After making it to the Eastern Conference Final two years ago and coming within an overtime goal of knocking off the eventual Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins last season, the Montreal Canadiens are hoping that this is the year they take the next step.
Canadiens head coach Jacques Martin addressed his team's chances in 2011 in an interview Tuesday on TSN's That's Hockey.
"We feel that we've improved our hockey club this off-season with the addition of Erik Cole and Peter Budaj. We feel that we need to have more production from the bottom part of our lineup and we need to be consistent on a nightly basis," explained Martin.
"The league is completely competitive and you look every year and it's a battle to make the playoffs. You probably need around 95 points to get into the playoffs, so hopefully we have improved our club so that we're more successful every night."
Montreal's success begins with goaltender Carey Price, who set a team record by playing in 72 games last season. The Canadiens are hoping to lighten the load on their starting netminder in this year's campaign.
"I think Carey had an outstanding season last year and he was a big part of our success. In the off-season, we acquired Peter Budaj and hopefully he can take some games off Carey's responsibility. It's something that you have to judge and hopefully we're looking at probably 60 games for Carey during the season," explained Martin.
Price's workload may also be reduced by the return of veteran defenceman Andrei Markov, who has only appeared in 52 games over the past two seasons.
"Andrei is on schedule as far as his rehab from his knee surgery," said Martin. "Things have gone well. He's not skating with the team yet but we are hoping that he'll start shortly, and then hopefully at some point at the beginning of the season he'll be able to rejoin our team."
With Markov out of the lineup to start the year, the Canadiens may go with a more youthful look on their blueline with defencemen Raphael Diaz and Alexei Yemelin. Both have pro experience from the Swiss League (Diaz) and the KHL (Yemelin).
"The fact that they've been exposed to professional hockey, they're more mature and they can bring a different dimension," Martin stated. "Diaz has good vision and moves the puck well while supporting the attack. Yemelin is more of a defensive type of defenceman that has a solid and physical presence. Those two youngsters have had an opportunity to play professional hockey; it's just a matter of adjusting to the NHL game."
While keeping their defence corps healthy will be on the Canadiens' wish list heading into the season, finding a way to improve their scoring is also a priority. The Canadiens were 23rd overall in scoring a year ago, but are hoping the addition of Cole can help them find the back of the net more consistently.
"Erik is part of our improvement as a team; we're counting on him to give us some production. But at the same time, we feel that we have some younger players that will help our production offensively," said Martin.
"Having a Max Pacioretty for a full season is one example. Another example is Lars Eller and David Desharnais, both of which showed very well at the end of last season. We feel that they can improve our third line and improve our scoring on the third line as well."
The Canadiens begin their season with an Original Six showdown in Toronto against the Maple Leafs on Thursday.