Jaroslav Halak carried the Montreal Canadiens from a just-barely-sneaking-into-the-playoffs regular season a year ago to a just-almost-sneaking-onto-the-Prince-of-Wales-Trophy playoff run. Halak really made it feel like 1993 again.
How was he repaid? A June trade to St. Louis, that's how.
So now, without the goalie Montreal claimed as their savior (saviour?) just a few months ago, how will the Habs find a way to live up to the understandably lofty expectations surrounding them -- it's Montreal, after all -- just a year after knocking the East's top two teams on to the golf course?
With help from Kevin van Steendelaar, who's in his first full week of running our Habs blog, Eyes On The Prize, we look at Five Burning Questions surrounding the Canadiens, who were picked to finish sixth in the East in our Preseason Power Rankings.
1. Will Carey Price live up to expectations, now that Jaroslav Halak is gone?
EOTP: Absolutely. Throughout the off season, Price's teammates publicly rallied around him and gave him their support in the upcoming season. They even admitted they didn't play their best in front of him. Alex Auld knows he is not intended to be the number one goaltender in Montreal and has stated that he is willing to work with Price. It's probably why the Habs didn't sign Dan Ellis.
Fans, especially in Montreal, were a bit antsy with his pre-season performances, but one needs to remember that the players are still getting their kinks out. A goalie probably doesn't want to over exert himself and risk injury in the pre-season.
Price will likely get the bulk of the work this season. Fans shouldn't wouldn't expect a Vezina winning performance out the gate, but I they will see a lot more of the goaltending that is expected of him.
2. Who needs to step up on the Canadiens roster this season?
EOTP: Benoit Pouliot and Andre Kostitsyn both need to show they are top-2 wingers and prove why they were first rounf draft picks. Both battled injuries this past season, which did detract from their playing level. Kostitsyn had a decent training camp, and no longer has the distraction of his little brother on the team, and should have a good season.
A change of scenery got Pouliot off to a good start last season, but by playoff time he was in coach Martin's doghouse. He bagged a couple goals in the last game, but overall his training camp has been less than impressive. He will be under the gun, with Lars Eller sitting back on the third line in waiting, as will Habs management if the guy they traded for him, Guillaume Latendresse, has another good year in Minnesota.
Ryan O'Byrne is the one on D to watch. He had a terrible pre season game against the Buffalo Sabres, and with Alexandre Picard, Alex Henry and the like in waiting, his roster spot could be in jeopardy.
3. Is P.K. Subban ready for a full season in the NHL?
EOTP: Yes, but he's going to have to be better in his decisions. He has a blistering shot on the point and is an excellent puck moving defenseman. His problem is that sometimes he starts a rush and can't finish it, leading to a turnover and Subban being caught at the other end of the ice.
A few times it affects his confidence in a game, as you will see him being a little tentative as the game progresses. He seems to sell a penalty rather well, but he also needs to be a little less careless when he takes a penalty.
When Andrei Markov returns, and provided Subban stays up, he will have a great mentor to learn the transition from defensive to offensive zones at the NHL level.
4. Was Brian Gionta the best choice to be captain of the Canadiens?
EOTP: Overall attitude and work ethic on the ice made Brian Gionta the best choice of an abundance of leadership players on the Montreal Canadiens. Gionta has even admitted that he along with Hal Gill, Andrei Markov, Mike Cammalleri, etc. will continue to work in that way.
Unlike several NHL teams, the Canadiens take the captaincy very seriously. The team wants a player who can represent them strongly both on and off the ice. In evaluating the team's decision, Gill and Markov probably lost out with their contracts coming up at season's end. Cammalleri can be very vocal, but one can sense a bit of arrogance in his tone on occasion, and Gomez can be a bit too off the cuff with his comments for the organization's liking.
When I spoke to Kirk Muller in the summer of 2009, he mentioned Gionta right off the bat as a potential on-ice leader. The Canadiens obviously agreed, and chose to bestow the honour on Gionta, who even said he is going to learn French.
5. Where do the Habs finish come April 2011?
EOTP: Sometime you have to shake your head at a lot of the predictions, in the traditional trade magazines., that have the Canadiens ranked as low as 13th. Many of them just assume that the departure of Jaroslav Halak was the death of the team's playoff hopes.
Staying healthy is the key for Montreal. Last season their was an abundance of injuries and a basically new team did not get sufficient time to gel or "find it's identity." By playoff time, we began to see it. If they can stay healthy, the Canadiens should be a 6th place team. If not, it could be another scratch and claw season to grab the 8th spot.
For more on the Canadiens, visit Eyes On The Prize.