2011-12 Montreal Canadiens Preview

For a club that has won more Stanley Cup titles than any other franchise, simply making the playoffs is just not enough.

Montreal has managed to make the postseason in each of the last four years, but over the last three campaigns, the Canadiens have been the eighth seed twice and qualified in sixth place last season.

Add in the fact that Montreal's rabid fan base had to watch the hated Boston Bruins win it all last spring and it's clear that the Habs are desperate to improve.

Although the club made it to the Eastern Conference finals as an eighth seed in 2010, the Canadiens were bounced out in seven games by the Bruins in last spring's opening round.

Head coach Jacques Martin has a decent mix of veterans and blossoming talent to work with and the addition of Erik Cole should help improve what was a lackluster offensive club last year.

The presence of young stars like defenseman P.K. Subban and goaltender Carey Price are big reasons to be hopeful for the future, but fans of "Le Bleu, Blanc et Rouge" will not wait forever for a winner to develop.

FORWARDS - The Canadiens finished 23rd in the NHL in offense last season, averaging just 2.60 goals per contest, but general manager Pierre Gauthier hopes luring Cole away from Carolina with a four-year, $18 million deal can spark the club.

Cole is a gritty American winger who is coming off a strong 2010-11 campaign that saw him post 26 goals and 26 assists in 82 games with the Hurricanes. If Cole posted those same numbers for the Habs last year he would've finished second on the team in goals and points.

Cole would fit in nicely next to either of Montreal's top-two centermen -- Tomas Plekanec and Scott Gomez. Plekanec led the Canadiens in scoring last season, recording 57 points (22 goals, 35 assists) over 77 games.

Gomez, meanwhile, experienced his nadir as an NHLer in 2010-11, as he posted lows in goals (7), assists (31) and also sported the worst plus-minus of his career with a minus-15 rating. Perhaps, giving the 31-year-old Gomez a brand- new right winger like Cole could get his career jump-started.

Team captain Brian Gionta and Mike Cammalleri are the club's best goal- scorers, as the former led the team with 29 markers in 82 games while Cammalleri had just 19 in an injury-shortened season. Cammalleri did finish second on the club with 47 points despite missing 15 games.

If Cole, Gomez and Max Pacioretty are put on a line together, Gionta and Cammalleri could play the wings on either side of Plekanec.

Pacioretty had bounced around between Montreal and the club's AHL affiliate in Hamilton over the last few seasons, but he proved he belongs on the NHL club full-time with 24 points (14g, 10a) in 37 games with the Habs last year.

Of course, Pacioretty's season was cut short on March 8 when he was pushed into a stanchion near the benches by Boston's Zdeno Chara in what was one of the most controversial plays of the 2010-11 NHL season. The 22-year-old American suffered a fractured vertebra and a severe concussion on the play, but he was back on the ice in the preseason and could be a big contributor for the Habs in 2011-12.

Outside of winger Andrei Kostitsyn, who had 20 goals and 45 points last year, the Canadiens shouldn't expect much offense from their remaining group of forwards. That includes centermen Lars Eller and David Desharnais, who have combined for 42 points in 133 games at the NHL level.

DEFENSE - Subban, a second-round pick by the Habs in 2007, had played in just two regular-season NHL games when he was thrust into the spotlight during the Montreal's surprising run to the conference finals in 2010.

Last year, the 22-year-old Subban backed up that star-turn with a superb rookie season and helped offset the loss of the oft-injured Andrei Markov. Montreal hopes Markov can return to health and give the club a formidable top pairing, or at least a pair of studs in their top-four.

Subban was named to the NHL's All Rookie team last year after recording 14 goals, 24 assists and 124 penalty minutes over 77 games. The sky is the limit for Subban, who has a rare blend of skill and toughness that cannot be undervalued.

Despite the fact that Markov has played in just 52 regular-season games over the past two seasons, the Canadiens opted to sign the 32-year-old Russian to a three-year, $17.25 million deal. Markov has yet to play in the preseason and it's unclear how long before he'll be able to take the ice in 2011-12.

As one of the best all-around defensemen in the league, Markov, who played in just seven games last year, could be worth the money if he can just manage to stay healthy. In his last full regular season (2008-09), Markov amassed 64 points (12g, 52a) over 78 games.

The Canadiens lost a pair of solid defensemen in the offseason with the departure of Roman Hamrlik and James Wisniewski, but a second pairing of Hal Gill and Josh Gorges this season is nothing to sneeze at. Gorges was also bothered by injuries in 2010-11, sitting out the last 46 games of the regular season and all of the playoffs with a right knee injury.

Meanwhile, Gill is one of the biggest blueliners in the league at 6-foot-7, 241 pounds. The stay-at-home defenseman had two goals and seven assists in 75 games last year.

Veteran Jaroslav Spacek will also log minutes at the back end after recording 16 points (1g, 15a) in 59 games. He also sat out considerable time due to injury in 2010-11.

The Canadiens are expected to give Alexei Yemelin a shot to make the club as a rookie this year. Yemelin was drafted by Montreal back in 2004 and the 25- year-old Russian has played the last three years as a pro in the KHL. At 6- foot-2, 220 pounds, Yemelin is said to have both offensive skills and a nasty physical edge to his game.

Montreal also signed Chris Campoli to a one-year deal during the preseason. Campoli had four goals and 21 points in 77 games with Ottawa and Chicago last season.

Despite its offensive shortcomings and all the injuries to the blue line, the Canadiens still finished with the seventh-best power-play in the NHL last season. A healthy defensive corps could make the man advantage even more potent in 2011-12.

GOALTENDING - Price had been Montreal's goaltender of the future since he was picked by the Habs with the fifth overall selection of the 2005 draft, but he finally became the club's netminder of the present in 2010-11.

Many folks questioned Montreal's decision to trade away Jaroslav Halak -- one of the club's heroes from the exciting playoff run of 2010 -- last summer, but Price more than quieted fears with easily his best season as an NHLer.

The 24-year-old Price played in 72 games (70 starts) in 2010-11 and went 38-28-6 with a 2.35 goals-against average and .923 save percentage. He also recorded eight shutouts last season after recording just four white-washings in 128 NHL starts prior to 2010-11.

Price will be called upon to start in a similar amount of games this year, but the Canadiens did add Peter Budaj through free agency to serve as the backup. Budaj has started 217 games in his NHL career and went 15-21-4 with a 3.20 GAA and .895 save percentage in Colorado last year.

WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - On paper, the Canadiens appear to be the third- best team in the Northeast Division behind Boston and Buffalo, but Montreal could conceivably challenge for a division title in 2011-12. After last year, the key for Montreal is improving in the offensive zone and keeping its defensemen healthy. Expect the Habs to make a fifth straight trip to the postseason this year and don't be surprised if they make another deep run like they did in 2010.