The Montreal Canadiens pre-season gets under-way tonight as the good guys host the Buffalo Sabres in a game that can be viewed en français on RDS at 7:30 (EST). While the sting of a playoff loss to the Sens hasn’t quite worn off we can all take solace in the fact that we didn’t blow a three goal lead in five minutes, effectively breaking probability theory, right?
Here’s a look at the roster, the lineups and some key storylines for the season ahead
Go Habs Go!
Who’s out: Michael Ryder, Colby Armstrong, Jeff Halpurn
Who’s in: Daniel Briere, George Parros, Douglas Murray
Despite being involved in some big rumours, the Habs were pretty quiet during the off season.
Enforcer George Parros was added for toughness which should be a good addition if only to keep Brandon Prust on the ice. Prust was highly effective, especially when playing with Galchenyuk, but spent a lot of time in the box (7th in the league in PIM) taking on the brunt of the team’s fighting duties.
Murray is an OK addition to the back-end and ensures that up and comers Nathan Beaulieu and Jarred Tinordi can be eased into the league.
Briere is the team’s most significant addition, but also the riskiest one as GM Marc Bergevin went all in on Briere at two years/$8M.
The signing would have made a lot more sense in 2007 when the diminutive forward chose to sign with Philadelphia over Montreal. He’s struggled over the past two seasons putting up 16 and 6 goal efforts in a diminished role with the Flyers.
Briere’s impact is needs to be big and it needs to be instant. Otherwise that media that French players are so concerned about in Montreal will descend on him and the term “overpaid” will be an understatement.
There aren’t a lot of roster spots available for rookies this year which should give us a good look at what the opening night line-up could look like.
Pacioretty Desharnais Briere
Bourque Plekanec Thomas (Gionta)
Galchenyuk Eller Gallagher
Parros (Moen) White Prust
No real surprises with Briere taking Ryder’s spot on the top line. While I hate the narrative, this line is small, and that’s a problem if Desharnais can’t bounce back and put up 2011-2012 season numbers. Look for this to be the first line to be changed around if Pacioretty doesn’t get going right away.
The second line is a holdover from last year with prospect Christian Thomas taking Gionta’s spot while the captain recovers from surgery on his left biceps.
The Eller line will be the one to watch with the Dane being one of the few Habs to finish the season strong. If he can pick up where he left off and help Gally & Gally avoid sophomore slumps, the line could be a force to be reckoned with this year, let alone for many years to come. They should be the team’s top line by season’s end.
Finally, the checking line which will likely rotate time with one of Parros, Moen and White sitting out each night depending on the opposition.
Markov Diaz (Emelin)
The Habs are dealing from a position of strength this year on the defensive end and with a tough division and their traditionally streaky offence they’re going to need it.
There’s not much discussion about the top six with Emelin still recovering from knee surgery but age and injuries could give the team an opportunity to showcase their depth at the position with Beaulieu and Tinordi knocking on the door. Expect one of them to be the team’s first call-up at any sign of trouble.
Is there really a need for discussion here?
There are several good storylines following the Habs this year, but none will be more present than the question of money. Montreal has nine players in contract years, the most important – and hopefully the first to be settled – being PK Subban.
Subban will be a restricted free agent but will be looking at big, big dollars if he can put up another strong season. The defending Norris Trophy champ has shown that he’s among the league’s elite and will enter negotiations in a golden age for top defender contracts.
With St. Louis’ Alex Pietrangelo signing for $6.5M it wouldn’t be unreasonable to see Subban demand something just above that level, which would put him in the top 7 range of defensive contracts, and make him the highest paid player on the Habs.
My advice? Pay the man. He’s worth it.
Also restricted will be Lars Eller – who may be the number one centre by season’s end – and Ryan White.
Unrestricted free agents will also be an interesting discussion, especially considering that Bergevin doesn’t like playing the free agent market. Captain Brian Gionta and assistant captain Andrei Markov are both up and likely to resign, but it will have to be at a smaller number than the $5M and $5.75M they’re currently at.
Parros may be one and done, while Emelin, Diaz, Bouillon and Murray will all be interesting decisions down the road.
There are a number of Habs who will look to be getting off to a quick start for more than just the team. Olympic coaches will be keeping a close eye on players to see who makes the cut.
Subban and Price are in good positions to make Team Canada and will have the opportunity to impress Rob Babcock, of the newly made division rival Detroit Red Wings.
Max Pacioretty is a potential U.S. forward with Alex Galchenyuk on the outside but not out of the conversation to make the American squad.
Plekanec is a likely lock for the Czechs as is a healthy Raphael Diaz for Switzerland.
Finally Andrei Markov may get the chance to suit up for the Russian hosts in what would likely be his final shot at an Olympic squad.
The NHL has mixed up its divisions and playoff procedure this year, making an already difficult road just a little bit tougher for the Bleu, Blanc et Rouge.
Montreal will play in a division that features old rivals Boston, Toronto, Ottawa and Buffalo and adds the original six Detroit Red Wings to the mix along with Tampa Bay and Florida.
The Habs will have to finish top three to guarantee themselves a playoff spot.
Montreal plays all but one of the first month of games outside of the division. The lone exception is October 1 when we face-off at home against Toronto to open the season.
While Bergevin will stay the course as the season starts, the Habs have been involved in some interesting whispers this off-season which could lead to something down the road.
Tomas Plekanec was a popular name around draft day, rumored to be headed to St. Louis for David Perron before the Oilers traded for him.
Montreal has also been attached to Maxime Talbot and Wayne Simmons of the Flyers in a deal that would also likely involve Plekanec.
The team was attached to free-agent Danny Cleary before he signed in Philadelphia and remains attached to Simon Gagne; however, it’s unlikely they take a risk on the fragile forward.
All and all it’s going to be an interesting year to be a Habs fan. Be sure to check in for game commentary, team analysis and general coach related angst (why Colorado, Patrick Roy? Why?) all season long!
Here’s lookin’ at number 25!