Are the Habs a better team heading into the 2014-15 NHL season as compared to the group that was bounced from the Eastern Conference Final last spring? To answer that question, one first has to examine the new faces in the room, and then discuss last years’ Habs who will be wearing a different sweater this season. The additions include 3 forwards: right wingers P-A Parenteau and Jiri Sekac, as well as 4th line faceoff specialist Manny Malhotra. We will see Tom Gilbert patrolling the blue line, along with one, or both, of Jarred Tinordi and Nathan Beaulieu. Leaving the Habs in the off-season were wingers Tomas Vanek and Brian Gionta, as well as centreman Daniel Brière and defensemen Josh Gorges and Douglas Murray. Thanks to his heroics in filling in for Carey Price last post-season, fans will also possibly see Dustin Tokarski push out Peter Budaj for the opportunity to mostly sit on the bench and watch #31 shut down the entire league this season.
So what does it all mean? Many fans would likely first jump on the leadership situation. The CH lost their captain in Gionta, as well as the guy who most thought would be his successor, Josh Gorges. As well, a veteran like Brière, and his penchant for powerful playoff performances, is tough to replace in this regard. Incoming veterans Malhotra, who will likely play his 1000th NHL game this season and nearly hoisted the cup with the Canucks in 2011, and Tom Gilbert (520 GP) will certainly fill some of the void. But mostly, one has to look internally on this team for new leadership. Young stars Max Pacioretty, Brendan Gallagher, PK Subban and several others will definitely be stepping into a larger role in the room. Also, players who have worn letters in the past like Tomas Plekanec and Andrei Markov may need to speak up more often. And let’s not forget the team’s most important player, who garners the most respect of any on this team, the man between the pipes, Carey Price. Although they do not have a player wearing the "C" this season, the Canadiens will certainly not lack in the leadership department.
With regards to scoring, one has to agree that P-A Parenteau is an upgrade to Daniel Brière, at least in the regular season. Parenteau’s 33 points in 55 GP is a fair improvement over Brière’s 25 points over 69 games. It also appears early on that Therrien will have #15 playing on the 1st line with Max Pacioretty and David Desharnais. He will have ample opportunity to flex his offensive muscle in that spot. And let’s not forget he brings a much more physical game, and is a size upgrade as well. The only negative may be his $4M cap hit, which will look a tad high if he only scores 30-40 points this season. Of the other roster swaps we also get a slight offensive upgrade in Tom Gilbert (28 points in 73 GP) over Josh Gorges (14 points in 66 GP). Even though we only saw Tomas Vanek play in a Habs sweater from the trade deadline in March until the playoffs began in April (we’re not going to call his performance in the playoffs playing hockey I hope), his pure goal scoring ability will surely be missed. Judging from pre-season results, it appears off-season signing Jiri Sekac is an upgrade on departed Brian Gionta, and will almost certainly surpass the former Captain’s 40 points from last season.
What fans will see defensively this year is tough to predict. Losing Josh Gorges PK prowess and his ability to block shots is hard to ignore. Mike Weaver will likely fill in and eat up the majority of #26’s PK minutes. Tom Gilbert will almost certainly be used on the 2nd PP unit, and is an upgrade from Gorges in that respect. Both young defensemen, Tinordi and Beaulieu (who may also play 2nd PP), will likely make the team and play on varying nights depending on the opposition. Both bring a completely different skill set, and are gradually developing into NHL caliber blue-liners. Tinordi’s size and physicality will be a welcome sight once he becomes more accountable in his own zone. He will certainly be an upgrade over Doug Murray, who most fans will not miss in the least. The teams’ returning veteran defense corps including Subban, Markov, Emelin, and Weaver will be counted on to remain steady in both the offensive and defensive zones. Fans can only hope they have a healthy season.
Striking fear into opposing teams’ high-scoring forwards again this season will be the net minder who many consider to be the best in the world: Carey Price. Fans hope that the knee injury sustained vs. the New York Rangers last spring has fully healed and will allow Price to play up to his all-world, top form once again. If he does, many of the other concerns listed above become much more minuscule. Price’s backup may yet be young hot-hand Dustin Tokarski, or returning veteran Peter Budaj. Both seem likely to embrace and excel in the backup roll, no matter who wins out in the end. Price will likely be on most hockey analysts’ short list for Vezina trophy finalists this season. If he does indeed play that way, then it is very likely that this Habs team will prove to be better than last season’s group. Only time will tell, but it is hard to imagine there are many Habs fans out there who are not looking at the coming season with unbridled optimism. A trip to the conference finals can do that, but always leaves one wanting more.