As a Montréal Canadiens fan, there is reason to be excited about this season, shortened though it may be. There are indications that the team will play with intensity and there are surprises to look forward to, as well as the opportunity to see youngsters develop.
So excited, maybe, but not optimistic, at least as far as the standings go and a shot at the playoffs. The team has a couple of new faces but is fundamentally unchanged from last season's squad that produced bottom-dwelling results.
It can be refreshing to contemplate that players such as Alex Galchenyuk, Brandon Prust and Colby Armstrong are now on the roster, at the expense of plugs such as Blake Geoffrion, Aaron Palushaj, Mike Blunden and Mathieu Darche. It seems like an unquestionable upgrade from last season, except that these callups and fourth-liners were mostly there to fill out a roster ravaged by injuries as March and April dragged on. When compared with the 2011-12 opening game roster though, they are missing talented, offensively-gifted players like Andrei Kostitsyn and Mike Cammalleri, and these guys have not been replaced.
So on paper, this is not a stronger team than last season's. The pieces are even less impressive. The presence of an Andrei Markov is countered by the absence of P.K. Subban. We're reduced, if we are to predict an improvement in the team's performance, to bank on incremental development of the team's constituents, and intangibles.
So we hope to hold the line, and maybe even wish for a marginal improvement for the top line, despite the fact that Erik Cole had a career year. We count on Carey Price and Josh Gorges to be the horses they have been for a couple of seasons. We expect Andrei Markov to perform largely as a he did prior to his two lost seasons. Same goes for Brian Gionta, he's expected to not suffer any consequences from a season-ending injury and another calendar year having passed. Francis Bouillon surely has a couple useful seasons left. Brandon Prust will offer full value for the big contract he signed in July and redress past wrongs.
We then add in improved offense from Tomas Plekanec, who had a down year, and for Lars Eller to bloom into the kind of production you'd expect from a player of his size and pedigree, and who was acquired at the cost of playoff hero Jaroslav Halak. We think that René Bourque will return to the form he showed with the Flames. The young trio of defencemen of Emelin-Diaz-Weber will have benefited from their rookie season and will be more reliable and productive.
Only the most biased fans can believe that such a scenario is likely or even reasonable. In fact, we can expect that for each player who will take a big step forward, another will seem to regress. Career seasons tend not to repeat.
So the best-case scenario has a low probability of occurring. It's just as likely that, for example, the Pacioretty-Cole-Desharnais line will find the going tougher now that teams will game-plan and line-match against them. P.K. Subban's contract negotiations and possible protracted absence can serve as a distraction, and the team is much less formidable without him. Other difficulties will arise, such as players not finding the new system or coaching team matching well with their skills and mindset.
The main factor though is that the biggest weaknesses of the team still exist. The team lacks goal scoring and offensive explosiveness, as well as depth. Marc Bergevin has gone a long way to alleviate the lack of team toughness that fans and analysts decried in recent seasons, but he is handcuffed when it comes to putting more pucks in the net. It is probable that any great leap forward in that area will arise when the contingent of young draftees like Sebastian Collberg, Danny Kristo, Louis Leblanc, Tim Bozon and Charles Hudon, among others, graduate with the Grand Club in a couple of seasons.
Until then, and until the young Bulldogs persist through their first season's growing pains, the Canadiens' depth chart will be painfully thin, and the inevitable injuries will nullify the best-case scenario. Whereas the future looks bright when we look at the Canadiens' system, this is really only in the medium-term. There is no immediate help for the team on the farm, and the plan to roll four lines and play with intensity every game will have to be changed when Michel Therrien finds himself as short-handed as Randy Cunneyworth was last season.
Taking all this into account, and suspecting that Marc Bergevin will not sell the farm to improve the club's fortunes in this shortened season, but will rather stand pat, I believe the Canadiens will finish near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings and out of the playoffs. This will in no way diminish my interest and enjoyment while watching the games, strong in the belief that this is the right course of action for the organization at this stage of the unending five-year plan.