Montreal Canadiens fans were treated with a bountiful crop of young players last year who played beyond expectations to help the storied franchise reach lofty goals that many never though possible for the ailing franchise.
Now, with those rookies cementing much of the core of the Canadiens lineup, Montreal is once again on many NHL analysts' contenders list.
Players such as Carey Price, Sergei Kostitsyn, and Ryan O'Byrne had breakout rookie seasons, with room for improvement. That's a deadly combination.
Looking toward this upcoming season, there are other rookies who are looking to make an impact. Only playing 36 games last season, Kyle Chipchura has had another year to develop into the two-way centre the Canadiens so desperately need.
Chipchura's weakness in the faceoff circle last season is the main reason why he was sent back down to Hamilton, even despite his four goals and seven assists in 36 games. Chipchura is looking to cement his position in the Canadiens lineup for good, just as former Hamilton teammates Price, O'Byrne, and Kostitsyn did.
Greg Stewart made his presence known in the Canadiens organization by playing an inspired game against the Toronto Maple Leafs on April 5. Not only did Stewart have chances all game, including a partial breakaway that just slipped wide of the net, but he held his own against the Leafs' Bryan McCabe in a fight.
Stewart has the ability to be a Tom Kostopolous-type player, which is something the Canadiens could use. Yet Stewart also has a good pair of hands and quick feet. He will look to get a regular spot either this season or next.
Matt D'Agostini also had a strong outing against the Boston Bruins the game before Stewart made his NHL debut. D'Agostini had a lot of chances himself, including a few nifty passes playing on one of the top lines against the Bruins.
D'Agostini, known for his gritty play, also has offensive upside, posting two 20-goal seasons in the AHL with the Hamilton Bulldogs. Look for D'Agostini to make the fourth line this season; if not, he will be a healthy scratch most nights.
Mathieu Carle (not to be confused with Matt Carle) might get his shot this season. With Mathieu Dandenault's contract up at the end of this season, Carle may be able to fill in a spot on defense with the freed up room in the payroll. At 6'0", 206 pounds, Carle is a great puck-moving defender with offensive upside.
Along with Carle, Pavel Valentenko also has a good chance of impressing at camp. Last year, Valentenko impressed many of the Canadiens brass by his consistent stay-at-home style of play. He may get some time with the big club this season.
Shawn Belle should also get some time with the big club. He has already had over three seasons in the AHL with the Minnesota Wild's farm club in Houston, as well as some NHL experience, so Belle should be a regular seventh defensemen.
Yet the Canadiens blueline is hard to crack since the top six are already cemented in Andrei Markov, Mike Komisarek, Roman Hamrlik, Josh Gorges, Francois Bouillon, and O'Byrne full-time now that Mark Streit is gone. However, with injuries, look for Belle, Carle, and Valentenko to be called up regularly.
Don't expect the rookies this season to be as big of an impact as last season in Montreal. Yet, never say never in Montreal.