A surprising playoff run to the Eastern Conference Final gives the Montreal Canadiens more reason for optimism than might have been expected from a team finishing eighth in the East in the regular season.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at a Canadiens team that isn't yet strong enough that they can afford to rest on its playoff laurels and just assume that they will be back in the postseason next year.
The challenge for any team that goes on a surprising playoff run is not to get too enamoured with the postseason and end up ignoring the inconsistencies and shortcomings that led to a medicore regular season finish.
In the Canadiens' case, however, there was so much turnover last summer, that it's reasonable to expect more modest changes this summer.
"Last year, we changed almost half the team," GM Pierre Gauthier told the Montreal Gazette at the end of the season. "You can't do this every year. We want to keep a good part of the core and continue to build."
Montreal virtually has the majority of their defence corps returning and goaltenders Jaroslav Halak and Carey Price are restricted free agents, so the club holds a measure of control in that situation as well.
Up front, however, there are likely to be changes. Last summer's big ticket acquisitions -- Scott Gomez, Mike Cammalleri and Brian Gionta -- are naturally safe and secure, but who knows how the rest of the forward lines will shake out?
Tomas Plekanec, the team's leading scorer last season, will be an attractive commodity in free agency and even if he does return, there may need to be an upgrade on the wings if the Canadiens are going to have a balanced scoring attack.
If there is enough scoring, and that's a legitimate question for a team that tied for 25th in the league with 2.56 goals per game last season, then the Canadiens can be a playoff team again, but they need to establish a more controlling offensive game if they are indeed going to hold championship aspirations.
"I think we have tangible evidence that we're moving in the right direction," Gauthier told the Gazette. "We learned to appreciate our team more with the playoff run."
By all means, look back and appreciate that special playoff run, but don't get caught looking when it comes time to make this team better for next season.
Pierre Gauthier/Jacques Martin
After three years of declining goal totals, Brian Gionta tallied 28 last season, the second-highest total of his career, despite missing more than 20 games due to a broken foot. The Canadiens invested in Gionta, both in terms of cap space and ice time (a career-high 20:45 per game) and he responded with a strong season.
The Canadiens also invested in Mike Cammalleri and his year was similar to Gionta's in that he missed 17 games with a knee injury, yet still scored 26 goals.
More importantly, and despite struggling to produce when he returned from the injury late in the season, Cammalleri was a force in the playoffs, scoring 13 goals; the kind of goal production a team expects when spending $6-million on a free agent goal-scorer.
Scott Gomez is durable and fulfills the puck distributing role that is required to provide the above-mentioned wingers enough good opportunities, but his 12 goals represented his lowest total since 2001-2002.
Goals are never a big part of the package with Gomez, but since the Canadiens took on his hefty contract, there will always be room for Gomez to produce more points if he's going to close the gap between expectations and reality.
It's a little early for his career to be in decline, but 25-year-old Andrei Kostitsyn has seen his goal and point totals drop in back-to-back years after his breakthrough 2007-2008 season, when he scored 26 goals, 53 points and was plus-15.
A knee injury contributed to Kostitsyn playing in just 59 games last season, but 15 goals and 33 points wasn't enough production and makes it at least conceivable that he's considered a potential trade or even buyout this summer if the Canadiens feel that they can get better production for the money.
When the Canadiens added so many small forwards last summer, the addition of Travis Moen was a counter-balance -- a big, physical checking winger. Though he only managed 19 points in 81 games and didn't scrap quite as much as he had in previous seasons, Moen pretty much lived up to expectations.
Georges Laraque did not live up to expectations and was sent home in January (with 28 PIM in 28 games), when the Canadiens weren't happy with their enforcer's lack of aggression. With a year remaining on his deal, Laraque seems assured of a buyout.
Similarly disappointing, Sergei Kostitsyn had spurts when he was productive, but generally had difficulty getting into the lineup, let alone producing consistently. Still just 23, Kostitsyn has talent that could make him an effective scoring forward, but that may be more likely to happen somewhere other than Montreal.
Benoit Pouliot was an enigma while with the Minnesota Wild and then picked up his play upon arriving in Montreal, scoring nine goals in his first 13 games with the Habs, but only had four in the next 21 games before getting blanked in 18 playoff games.
