NHL 2014-15 preview: Montreal Canadiens

Reporters from around Canada report on Day 9 of NHL training camps.

Counting down the final 30 days to puck drop on the 2014-15 NHL season, Sportsnet previews all 30 NHL teams in reverse order of how we believe they will finish the regular season.

A dozen reporters and analysts from Sportsnet’s hockey brain trust — Doug MacLean, John Shannon, Chris Johnston, Damien Cox, Mark Spector, et al. — submitted a list ranking all the teams in order of how they think the NHL season will shake out. We crunched the numbers and will be unveiling our consensus standings prediction from worst to first.

Montreal is our ninth-ranked team.

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Montreal Canadiens
Division: Atlantic
2013-14 finish: 46-28-8, 100 points, ninth overall; lost in Eastern Conference final to Rangers in six games
Leading scorer: Max Pacioretty (60 points)
General manager: Marc Bergevin
Head coach:
Michel Therrien
Captain: Vacant
Opening night starter: Carey Price
Key acquisitions: P.A. Parenteau, Tom Gilbert, Manny Malhotra, Jiri Sekac
Key departures: Thomas Vanek, Brian Gionta, Josh Gorges, Daniel Briere, Francis Bouillon, Douglas Murray

Off-season grade: B+. For a guy who didn’t make any big-name additions, Marc Bergevin had a heavy summer. He allowed captain Brian Gionta to walk as a free agent, then traded respected and vocal leader Josh Gorges to Buffalo. Tough negotiations with P.K. Subban included the always-dreaded arbitration hearing, and for a 24-hour period it seemed as though Bergevin’s hardball approach might backfire. However, Subban signed an eight-year deal before the arbitrator’s ruling was handed down and all seemed right again in Habsland. Getting P.A. Parenteau for little-used Daniel Briere was a nice move by Bergevin, who also inked sought-after Czech free agent Jiri Sekac, a 22-year-old winger who played in the KHL last season. Tom Gilbert gives the team another valued right-hand shot, has good possession numbers and costs less than Gorges, while Manny Malhotra has reestablished himself as a big, dependable fourth-line centre.

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Greatest strengths: It’s almost easy to forget the Canadiens played most of the East final without their best player, Carey Price. The franchise goalie injured his right knee in game one of the series when New York Rangers left winger Chris Kreider crashed the crease. Price is expected to open camp 100 per cent healthy and build on a season that saw him win Olympic gold with Canada and finish in a tie with Semyon Varlamov for the third-best save percentage in the league. He remains the backbone of the Habs, who aren’t going anywhere without stellar play in goal. Montreal’s power play struggled last year, but with Subban and Andrei Markov at the point, it would surprise no one to see it back in the league’s top 10.

Greatest weaknesses: Don’t let the fact this team won two playoff rounds fool you; there’s still plenty of work to be done. Goal-scoring could be an issue for Montreal, which doesn’t have a real gunner beyond Max Pacioretty. A step forward from third-year winger Alex Galchenyuk would be a huge help. Montreal was a bottom-third team in terms of possession last year and needs to carry the play more consistently. Size down the middle continues to be an issue, with slight David Desharnais and south-of-six-foot Tomas Plekanec holding down the top two spots.

Biggest storyline to watch: With Gionta and Gorges gone, this team has really been turned over to the next generation of Price, Subban and Pacioretty. Can they be the guys who lead Montreal back to elite status? It will be interesting to monitor how the top-nine forward group shakes out. Rene Bourque was a beast, at times, in the playoffs, but is there any chance he returns to 20-goal form? Parenteau will get a real chance to shine offensively, so we’ll see if he can put together a productive season. Sekac is a six-foot-two late-bloomer, and it seems reasonable to assume part of the reason he chose Montreal from a dozen or so suitors is because the Habs indicated there was a roster spot to be had. On the back end, Nathan Beaulieu and Jarred Tinordi both seem primed to make the full-time jump. Beaulieu brings speed and offensive awareness, while Tinordi moves well for a guy who stands six-foot-six. If both hit their stride, it will be a major boon to the blue line.

2014-15 prediction: Montreal will be good enough to make the playoffs but is in for a shorter spring than it experienced last season.

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NHL Preview: Montreal Canadiens

The Montreal Canadiens addressed a major organizational need last summer. The problem is, they had more than one massive hole to plug.
The Canadiens finished dead last in the Eastern Conference in 2011–12, but had been deemed too soft to succeed for a lot longer than that. New GM Marc Bergevin’s immediate mandate involved spending on sandpaper, so the team inked free-agent wingers Brandon Prust and Colby Armstrong. Prust has a league-wide reputation as a team-first guy who happily puts his body in the line of danger. He’s a good penalty-killer who had 13 goals for the New York Rangers in 2010–11, so he’s not a lost cause around the net. Armstrong, meanwhile, was bought out by the Leafs after two injury-riddled campaigns in Toronto. The 30-year-old’s personality is a boon to any club, as is his yeoman’s work along the boards. But the big question for Armstrong—assuming he can stay in the lineup this year—is whether he still has the foot speed to keep up in a lightning-quick league.
While both players figure to make Montreal more ornery, they do little to address the team’s need for goals. Last season, the Habs’ offence was almost entirely generated by the first line of David Desharnais between Max Pacioretty and Erik Cole. Pacioretty and the pint-sized Desharnais both enjoyed breakout seasons. Pacioretty recorded 65 points to lead the team, while Desharnais scored 60 in his first full NHL campaign. Cole, in his initial year with the club at age 33, managed a career-best 35 goals. Even if—and it’s a big if—all three can reprise that level of production, the Canadiens will need much more out of a second line in flux. Tomas Plekanec will be the centre and Montreal will benefit from having captain Brian Gionta back to full health after a biceps injury, among other ailments, forced him to miss more than half of last season. But Plekanec has never really gelled with Gionta the way he did with, say, Mike Cammalleri, who was shipped to Calgary for René Bourque last February. Bourque has back-to-back 27-goal showings on his resumé, but he also has a well-established reputation for being a streaky scorer who takes lazy penalties. Bourque also had off-season abdominal surgery, but that won’t delay his debut. Louis Leblanc, chosen 18th overall in 2009, figures to get a long look for a scoring role, but he sustained a high-ankle sprain playing in the American Hockey League this year and remains a very unproven talent at the NHL level.
The good news for Montreal is how bad its power play was last year. In four of the previous six seasons, the Habs finished with a power play that ranked among the top five in the league—in 2011–12, they finished 28th. Defenceman Andrei Markov—who’s missed 144 games over the past two years with a knee injury—should steady that crucial aspect of Montreal’s game, which would result in a spike in production.
Still, with the hands the Habs added, count on knuckles swelling more than goal totals.

This article originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine.