2007-08 Team Preview: Montreal Canadiens
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The Starting Line
By Scott BurnsideIf we assume Toronto is at least a little better than last season and Carolina will bounce back and the rest of last season's playoff teams are at least as good as they were (with the possible exception of New Jersey), it's hard to imagine the Canadiens have any chance to make the playoffs. That's not to say they won't, but while everyone else in the conference seems to be tracking forward, the NHL's most storied franchise is, at best, stuck in neutral. Despite wholesale changes that saw seven members of last season's squad depart (and two other NHLers acquired, then bought out), the Habs seem no closer to improving their offense or defense after flaming out down the stretch and missing the playoffs. The unknown, and what ultimately will determine Montreal's immediate future, is how much can be expected of a terrific cast of young players coming up through the system, starting with netminder Carey Price and including forwards Andrei Kostitsyn, Corey Locke and Mikhail Grabovski. They'll join young NHLers Chris Higgins, Guillaume Latendresse, Tomas Plekanec and Michael Ryder in a large group of players will have to mature at an accelerated rate if the Habs are to stay in the hunt. OFFENSE
The Habs featured pretty good scoring depth last season, with five 20-goal scorers, but only two players had more than 60 points. One of them, defenseman Sheldon Souray, is gone. Nothing GM Bob Gainey has done in the offseason -- bringing in worn-out journeyman Bryan Smolinski and aging defenseman Roman Hamrlik -- will change the fact the Habs are going to struggle to put pucks in the net. Ryder led the Canadiens with 30 goals, but one wonders whether that's the top end for him or he has more to give. Higgins, with 22 goals in an injury-shortened season, has the tools and reported to camp healthy, and Latendresse (16 goals as a rookie) will have to avoid a sophomore letdown. And then there's gifted Alexei Kovalev, who had a miserable campaign with just 18 goals and was a constant source of distraction with his carping about team chemistry through faraway (but not far enough) Russian media outlets. DEFENSE
Although the offense is spotty, the Habs' curiously lax defense really cost them in 2006-07. The Canadiens had the 23rd-ranked goals-against, and that was with All-Star Cristobal Huet in goal. The defense has been upgraded in the sense that Souray was often a disaster in his own zone (he finished a whopping minus-28). Hamrlik will be more responsible. The Habs put their future defensive eggs in the Andrei Markov basket by signing him to a four-year deal worth $5.75 million annually. Markov has the potential to be a top-10 defenseman. Josh Gorges, who came from San Jose in the Craig Rivet deal, will get an opportunity to show he's NHL material. Patrice Brisebois returns after being run out of town a few years back and missed time early in camp with a groin injury. GOALTENDING
If there's one area where the Canadiens are blessed with depth, it's in goal. Along with Huet, who was the NHL's save percentage leader in 2005-06 (.929), there's Jaroslav Halak, who led the AHL with a 2.00 GAA and was terrific in relief of injured Huet late in the season (2.89 GAA, .906 save percentage). Then, there's Price, the fifth overall pick in 2005 who morphed from junior sensation to AHL playoff star in the blink of an eye. He'll push for a place on the big club during training camp. COACHING
Every new coach in Montreal endures a trial by fire, and it was no different for longtime Hab and former captain Guy Carbonneau. There was Carbonneau's inability to get along with free-agent acquisition Sergei Samsonov, who spent the latter part of the season in the press box. There also was Kovalev with his assertions of dressing room discontent through the Russian media. If the Habs can't stay in the playoff hunt, the future for Carbonneau, and even Gainey, will be less than certain, even in a town that reveres both men. Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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• Record: 42-34-6
• Division: Fourth in the Northeast
• Conference: 10th in the East
• Playoffs: Did not qualify
PLAYERS TO WATCH
After leading Canada to a third straight gold at the world junior championship, Price arrived in Hamilton and led the Bulldogs to an unlikely AHL championship with a 15-6 record and 2.06 GAA in the postseason. Defenseman: Patrice Brisebois
When last seen in Montreal, the veteran defenseman was being booed unmercifully. How long does the second honeymoon last? Forward: Guillaume Latendresse
There was much discussion about whether Latendresse was being rushed into the lineup to satisfy the need for a new French Canadian superstar, but the big forward played well enough. Now, he has to take another step forward.
MORE FROM BURNSIDEBuzz Cut
In a town where every burp and whiffle makes headlines in two languages (there was a recent story in the French media that Daniel Briere had ignored the Habs' overtures because they wouldn't guarantee he'd play on the team's top line), only the strong survive. Do the Habs' youngsters have that kind of nerve? Where Canadiens Will Finish
The Canadiens will finish fourth in the Northeast Division and 14th in the Eastern Conference.
SPORTSNATIONWhere do you think the Montreal Canadiens will finish this time around? Who will lead the Habs in scoring and what's your take on the man behind the bench? Vote now!