Pouliot fades into a fourth-line role when he's not producing, but a new location didn't shake the feeling that the 23-year-old doesn't get the most out of his talent.
Not many players are as aggravating as Maxim Lapierre, but the 25-year-old didn't play as well in 2009-2010 as he had in previous seasons and his minus-14 was worst among Montreal forwards. He has the size and skating ability to be a useful checker, but needs to stay focused on the job at hand to maintain his effectiveness.
Hustling winger Tom Pyatt had four multi-point games in the nine total points that he scored in the regular season and playoffs last season, so he can chip in on occasion, but he's a depth player who will have to keep battling to keep a spot in the lineup.
Free agency could hit the Canadiens hard up front, where Tomas Plekanec is the top centre on the market (assuming Patrick Marleau's considered a winger now) and veterans Dominic Moore and Glen Metropolit could both be welcomed back to Montreal given how well they performed.
If the Canadiens can't keep Plekanec, then the Canadiens could try to lure a free agent like Montreal native Matthew Lombardi or perhaps consider a return for Saku Koivu. After that, the free agent pickings get slim, unless the Canadiens are willing to roll the dice with Olli Jokinen or hope that Matt Cullen can handle a No. 2 centre role, so a trade may be necessary.
Once the centre position is sorted out, the Canadiens still need to consider more scoring wingers, since they can't count on Gionta and Cammalleri to score all their goals.
Depending on how the Canadiens spend their free agent dollars, Patrick Marleau, Alexander Frolov and Alexei Ponikarovsky are all scoring wingers with size.
Montreal was significantly better with defenceman Andrei Markov in the lineup, and it was no coincidence as he had 34 points and a plus-11 rating in 45 games, but it was a rough year for him, from suffering a lacerated ankle tendon on opening night to tearing his ACL in Game One against Pittsburgh in the second round of the playoffs.
If the recovery time for Markov's knee injury is going to be six months, from the time of his surgery in mid-May, he's not going to be ready for action when the season starts in October, but there's little doubt that the Canadiens will be a better team once Markov is healthy.
With Markov out, the Canadiens can expect P.K. Subban to continue in the prominent role that he established in the playoffs, when he played more than 22 minutes per game against Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.
Subban is an exciting player, who likes to contribute offensively, but will need to learn how to pick his spots as he makes the full-time jump to the NHL and, potentially, contends for the Calder Trophy next season.
36-year-old veteran Roman Hamrlik remains a solid contributor, logging more than 23 minutes per game while frequently handling the tough defensive assignments, though last year's minus-2 rating was his first minus rating since 2000-2001.
Jaroslav Spacek didn't play the same kind of offensive role that he had in previous stops, but the 36-year-old handled challenging matchups and ranked second on the Canadiens with a plus-9 rating. Now with his sixth team, Spacek is one of the few Habs defencemen signed beyond next season.
Steady and safe, Josh Gorges has missed just one game in the last two seasons and has quietly evolved into an effective shutdown defender, playing more than 21 minutes per game last season.
The development of Ryan O'Byrne has been slow, but the 25-year-old is serviceable in a depth role, providing tremendous size and increasing aggressiveness.
Virtually a hero for his strong playoff performance, shot-blocker Hal Gill struggled during the regular season, tying a career low with a minus-10 rating. The Canadiens should be satisfied if they can get a performance somewhere between the level of Gill's regular season and playoffs from 2009-2010.
Marc-Andre Bergeron was helpful on the power play, but a defensive liability the rest of the time, so if he's going to return, it would have to be in a narrowly-defined role, while Paul Mara was terribly ineffective, so the Canadiens could look for a depth defenceman.
Depending on the numbers, perhaps a swingman like free agent Christoph Schubert would be a worthwhile, and inexpensive, depth addition.
25-year-old Jaroslav Halak pulled ahead in the starting goaltender battle, posting a save percentage of .928 from December through the end of the regular season, before stellar performances at least in the first two rounds of the postseason.
As a restricted free agent, Halak could be due for a sizeable pay increase, but that only seems to be the likely path if the Canadiens don't hang on to Carey Price.
Price, 22, has had ups and downs since he was drafted fifth overall in 2005 and with only 13 wins in 39 starts last season, Price didn't have the kind of success that had been expected.
