A slight misstep can be pounced on by a hungry media horde feeding an large appetite for anything connected to the Bleu, Blanc et Rouge.

STARTING FIVE ... AS WE SEE IT

F -- Andrei Kostitsyn
• Entering his fourth season with the Habs. The 23-year-old had a breakout 26-goal campaign in his first full NHL season. He's capable of 30.

F -- Tomas Plekanec
• Entering his fifth season with the Habs. Can he follow up a career-high 69 points?

F -- Alexei Kovalev
• Entering his fourth full season with the Habs. Which Kovalev will show up this season? The charged-up, 84-point man of last season, or the inconsistent, 47-point man of 2006-07?

D -- Andrei Markov
• Entering his eighth season with the Habs. The 29-year-old has posted 103 points over the past three seasons. He's a consistent, puck-moving All-Star who keys the power play.

D -- Mike Komisarek
• Entering his sixth season with the Habs. The bruising blueliner is an unrestricted free agent July 1. Big year!

KEY QUESTION

Price

Question: With all the hoopla surrounding this special season in Montreal, can the Canadiens deliver what their fans want?

Answer: Another good playoff run is possible, but a championship might be asking too much. It's a skilled, fast-skating team, but one that still can be pushed around at times, especially in the playoffs. We're not trying to be party poopers. There still will be lots to celebrate this season, but a 25th Stanley Cup title might be pushing it. Maybe.

FANTASY TAKE

Koivu

Sleeper: Sergei Kostitsyn, RW: The possibility of the Kostitsyn brothers flanking a talented center like Plekanec or Lang is tantalizing. Just look at the Sedin twins to see how chemistry can work on the ice between talented siblings.

Bust: Saku Koivu, C: Lang's arrival quickly pushes Koivu down another peg on the Canadiens' depth chart. Chris Higgins and Guillaume Latendresse are better linemates than most other third lines offer, but ice time and defensive assignments won't make scoring easy.

Outlook: Les Habitants are rich in fantasy goodness. The greatest value, however, begins to flow from coach Guy Carbonneau's vicious power-play attack that led the league last season. Many of the catalysts from last season's unit return with a few more top-six forwards sprinkled in. However the lines get juggled, Alexei Kovalev, Andrei Kostitsyn, Plekanec, Alex Tanguay, Sergei Kostitsyn and Lang should be owned in all fantasy leagues (probably in that order). -- Sean Allen

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