You’d think that a team coming off a season in which it finished 15th and dead last in the Eastern Conference has more than five things to sort out.
And you’d be right.
But priorities must be set, and here are the main questions that need to be answered during training camp and in the season’s early going:
Can this team win at home?
The Habs will play eight of their first 11 games of the compressed schedule at the Bell Centre, and while that should be good news for any team, it might bring out the odd bead of cold sweat in the Habs’ room. Montreal won a league-worst 16 games last season in the friendly confines of their home rink. New coach Michel Therrien trotted out the old cliché about “being hard to play against;” in practice that means being a more aggressive, swift-skating team. Having the appropriate attitude seemed to be the buzzword of opening day – the words NO EXCUSES have been painted in giant letters on a wall of the dressing room. “It’s a completely different feeling in the room right now, guys are really excited because we have a very strong sense of direction right now, we’re paying attention to all of the little things that successful teams do,” said forward Max Pacioretty.
Where are the goals going to come from?
Pacioretty scored a career-high 33 goals last year in coming back from a career-threatening neck injury, linemate Erik Cole led the team with 35. That’s all well and good, but the Habs were dying for secondary scoring last season and mostly didn’t get it. Having a healthy Brian Gionta back should help, but there are question marks. They shipped a struggling Mike Cammalleri to Calgary in exchange for the bigger Rene Bourque, but Bourque had a miserable first year in Montreal playing with centre Tomas Plekanec. The Habs will be sorely tempted to look at sliding 18-year-old Alex Galchenyuk, the third overall pick in the 2012 draft, onto that line to see what he can do. The third-line centre’s role is Lars Eller’s to lose, first-year pro Brendan Gallagher will be making a push to play with him, he might have a better shot if he played the left side.
Who will play the power-play?
Defenceman Andrei Markov is back and fighting trim, if the stylish Russian defenceman is able to stay fit – remember, he missed nearly two seasons because of wonky knees – he will help a five-on-four unit that was a woeful 28th in the league last year. But Markov needs people to pass the puck to, and there’s a P.K. Subban-sized hole on the right point. Unless Subban’s contract gets sorted out by Saturday, it will be up to Raphael Diaz, Yannick Weber and Alexei Emelin – or a forward – to demonstrate they have what it takes to step up. Having a slimmed-down Tomas Kaberle will help the second unit, but this is a team that could use a few shooters.
Can someone, anyone, help protect a lead?
The Habs were 11-24-6 in games where they didn’t score first. Even more gruesome: they had a league-worst winning percentage of .488 when they actually did score first. This is a team that lost six games where they led after two periods. This is a team that lost 10 overtime games in which they had led. That can’t happen when you’re a middle-of-the-pack team that has difficulty scoring even-strength goals; the Habs were among the league’s worst teams at staging comebacks last year, going 4-18-2 when trailing after two periods.
When will they figure out OT and the shootout?
The Canadiens were 7-16 in games that ended in overtime or a shootout last season. Only four teams had worse records. Part of the problem was goalie Carey Price’s seeming inability to shut the door (he gave up 14 shootout goals in 40 attempts), but you can’t win if you don’t score, and the Habs were brutal in that department. They will hope to regress to the mean on that front this coming season. On the silver-lining side, Price is a fierce competitor, and has decided to put some of the pressure on himself. shoulders. “I have to be better,” he said this week.
That’s a sentiment that will permeate the room during training camp, but talk is only worth so much, actions are more revealing.
Therrien admitted as much, saying he’d prefer to have the ability to judge his team in an exhibition game or two. That’s not going to happen so the Habs are doing the next best thing: call up a bunch of players from Hamilton on Thursday to play an intra-squad game at the Bell Centre.
Baby steps and all that.