Also a restricted free agent, Price is at a crossroads. The Canadiens could keep him and go with the Halak-Price tandem again or they could deal Price if such a deal might bring a building block piece in return.
||11-12-23,+2, 31 GP
||7-25-32,+16, 65 GP
||2-9-11,+12, 18 GP
||16-28-44,+11, 57 GP
||8-24-32,+3, 62 GP
||17-17-34,+9, 62 GP
||14-12-26,+10, 55 GP
||29-9-4, 2.00 GAA, .919 SVPCT, 45 GP
||5-10-15,+4, 31 GP
||36-41-77,+33, 75 GP
Last summer's first-round pick, Louis LeBlanc, hasn't necessarily made a decision to leave Harvard following his freshman season, but changing his "advisors" does seem to open the possibility for him to change his career path this summer. LeBlanc was Harvard's leading scorer, but his development would be accelerated if he played more than the 31 games he logged in the ECAC last season.
21-year-old Swiss blueliner Yannick Weber has made a few appearances in Montreal already, though he struggled in five games with the Habs last season. However, if Marc-Andre Bergeron isn't going to come back to help quarterback the power play, that could be a role that suits the talented Weber.
Max Pacioretty may have been rushed to the NHL, and only has six goals and 25 points in 86 games to show for it, but he's still just 21 and is a big, strong winger who could be a fit in a checking role, where his lack of finishing ability won't be a significant issue.
Ben Maxwell has been a solid two-way centre in two AHL seasons, but the 22-year-old clearly needs to get stronger if he's going to stick in the NHL; he's still looking for his first point after 20 career NHL games.
Acquired from St. Louis in a deal for Matt D'Agostini, Aaron Palushaj is a skilled winger who had an uneven first pro season, scoring just eight goals in 62 games. Palaushaj's track record is much more as a playmaker than a finisher, but the 20-year-old will need to be more aggressive if he's going to challenge for a spot in Montreal.
While energy winger Ryan White may not have been up to the task of playing in Montreal last season, going minus-6 with two points in 16 games, he played a relentless game in Hamilton, accumulating 173 PIM in 62 games. If he can play a sound enough checking game, that feistiness might earn him a role with the Habs.
22-year-old Swedish centre Andreas Engqvist has developed steadily and is ready to try his hand in North America. The two-way pivot was third on his team with 14 goals last season, so he may have some offensive upside as well.
Goaltender Cedrick Desjardins wasn't drafted, but the 24-year-old has climbed through the ranks and is coming off an excellent AHL season. Desjardins may be blocked at the moment, but if the Canadiens trade one of their goaltenders, it's possible that Desjardins would get a shot at the backup job.
Steady defenceman Mathieu Carle missed the second half of the season due to a shoulder injury and hasn't played more than 64 games in any of his three AHL seasons, so it would be more encouraging if he could get a full season under his belt.
Coming off a big AHL season, 23-year-old Brock Trotter could deserve some consideration as well, particularly if the Canadiens can't keep Tomas Plekanec or find a suitable scoring centre in free agency.
With a strong farm system, the Canadiens also may need to take a long look at Hamilton's leading scorer, David Desharnais. He is but 5-foot-6 and the Canadiens would seem to already have their fill of smallish scorers, but 27 goals and 78 points in 60 AHL games has to be worth a look.
Additionally, the Canadiens have collegiate prospects like winger Danny Kristo at the University of North Dakota and defenceman Mac Bennett, who is on his way to the University of Michigan, along with defenceman Brendon Nash, who was just signed out of Cornell, while European forwards Alexander Avtsin (Russia) and Joonas Nattinen (Finland) are also intriguing options when they decide to come over.
27th - Stanislav Galiev, Brock Nelson, Kevin Hayes.
According to www.capgeek.com, the Canadiens have approximately $44.9M committed to the 2010-2011 salary cap for 13 players.
Needs: Three top nine forwards.
What I said the Canadiens needed last year: Three first line forwards, one top four defenceman, two more defencemen.
Who did they add? Scott Gomez, Mike Cammalleri, Brian Gionta, Travis Moen, Jaroslav Spacek, Hal Gill, Paul Mara.
TRADE MARKET Andrei Kostitsyn, Sergei Kostitsyn, Ryan O'Byrne.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@ctv.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen.