By Scott Burnside, ESPN.com
Say this about Montreal GM Bob Gainey, he never rushes into anything. Months before he offed coach Claude Julien, Gainey had decided his old pal Guy Carbonneau was going to be his man behind the bench. And when Julien was fired, Gainey opted to bring Carbonneau in as an assistant rather than thrust him into the Montreal frying pan in the middle of the season. This offseason, Gainey waited and waited before making a flurry of moves, including signing Sergei Samsonov (to bolster an anemic offense) and Mike Johnson for two-way depth up front. The Canadiens have a plan and thus far it seems to be working just fine as they appear ready to take another step toward contention.
Offense: The new NHL should be a good place for an offensive unit that has good speed and lots of skill led by the sometimes magical Alexei Kovalev. But the Habs finished 20th in regular-season scoring last year and then blew a 2-0 series lead against Carolina in the first round of the playoffs. Of the eight Eastern Conference playoff teams, only the Devils scored fewer times, so the Habs will have to up the ante. The inextinguishable Saku Koivu, lost in the midst of the first round from a scary eye injury, should return in full form. But Carbonneau is going to have to get more out of Michael Ryder and Mike Ribeiro, both of whom saw production drop last season from the 2003-04 campaign. Rookie Chris Higgins' 23 goals were a welcome surprise and newcomer Samsonov should thrive in the Habs' up-tempo style. But the Oilers were a speed team and Samsonov didn't deliver the production expected when he was acquired at the trade deadline. Bottom line, it'll take some time for him to fit in.
Defense: The Habs have a solid mix of youth and experience, size and speed on the back end, and one imagines Carbonneau, one of the game's best defensive forwards, will impress the importance of team defense on his team. The Habs were 13th overall defensively a year ago. A move into the top 10 is possible, which would ensure a playoff berth. Look for Andrei Markov to continue to assert himself as a bona fide premier defenseman. He led all Habs with 23:32 in average ice time and chipped in 46 points, most among Montreal defenders.
Goaltending: The decision to go with Cristobal Huet as the Montreal starter over home-province favorite Jose Theodore cost coach Claude Julien his job. Ironically, Julien, now with the Devils, was right as Gainey quickly went back to Huet as the main man when he took over the coaching duties himself. Gainey then dealt Theodore to Colorado. In return, Gainey got good goaltending depth in the form of David Aebischer, who couldn't cut it as the starter in Denver, but provides more than capable backup help. The French-born Huet finished fourth in the NHL with a 2.20 GAA and first with a .929 save percentage, although he played in only 36 games. Expect his workload to almost double, making it interesting to see if he can maintain that level of play over the long haul.
Coaching: Carbonneau, a long-time Hab who spent a number of seasons with Dallas in a variety of managerial and personnel positions, should have instant credibility behind the bench in his first head coaching gig. Having seen the team from the bench for the last half of last season as Gainey's assistant also will give him a great feel for what his players can and cannot do.WHERE THEY'LL FINISH4th The Habs will stay close to Ottawa, but don't have enough for a division title. But they're good enough to finish second in the ultra-competitive Northeast Division and earn the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference.BUZZ FACTORStock up. The Habs sold out every single game, regular season and playoffs, and should continue to fill the league's largest building. In French Canada, there is nothing but the Canadiens even though the Cup drought is now at 13 years.
FANTASY AND THE FUTURE TRISTAN COCKCROFT'S FANTASY SPIN THE HOCKEY NEWS' TOP PROSPECTS The Canadiens seem to have this knack for developing goaltenders, and Cristobal Huet, a late-season standout, now gets his chance from Day 1 this season. Unlike Jose Theodore before him, Huet seems more likely to sustain his performance. Still, pick him as a No. 2 fantasy option and handcuff him with David Aebischer to be safe. The potential top line of Saku Koivu, Sergei Samsonov and Alexei Kovalev could also be a more undervalued unit this season. The Hockey News' Top 5 Prospects for the Canadiens:
1. Carey Price, 19, G, Tri-City (WHL)
Statline: 21-25-6 record, 2.87 GAA, .906 SV%
2. G. Latendresse, 19, RW, Drum'ville (QMJHL)
Statline: 51 GP, 43, 40 A, 105 PIM
3. Andrei Kostitsyn, 21, RW, Hamilton (AHL)
Statline: 64 GP, 18 G, 29 A, 76 PIM
4. Kyle Chipchura, 20, C, Prince Albert (WHL)
Statline: 59 GP, 21 G, 34 A, 81 PIM
5. Yann Davis, 25, G, Hamilton (AHL)
Statline: 17-17-3 record, 2.97 GAA, .902 SV%
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Montreal Canadiens When We Last Saw Them ... Record 42-31-9 (93 points) Division Finished third in Northeast Conference Finished seventh in East Playoffs Lost 4-2 to Carolina in first round Who To Watch Now ... Center: Saku Koivu The diminutive captain has faced no end of adversity in his career and his return from a serious eye injury will be an emotional lift to start the season. Winger: Alexei Kovalev The 33-year-old is entering the twilight of his career, but still is among the game's most gifted puck-handlers and has great sense around the net. Defense: Mike Komisarek The seventh overall pick in the 2001 draft is 6-foot-4, 237 pounds, but averaged just 14:40 a night in ice time. He needs to be more of a presence. Key Moves Sergei Samsonov has the potential to be a 30-goal man, while Mike Johnson is a solid second- or third-line player with good offensive smarts. The departures of Richard Zednik, Jan Bulis, Todd Simpson and Niklas Sundstrom hardly count as major. SportsNation Rating the Canadiens The Montreal Canadiens finished seventh in the Eastern Conference last season, but what is the team's outlook this time around? Who will lead the Habs in scoring and what's your take on the man behind the bench?
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