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Philadelphia Flyers' Braydon Coburn, top, collides with Montreal Canadiens' Maxim Lapierre in the third period of Game 5 of the NHL hockey Eastern Conference finals, Monday, May 24, 2010, in Philadelphia. Philadelphia won 4-2 and took the series 4-1.

Matt Slocum/AP

When it was over, the rookie slumped alone in a corner of the deathly still dressing room, sucking on a bag of ice cubes to soothe a mouth cut open by an errant stick.

But there are sunnier dawns ahead for 21-year-old P.K. Subban, the Montreal Canadiens' promising young defenceman, who shone as the brightest of many bright spots in the 2009-10 NHL season.

"We had it in this room," he said Monday, after the Habs' playoff elimination at the hands of the Philadelphia Flyers, "we just came up short at the end."

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Ah, the mythical "it."

As the Habs packed up their lockers and said their goodbyes on Tuesday, the obvious lesson from their remarkable run to the Eastern Conference final was that a hoped-for culture shift - propelled by an influx of players last summer - has taken root.

Unfortunately, recent precedent shows that reaching the conference final, or the Stanley Cup final, as the Edmonton Oilers did in 2006, isn't necessarily evidence of a steady upward progression, or that "it" won't vanish as quickly as it arrived. And if the Habs hope to build, they'll need to address some familiar problem areas: secondary scoring and defensive depth.

Though their free-agent picture isn't expected to change as radically as last year - when they didn't re-sign any of their 10 unrestricted free agents - it's still plenty complicated.

The Canadiens have roughly $44.7-million (U.S.) committed to 14 players (including the eventual buyout of enforcer Georges Laraque), which optimistically leaves $13-million to $14-million for the remaining nine roster spots.

That could prove problematic in a year where some are due big pay increases.

At the head of the list is centre Tomas Plekanec, who led the team in scoring in the regular season, but faltered disconcertingly in the playoffs.

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The team's brain trust will hope it was fatigue or a rumoured balky hip rather than a more sinister cause - for example, an inability to elevate his game - but even if the playoffs dented his value, Plekanec will be looking for a hefty raise from his current $2.75-million a year.

In a free-agent class that's relatively thin on centres, Plekanec could have plenty of suitors. (The biggest name is Patrick Marleau of the San Jose Sharks, who would be an intriguing, if expensive, possibility if Plekanec were to leave. He said Tuesday he wants to stay put.)

Then, there's the thorny question of what to do about the team's goaltending.

Both Jaroslav Halak, who played brilliantly in the playoffs but couldn't will his team to the Cup final, and Carey Price are set to become restricted free agents.

In Halak's case, arbitration eligibility should confer a considerable raise on his current $800,000. (Could it reach Kari Lehtonen's $3.55-million average salary with the Dallas Stars? His agent won't be blamed for asking.)

Halak said of his contract status: "Right now, I just want to go on vacation and put aside hockey and not think about it."

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Habs general manager Pierre Gauthier, for his part, said: "All the options are open when it comes to our goaltenders."

Though it mightn't be popular with fans, a trade involving the 25-year-old Slovak netminder can't be ruled out.

The same might be said of Price, who at 22 arguably has higher market value. And his negotiating position is weaker than Halak's. The fifth-overall draft choice in 2005 could be handed a take-it-or-leave-it qualifying offer of about $925,000. (The fourth-overall pick in 2005, winger Benoit Pouliot, is also an RFA, and in an identical position).

Third-line centre Dominic Moore (UFA) will surely be a priority, as will jack-of-all-trades Tom Pyatt (RFA), but the money gets scarce after that for role players.

So unless the Canadiens turn to unproven youngsters such as Ben Maxwell, Max Pacioretty or David Desharnais, it will require moving out some salary. Defenceman Roman Hamrlik's $5.5-million a year leaps out, as does the fact injured blueliner Andrei Markov is entering a contract year.

If no arrangement can be reached - and there are persistent rumours the bare bones of deals with Markov and Plekanec are in place - the Habs may have to contemplate dealing the Russian defenceman, who turns 32 in December.

It's more likely the Habs will try and move Hamrlik, who has a limited no-trade clause, or the ineffective but vastly talented winger Andrei Kostitsyn (and his malcontent younger brother, Sergei) to greener pastures.

With a report from

The Canadian Press

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About the Author
National Correspondent

Sean Gordon joined the Globe's Quebec bureau in 2008 and covers the Canadiens, Alouettes and Impact, as well as Quebec's contingent of Olympic athletes. More

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