Last season is one that the Canadiens would quickly like to forget. The team finished in the Northeast basement for the first time in over a decade and earned its highest first-round draft pick in more than three decades.
What's more confounding for the Montreal faithful is that the season can't be blamed on one disastrous month or stretch. Only once did the team post a record better than .500 over the course of a full month and that was in January (with a marginally-above-.500 mark of 5-4-2).
Head coach Michel Therrien and general manager Marc Bergevin take over a team that finished well out of the playoffs last season.
The team went through a makeover throughout the season, so perhaps the team got some growing pains out of the way. The Michael Cammalleri drama couldn't have helped the room last season, nor could the uncertainty over the team's future in the front office.
One positive that came out of last season was the growth of the Canadiens young defensive corps. Statistically, PK Subban was just as good in his sophomore season as he was in his rookie campaign, which is a claim not a lot of young blueliners can make. He scored just two points less than his rookie season but logged two minutes more per game to lead the team in average ice-time.
Josh Gorges bounced back from injuries to play a full 82 games and posted the best plus-minus stats on the team (plus-14).
The team also saw 26-year-old rookie Alexei Emelin finish amongst the league's top hitters (15th overall) despite playing just 67 games, while Swiss defenders Yannick Weber and Raphael Diaz chipped some offence before going down to lower-body injuries.
The best news for the Habs is that Gorges - the elder statesman among Montreal's blueliners - is just 28 years old, so the youth movement can continue to move forward, especially if any of the team's prized prospects can make the jump to the bigs in the near future.
The Canadiens are now Marc Bergevin's ship to run and the team will hope Michel Therrien's familiarity with Montreal's hockey culture might quell some of the head coaching pressure they've faced in recent years. Then again, it could only take one sound bite from Patrick Roy to kick that frenzy off once again.
The Habs hope they've found their cornerstone centre in 2012 third overall pick Alex Galchenyuk. The big-bodied, American-born centre is a product of a Belarusian pro and – while he battled injuries through most of 2011-12 – at times looked equal on the ice alongside Nail Yakupov during their stint together in Sarnia.
Montreal's system is also full of quality prospects. Louis Leblanc got a half-season's work last year and should challenge for a full-time job this season. Nathan Beaulieu and Jarred Tinordi could beef up the Habs' blue-line in a year or so. Meanwhile, Brendan Gallagher, Michael Bournival and Sebastian Collberg could bolster the team's wings down the road.
Charles Hudon is also a name for Habs fans to watch, though injuries prevented him from playing with Canada's world junior team this year.
A lot of what went right in 2011-12 centred around the team's core group. Max Pacioretty enjoyed a breakout season and was rewarded with the Bill Masterton Trophy for his efforts. Erik Cole looked ageless at 33, hitting a career-high in goals in his 10th NHL campaign with 35. And Carey Price's goals-against average and save percentage were still top-15 in the league amongst goalies who played 40 or more games.
If the core produces the same way and the team gets a healthy year from Brian Gionta (and Andrei Markov?) and continued growth from P.K. Subban, there's no reason to believe the team can't bounce back, especially if the team gets an immediate boost from the aforementioned prospect pool.
Even with Scott Gomez gone, there are still some huge contracts for the Canadiens to deal with if they hope to be amongst the league's elite clubs. The team needs to get more for the money owed to Rene Bourque and Tomas Kaberle for the next two seasons in order to compete for the playoffs again.
A look at where Canadiens players went during the lockout:
Michael Blunden (Hamilton, AHL), David Desharnais (Gotteron, Swiss Elite), Raphael Diaz (EV Zug, Swiss Elite), Lars Eller (JYP, Finnish Elite), Alexei Emelin (AK Bars Kazan, KHL), Blake Geoffrion (Hamilton, AHL), Tomas Kaberle (Kladno, Czech League), Louis Leblanc (Hamilton, AHL), Andrei Markov (Vityaz Chekhov, KHL), Max Pacioretty (Ambri-Piotta, Swiss Elite), Tomas Plekanec (Kladno, Czech League), Yannick Weber (Geneva-Servette, Swiss Elite)
Bob McKenzie's Breakdown
The Montreal Canadiens have a new look in the front office with GM Marc Bergevin and behind the bench with Michel Therrien, but when it comes right down to it, it's largely the same cast of core characters who will be looking to make amends on last year's fall from playoff grace.
New direction and new leadership off the ice will certainly count for something and by adding character guys like Brandon Prust and Colby Armstrong for depth up front, it's not fair to portray the Canadiens as same old, same old.
But the top Hab centres are still Tomas Plekanec and David Desharnais, though Montreal will give third overall draft pick Alex Galchenyuk of the Sarnia Sting a chance to show his stuff in training camp. Galchenyuk has played both centre and left wing in junior.
The givens up front will be Desharnais between Max Pacioretty and Erik Cole and that Brian Gionta will bring his same energy and effort on a consistent basis. Montreal is hoping Lars Eller can take on an increased work load and the Canadiens desperately need Rene Bourque to find a level of consistency. No one doubts Bourque's ability, but his effort level waxes and wanes.
Prust is a valuable teammate who fights, hits and does all the things expected of him, ditto for Travis Moen and Ryan White. Armstrong, meanwhile, will have to show he's mobile and healthy enough to still contribute but the Habs also hope to give some youngsters from Hamilton - Brendan Gallagher and Gabriel Dumont - an opportunity to at least audition.
The defence has its share of question marks. Andrei Markov has to stay healthy and that's always been a challenge. P.K. Subban has to sign a new contract and early indications are it may not come easily. And even if he's in the lineup, it will be interesting to see the dynamic between him and Therrien.
Josh Gorges is old reliable and Alexei Emelin, Raphael Diaz, Yannick Weber and Francis Bouillon round out a blue line crew that could be quite good if it stays healthy and responds to Therrien's new approach. Oh, and we mustn't forget Tomas Kaberle, who has the skill to be a top six factor but given recent history, there are questions about the will.
Youngster Jarred Tinordi and AHLer Frederic St. Denis from Hamilton could be options in the not too distant future but there should be enough veteran D, for now, to give Therrien lots of to work with.
It goes without saying Carey Price needs to be on top of his game for any Hab renaissance to take place. With Peter Budaj as the backup, Price is the undisputed No. 1.
It's going to be fascinating to see how this group responds to new coach Therrien but it's almost impossible to imagine this Montreal team being as poor and dispirited as last year's group ended up.