2008-09: 41-30-11 (8th in the East - Eliminated in Conference Quarter-final by Bruins)
TSN Pre-season Power Ranking: 18
General Manager: Bob Gainey (6th Season)
Head Coach: Jacques Martin (1st Season)
What They Did In The Off-season:
Aside from expansion teams, few clubs in NHL history have undergone the dramatic makeover that the Canadiens did. And that goes from the ownership level right down to the players who will don 'La Sainte-Flanelle' this season.
In late June, it was announced that owner George Gillett was selling the team to the Molsons, returning the storied franchise to a family that oversaw some of its crowning moments in their 100-year history. General Manager Bob Gainey, who took over behind the bench for Guy Carbonneau back in March, hired Jacques Martin as the club's new head coach. It was the first time in 17 years that the club hired a bench boss with NHL experience.
At ice level, no club in the league came close to the number of changes the Habs made this summer. Gainey didn't re-sign a single one of his 11 unrestricted free agents, including Robert Lang, Alex Tanguay, fan favourites Mike Komisarek and Alex Kovalev and long-time captain Saku Koivu. In their place are enough new faces that will have fans at the Bell Centre buying game-day programs on opening night. After a failed attempt to land Vincent Lecavalier from the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Canadiens turned their focus to the New York Rangers and acquired Scott Gomez the night before the free agent signing period. With a new playmaking centre in the fold, the Habs' rebuilding process continued with the signing of wingers Mike Cammalleri, Brian Gionta and Travis Moen, defencemen Jaroslav Spacek, Hal Gill and Paul Mara and goaltender Curtis Sanford.
Biggest Issue Facing The Team:
The Canadiens' centennial was supposed to one of celebration - a chance to honour the rich past of their storied franchise while contending for their 25th Stanley Cup.
Well, at least they got the first one right.
The oldest team in the NHL ended its campaign with a whimper. They started strong out of the gate with a 27-13-6 record going into the All-Star break, but crumbled down the stretch - clinching the eighth and final playoff spot in the East by the skin of their teeth. And the lowest of the low came just a week later, as the Canadiens were quickly swept at the hands of the hated Bruins.
The picture was even gloomier off the ice. Rumours about Lecavalier coming to Montreal could have hurt team morale, while a Montreal newspaper reported that the Kostitsyn brothers and defenceman Roman Hamrlik were associated with an individual who was accused of being part of an organized crime ring. While the three players were later cleared of any wrongdoing, the nightmares didn't end there. Later in the season, Gainey personally asked a struggling Kovalev to rest for a few games, fuelling speculation that he would be traded. Photos of certain players partying emerged online, sparking discussions about the team's lack of commitment. To top it all off, Gainey fired Carbonneau just two months after praising the former Jack Adams Award nominee as the best move he made.
That all being said, you have to think that Gainey didn't like what he saw once he re-entered the dressing room. While the team did make the playoffs, there was a culture of losing that was festering. With almost half of his players set to hit free agency, here was a chance to bring in new faces and a new attitude.
That being said, the Habs have some good pedigree in the new players they've brought in. Gomez and Gionta have won Stanley Cups in New Jersey under one of the league's most demanding GMs in Lou Lamoreillo. While Cammalleri potted 39 goals on a line with Jarome Iginla last year, doing it for an intense, no-nonsense coach like Mike Keenan isn't a small task either.
But even with a new mindset in the dressing room, it will be difficult to predict how this lineup fares on the ice. Breaking in seven new players and building chemistry will be a big challenge out of the gate, along with icing a potential top scoring line (Gomez, Gionta and Cammalleri) that doesn't stand taller than 5'11.
The dressing room culture may be turned around quickly, but how that is reflected on the ice and in the standings is anyone's guess.
Player to watch:
Rightly or wrongly, the spotlight in Montreal over the last two seasons has been on Carey Price - and that's not going to change going into training camp.
Price cruised through the first half of last season with a 16-4-5 record to go with a 2.30 GAA and .921 save percentage. But an ankle injury suffered on Dec. 30 forced him out of the lineup for eight games and he was never the same after his return. He couldn't get his groove back, winning just seven of his final 31 appearances.
Making matters worse was how he handled it. After getting yanked in Game 2 against the Bruins, he was caught on camera making a mock lunge at a heckling fan in Boston. Then in Game 4 at the Bell Centre, the second-year goalie gave a Roy-like salute to Canadiens fans who jeered him on a routine save. At that point, he was truly living up to the moniker given to him earlier in the year by ESPN Magazine - "The Loneliest Man In Sports."
For the Canadiens to improve on last season's debacle, they will need a better effort from Price on and off the ice. And there have already been steps taken to make sure that happens. Martin's reliance on defensive play, along with the addition of veteran blueliners Mara, Gill and Spacek, should provide plenty of protection in front of him. Price will also be working with a new goaltending coach, as the Canadiens replaced Roland Melanson over the summer with Pierre Groulx.
But like most of his teammates, the biggest change will have to be in attitude. Price has all the skills to be an elite goaltender in the NHL - he just needs to handle the pressure of doing that in a hockey-mad fishbowl like Montreal.
Scott Cullen's Fantasy Take:
A busy summer brought a lot of new faces into Montreal, giving the Canadiens hope for a rejuvenated attack, but it will require a steep learning curve for all these new teammates to become productive together.
Michael Cammalleri was a big-ticket free agent signing, coming off a season in which he tallied a career-high 39 goals and 82 points with Calgary. Can he do it again?
Montreal also invested significant money (to say nothing of assets) when they acquired Scott Gomez from the New York Rangers. Gomez managed 58 points last year, his lowest total since 2002-2003 and he'll be expected to do better than that in Montreal.
The third of Montreal's smallish scorers added this summer is Gomez's former linemate with the New Jersey Devils, Brian Gionta. Gionta came out of the lockout and put up 48 goals and 89 points in 2005-2006 -- the same season that Gomez tallied 33 goals and 84 points -- before his scoring dipped to the 45-to-60 point range over the next three seasons. If Gionta and Gomez can recapture their past glory, then they'll be in for big seasons.