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Montreal Canadiens

NHL Morning Papers: What to expect from the Canadiens

After an off-season consisting of more misses than hits, the Montreal Canadiens enter the 2007/08 season as a team searching for an identity. Just missing out on the Daniel Briere sweepstakes, losing Sheldon Souray to free agency and seeing veterans Mike Johnson and Radek Bonk out the door, Les Habitants are entering this season with lower expectations than years past. Guy Carbonneau has the unenviable task of turning this team around after its second-half spiral out of the playoff picture last season. With expectations having been lessened, maybe Carbonneau can motivate his team enough to surprise some of the upper-echelon teams in the powerful Eastern Conference and just scrape into the playoffs.

Here are five questions people have about the 2007/08 version of the Montreal Canadiens:

Will the Habs have enough offense to get them into the playoffs?

Last season, the Canadiens scored 245 goals on the season which was less than every Eastern Conference playoff team aside from the Rangers (who were far more adept at keeping goals out of their own net than Montreal). This season the team is hoping a bounce-back year from Alexei Kovalev and the maturation of youngsters such as Tomas Plekanec, Guillaume Latendresse and Christopher Higgins will lead to an increase in offensive output. Increased ice time for the team’s youngsters should result in more secondary scoring for the Habs than they received last season from Johnson, Bonk and Sergei Samsonov. Expect the Habs to improve on their 245 goal total from a season ago.

Will the team’s powerplay be significantly affected by the loss of Sheldon Souray to free agency?

The loss of Souray cannot be understated. The team’s impressive first half in 06/07 was due, in large part, to the team’s efficiency on the powerplay. Souray’s big and accurate shot allowed the team’s forwards more room to work off the half-boards, because penalty killers had to cheat on his slapshot in order to avoid getting burned by the big defenseman for a goal or big rebound. Without his imposing shot, the Habs will rely on Andrei Markov to carry the powerplay burden. While Markov does not possess the booming shot of Souray, he’s an adept passer, with good hockey sense. Markov could easily quarterback many powerplays around the NHL. Additionally, Kirk Muller has proven to be one of the better powerplay coaches in the NHL and will make any adjustments that need to be made in order for the Habs to remain efficient on the man-advantage.

Was the Roman Hamrlik signing worth it?

Some fans have questioned why the Habs would give Roman Hamrlik $4 million per year and let Souray walk for just a little bit more than that. Nonetheless, Hamrlik is one of the more underrated all-around defenseman in the game today. The former first overall draft pick moves the puck well out of his own zone, can quarterback the second powerplay unit and is positionally sound. Some people don’t realize the effect Hamrlik had on Dion Phaneuf’s progression as a dominant defenseman in Calgary the past two seasons. Although his offensive numbers won’t be those of Souray’s, his defensive game is far superior to the big Albertan’s. The Hamrlik signing will prove to be a solid one for the Habs GM Bob Gainey.

Who will be the Habs starting netminder at season’s end?

One position where the Canadiens have a lot of depth is between the pipes. With the likes of Huet, Jaroslav Halak, and top prospect Carey Price the Habs are set in goal for years to come. The Habs will start the season with Cristobal Huet in goal, however, if the team is faltering late in the season, expect the French netminder to be dealt at, or before, the trade deadline. GM Bob Gainey may be better off dealing Huet during the season and promoting the impressive Price to finish the season, in order to get the youngster some NHL experience before 2008/09. It says here that Price will be the top netminder in La Belle Province at season’s end.

Can the Canadiens make the playoffs?

Perhaps, but it is not likely. A lot of Eastern Conference teams improved significantly over the summer and the Habs were not one of them. Factor in the team’s 10th place finish in the conference last season, and it is difficult to find a team that is considerably worse than the Habs. Still, due to their good coaching, and youthful exuberance, the team should be difficult to play against throughout the season. That being said, it will not be enough to return the team to the playoffs and another summer on the golf course is probably in order for the winningest organization in hockey history.

On to the morning papers:

For Illegal Curve, I’m Richard Pollock.