The Montreal Canadiens topped 100 points in a season for the first time since 1992-1993, a surprising development from a team stocked with young talent.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at one of the most talented young teams in the league, and what they might do in an effort to take the next step and get back to competing for the Stanley Cup.
Bounced by the Flyers in the second round of the playoffs, the Canadiens haven't advanced beyond the second round since 1993 (the last time they won the Stanely Cup, yet there is still a great sense of optimism surrounding the team because they have such quality young players on the rise to support their established veterans.
With guys like Alex Kovalev and Saku Koivu holding leadership positions on the team, the Habs can't afford to waste their productive years. Thus, adding another veteran could help speed the Habs along the development curve.
Free agency hasn't been terribly kind to Montreal in recent seasons, but the team's improving reputation as one of the league's up-and-coming young teams may help sway the decision of a potential big-name addition.
If young players like Tomas Plekanec, Chris Higgins and the Kostitsyn brothers -- to say nothing of Carey Price -- improve, the Canadiens will have to be considered among the contenders heading into next season and that kind of potential is attractive.
So, what kind of player might the Habs want to get?
"We want to play a fast game," general manager Bob Gainey told the Montreal Gazette. "Could we be bigger and more rugged? Perhaps, but our philosophy is we're quick, we're exciting, we're on the attack and we're ready to score."
That's a style of play that isn't just attractive to free agents, but it makes the Canadiens one of the more entertaining teams in the league to watch.
Just like old times.
Bob Gainey/Guy Carbonneau
Top Prospects: Max Pacioretty, Ben Maxwell, Matt D'Agostini
Coming off what may have been his worst NHL season, Alex Kovalev rebounded with possibly his best season, scoring 84 points and tying a career-high with a plus-18. Outside his own numbers, Kovalev helped the Canadiens' young skilled forwards -- like linemates Tomas Plekanec and Andrei Kostistyn -- to lift their games and get used to handling the responsibility for scoring.
Plekanec has steadily improved in his three NHL seasons and he uses his speed to create chances offensively and shut down opponents defensively.
While Saku Koivu's production dropped, most of the decline could be traced to a lack of power play scoring, so the result was a much-improved plus-minus. The 33-year-old has been playing with more of an edge (registering a career-high 93 PIM in 2007-2008), but is also better suited to anchoring a second scoring unit.
With a carer-highs of 27 goals and 52 points, Christopher Higgins had a strong season, yet still has room to improve. A fine two-way player coming up, Higgins has developed a knack around the net, making him even more valuable.
Sergei Kostitsyn made a smooth transition to pro hockey, scoring a point-per-game in the AHL to earn a promotion to Montreal and he impressed as a rookie. Presuming that his consistency will improve as he matures, Kostitsyn is yet another quality young scoring forward for the Habs to build around.
Just 21, Guillaume Latendresse already has 153 NHL games under his belt, but is still a work in progress. He has a big body and decent hands around the net, yet needs to improve his skating and conditioning if he's going to climb the depth chart.
Pesky Maxim Lapierre continues to establish himself as a checking centre, with a nice combination of size, speed and attitude.
Hard-nosed winger Tom Kostopoulos was added for toughness last summer and, while he managed a career-low 13 points, Kostopoulos also led the Habs in scraps. For a team without a real enforcer, that willingness to go is useful.
Kostopoulos' tag-team partner, Steve Begin, is also a difficult guy to play against. However, he hasn't been able to stay healthy (playing 96 games over the last two seasons) and isn't the most disciplined player.
Checking centre Kyle Chipchura started the season in Montreal before getting sent back to Hamilton. The 22-year-old should be ready for a full season in the NHL next season and it will be up to him to earn a bigger role.
Mathieu Dandenault has some value for his ability to play wing and defence, but he increasingly found himself in the press box, leaving his future with the organization in question.
Andrei Kostitsyn emerged as an occasionally electrifying player, showing the kind of star potential that makes him a crucial building block for Montreal's future.
