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Daunting road back to Cup contention

Daunting road back to Cup contention

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MONTREAL — Consider it a blessing the Montreal Canadiens are so accustomed to being underdogs because they’re opening training camp this week with the odds once again stacked against them.

Few would argue this roster has improved from the one that barely made last season’s playoffs before shocking the hockey world with an appearance in the Stanley Cup final. Many would argue it’s gotten worse and with just cause.

Captain Shea Weber, who was at the heart of Montreal’s run, is recovering from multiple injuries that will sideline him for the year. His presence both on and off the ice will be missed dearly. And though incoming veteran defenceman David Savard can help supplant some of what he brought, those skates are too big to fill completely.

The Canadiens’ gut also took a big hit when one of the game’s best shutdown centres, Phillip Danault, left Montreal and loaded his bank account with a $33-million contract to play for the Los Angeles Kings for the next six years. Budding centre Jesperi Kotkaniemi being poached by the Carolina Hurricanes, who signed him to a $6.1-million offer sheet, was a second punch right to the midsection.

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Even if the acquisition of Christian Dvorak from the Arizona Coyotes helped soften those blows, he and a pair of young centres will immediately be under the gun to change the perception that this is an area of weakness for the Canadiens.

Nick Suzuki, the 22-year-old who started his career as a fourth-line winger just two seasons ago, is stepping on the ice Thursday as the clear-cut top pivot of the team. And Jake Evans, who has just 60 games of NHL experience under his belt, is jumping into the three-hole with much to prove.

Behind them are Cedric Paquette and Mathieu Perreault, cagey vets who signed bargain deals to help. And beside them is what would have to be considered one of deepest crop of wingers in the league, bolstered by the signing of Mike Hoffman, who scored 17 goals in 52 games in St. Louis last season and managed at least 26 goals in five of six seasons prior.

What the Canadiens have in goal, with Carey Price and Jake Allen, is also a strength. Both players immediately playing to expectation can cover a lot of the weaknesses.

But everyone else will need to jell in camp and kick off in a positive direction, and with an air of defiance about them, because most people will have the Canadiens looking up at the two-time champion Tampa Bay Lightning, the emerging Florida Panthers, the star-studded Toronto Maple Leafs and the perennial-playoff contending Boston Bruins in the Atlantic Division.

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That’s a reality the Canadiens will be aware of right from the start. It’s also one they should be comfortable facing given their recent experience.

Current salary cap space: $0

GM: Marc Bergevin

Head coach: Dominique Ducharme

Assistant coaches: Alex Burrows, Luke Richardson, Trevor Letowski

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Unsigned players: None

1. WHICH VERSION OF JONATHAN DROUIN ARE THE CANADIENS GETTING?

If on most nights Drouin can be the best version of himself — an extremely fast and creative player who can change the game with just a flash of his skill — he can make as much of a difference as any of the top players on this roster.

Unfortunately, the third overall pick in 2013 hasn’t yet found a way to do that consistently through his first seven NHL seasons, and he’s facing serious doubts he can suddenly start doing it coming off personal leave he took 44 games into last season.

That Drouin finished with no goals and just 12 assists over his last 26 games, after producing at a point-per-game pace through his first 10, will only reinforce those doubts.

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But he’s starting fresh — and, reportedly, with a clear mind.

Earlier this month, coach Ducharme said at his annual charity golf tournament that Drouin’s “doing really well.”

“He’s in Brossard working out, getting ready for the season,” Ducharme added. “It’s all about himself right now and taking care of himself and getting ready physically and mentally. And every time I spoke to him, I find he’s in a good spot. He’s relaxed, he’s in good shape, he’s confident, and he’s excited. He wants to come back and show who he can be.”

At the height of his abilities, Drouin can be a top-line player, a power-play quarterback, and a gamebreaker. And at 26 years old, it’s not too late for him to show it on a consistent enough basis to not only justify his $5.5-million salary but potentially even render it a bargain.

Ducharme can help by immediately putting Drouin in a position to do those things. Placing him on a line with Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield, as we suggested in this mailbag on Sept. 9, would be one way to offer him players most capable of extracting his skill. We also think doing that would reinforce that good feeling and confidence Ducharme says Drouin is coming to camp with.

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But we’ll see where Drouin actually lines up, and we’ll closely track his first steps back on what he hopes will be the path his career was initially projected to be on.

With 69 goals and 232 points in 393 games, the Ste. Agathe, Que., native has only given us a glimpse of what he can do, but there’s no time like the present to show off the rest.

2. HOW WILL THE DEFENCE BE ASSEMBLED?

You can lock Joel Edmundson in with Jeff Petry up top, but it’s hard to definitively pin down how the other pieces of the defence fit together.

As it stands, Savard, who signed a four-year, $14-million contract with the Canadiens just weeks after helping the Lightning beat them for the Cup, is probably destined to take Weber’s vacant spot next to Ben Chiarot.

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That would leave Alex Romanov, Chris Wideman and Brett Kulak battling for spots on the third pair, with prospects Josh Brook, Mattias Norlinder and Kaiden Guhle pushing to unseat them. And we wouldn’t overlook 26-year-old Corey Schueneman, either, after he displayed a well-rounded and versatile skillset last season with the AHL’s Laval Rocket.

Still, we can’t help but wonder if change is on the horizon here, or potentially even on its way before the puck drops in October.

Not that we expect Bergevin to be able to pluck out a top-four defenceman via trade with no cap space available to him and barely any manoeuvrability to exceed the cap through long-term injury reserve exemptions. Even if he can kick the can down the road by placing Paul Byron there for the time being, we’re not sure he’d want to, with Byron on schedule to return from off-season hip surgery at the end of December and his prorated $3.4-million contract going back on the books then.

Still, the Canadiens are lacking balance, depth and versatility at this end of the ice. While they’ll be able to maintain their heavy, hardnosed look and feel in the top-four, they need to be able to offset it with better puck movement and offence, and we’re unsure if the pieces currently in place enable them to do it sufficiently.

Knowing it’ll be a hard need to address early on, there will be a lot of emphasis out of the gate on the guys in the mix for the third pairing to prove they can potentially move up the lineup.

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3. HOW QUICKLY CAN PRICE REACH HIS OPTIMAL LEVEL?

The superstar goaltender, who had a .924 save percentage and helped carry the Canadiens to within three wins of the Cup, went under the knife to repair a torn meniscus in his knee on July 22. He only stepped back on the ice for the first time last Thursday.

“I feel pretty good,” Price told NHL.com prior to taking a 10-minute twirl in full equipment.

But how he feels over the coming weeks will ultimately determine if he’s prepared to start the season in Toronto on Oct. 13. He’ll need to get back into practice soon and, ideally, he’ll need to play at least one of six pre-season games the Canadiens have scheduled — not just for his health, but also for him to feel like he can perform at his best when the games start to matter.

The good news is, Allen is there to carry the load in the short term, so Price can take the time he needs to catch up.

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The 34-year-old can’t take too long, though, because much of Montreal’s success will depend on him and Allen forming one of the best goaltending duos in the NHL. So, this training camp will be as—if not more—important for him as any of the 14 he’s previously participated in.

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