Prediction: Second in Northeast Division, Seventh in Eastern Conference
Several hockey "experts," fans and members of the press underestimated the Montreal Canadiens last season, and they'll probably do it again in 2011-12.
When the Habs and Boston Bruins faced off during the first round of this year's playoffs, most people I spoke to figured that the series would be over in four, maybe five games. I actually predicted the Canadiens to knock out the B's in seven, and you might laugh at me for that, but you can't say I wasn't close.
Montreal came within one goal of defeating the B's, the eventual Stanley Cup champions. They also, at one point, held a commanding lead in that series. That's pretty solid, especially for a team that wasn't given a fighting chance.
But that's all in the past. Now, the only question is, will the Canadiens be a better team this season?
That depends on your perspective.
If you're going to focus on where the Habs finish in the standings, you're not likely to be impressed. There are a handful of teams within the Eastern Conference that have improved this summer, which will make it difficult for Montreal to leapfrog its opponents in the standings.
Like last season, the Habs will place second in the Northeast Division and around sixth or seventh in the conference.
Take a look at their roster though, and you'll see an improvement.
On the UFA front, the Canadiens adressed their biggest (no pun intended) issue, which was the lack of size up front, when they signed Erik Cole to a four-year, $18 million deal, worth $4.5 million per year. At 6'2", 205 pounds and given his skill set, Cole's an effective power forward, who, at age 32, is still capable of scoring 20-25 goals a season.
Did he deserve such a large contract? Absolutely not, but that was the nature of this summer's free agent market. If you wanted your man, you were going to pay dearly to get him.
The Canadiens also signed Brian Willsie to a one-year, two-way deal. Willsie has size too (6'1", 202 lbs), but hasn't seen semi-significant playing time at the NHL level in two years, making this more of a depth move. Michael Blunden (6"4, 207) was acquired via trade for that same purpose.
Replacing the outgoing Alex Auld with Peter Budaj should also help, because, for the first time since Jaroslav Halak was here, the Canadiens will have a reliable backup goaltender.
I think Carey Price felt (and succeeded under) a great deal of added pressure last season, knowing he was really the only goalie that gave his team a chance to win. Auld only made 16 appearances in 2010-11, a very telling statistic. While Price is definitely becoming an elite netminder, that's not the reason why he started so many games.
Honestly, I don't care how good he is. Forcing a younger goaltender to shoulder that heavy a load isn't a good idea, and hopefully, the Canadiens won't have to do that again this season.
On offense, the Habs are led by Tomas Plekanec, Mike Cammalleri, Brian Gionta and Andrei Kostityn. Throw Erik Cole into that mix, and you're in pretty solid shape.
Scott Gomez would have been mentioned too, had he even remotely resembled the star player he once was. Gomez only managed 38 points in 80 games for the Canadiens in 2010-11, and if he doesn't shape up, he'll find himself on the waiver wire rather quickly.
The depth players are there: Mathieu Darche, David Dasharnais, Max Paciorretty (returning after a near-decapitation by Zdeno Chara) and Lars Eller, who's young, but seemed to improve as the season went on.
On defense, Montreal's Hal Gill is the only physical threat. Easily the team's biggest d-man, at 6'7" (the next biggest is Josh Gorges at 6'1"), Gill has to make his presence felt, or Zdeno Charas will take runs at Max Paciorettys without thinking twice about it.
But they do have Andrei Markov, who was re-signed to a new deal. The Habs were able to lock up their best defenseman for the next three seasons. He's been decimated by injuries over the last two years, and there's no guarantee Markov will stay healthy in 2011-12.
The problem is, the Canadiens don't have the personnel to make up for his production.
James Wisniewski, whose job was to make sure Montreal fans forgot about No. 79's absence in the lineup, did so admirably, but he's departed for Columbus. Roman Hamrlik added 34 points from the blue line, and he was not brought back.
Fortunately, the Habs have P.K. Subban, who posted 38 points in his rookie campaign and will need to build upon that mark if this team hopes to make the playoffs.
Josh Gorges, Yannick Webber and Jaroslav Spacek need to, at the very least, contribute with a strong two-way effort, night in and night out, in order to make up for their lack of size and offensive firepower. They were able to last season, and they'll have to do it again in 2011-12.
Ultimately, the Montreal Canadiens are a playoff team, but there's a gigantic asterisk next to the word "playoff."
If (and that's a big "if") Andrei Markov can, dare I say it, stay healthy for the majority of the season, Gionta, Plekanec, Cammalleri and Cole can produce, and Carey Price can repeat, and even improve upon, his 2010-11 performance, the Habs will land inside the Top Eight in the Eastern Conference.