24-year-old Mikhail Grabovski is another intriguing young talent, but he's been hard-pressed to stick as a regular in the NHL. He scored 20 points in 12 AHL games, adding nine in 24 games with Montreal, but Grabovski may be left in a depth role if the Habs have a full complement of forwards returning and that makes him ripe to be lured to Russia.
Initial indications are that the Habs would like to add another impact forward. The team has enough young assets to make a significant trade (say, resurrecting Olli Jokinen talks) or they could go into free agency and make a play for Mats Sundin, Marian Hossa or Ryan Malone; three big-ticket forwards who scored between 27 (Malone) and 32 (Sundin) goals in 2007-2008.
Top Prospects: Ryan McDonagh, P.K. Subban, Yannick Weber, Pavel Valentenko, Alexei Yemelin
Not only do the Canadiens have a solid unit, they have a number of good young prospects in the system that should keep the defence strong for years to come.
Andrei Markov is in the prime of his career, putting up career-highs of 16 goals and 58 points last season, while playing nearly 25 minutes per game. One of the best mobile, puck-moving blueliners in the league, Markov can be effective defensively as well, but isn't as consistent in that facet of the game.
While Montreal doesn't have the most physical group on the blueline, Mike Komisarek more than does his part to bring the pain. The 6-foot-4, 240-pounder is rock solid in the defensive zone and his aggressive, punishing style makes him the ideal guy to send out against the opposition's top scorers.
Roman Hamrlik may not have been as productive as he'd been in previous seasons, but the 34-year-old veteran still handled more than 23 minutes per game and is reliable at both ends. Perhaps his cost would suggest something more than reliable, but as long as he fits in the top four, he's an okay investment.
A bowling ball on skates, Francis Bouillon is mobile, physical and effective when kept in a defensive role.
Towering Ryan O'Byrne made nice progress in his second pro season, splitting time between Hamilton and Montreal. While he generated headlines for the wrong reasons, O'Byrne shows promise as a needed physical presence on the blueline.
Josh Gorges suprised in 2007-2008. After just battling to get into the lineup early in the year, he was a steady defensive presence once he established himself as a blueline regular. Gorges isn't going to dominate, but is a nice inexpensive option on the third pairing.
One free agent of some importance is Mark Streit, the swingman who turned into a major weapon with the man advantage, scoring 34 power play points. If Streit gets a rich free agent offer and leaves, Montreal will need to look for a puck-moving defenceman to help round out the unit.
Perhaps it's Patrice Brisebois, since there aren't a lot of inexpensive puckhandling defencemen available.
The Canadiens also have a number of high-quality prospects on the way, but may want to give them more time to develop before they are given a full shot at the NHL.
Top Prospect: Cedrick Desjardins
Saddled with the role of franchise saviour, Carey Price was impressive in his rookie season, but his play slipped at times in the postseason showing, understandably, that the 20-year-old still has some maturing to do before he reaches the peak of his substantial abilities.
Jaroslav Halak has performed well in limited NHL action over the last two seasons, while dominating in the American Hockey League, so there's little doubt that he's an NHL-calibre goaltender. At the same time, it's not unreasonable for the Habs to consider a more veteran backup in an effort to groom their young puckstoppers.
If the Canadiens are going to look for a free agent backup, Olaf Kolzig or Patrick Lalime may be the best available for that kind of mentor role.
25th - Chet Pickard, Jyri Niemi, Jamie Arniel
The Canadiens have approximately $36-million committed to salaries for next season.
Needs: One top nine forward, one defenceman
What I said the Canadiens needed last year: Two top six forwards, one-two third line forwards, three top four defencemen
Who did they add? Roman Hamrlik, Bryan Smolinski, Tom Kostopoulos, Kyle Chipchura, Patrice Brisebois
Mikhail Grabovski, Mathieu Dandenault, prospects
Scott Cullen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org