Marc Bergevin and Michel Therrien have been at the helm of the Montreal Canadiens for only a very short time. They're trying to quickly integrate a puck possession, more aggressive system for this year.
To go from 15th to a playoff spot almost never happens in one season but with a long list of key injured players returning, a stud-in-the-making arriving and some good free agent signings, there is reason to believe that 2013 could be quite a lot better than initially handicapped.
Let's start with what is most overlooked from last campaign: injuries. Injuries were so severe that the Habs didn't ice a healthy line up for a single game last season. Not one game. Imagine the scenario this season where all of those players that were in the infirmary last season are instead now on the ice contributing at their top level.
Watch for Markov's return to form
One must start with Andrei Markov. What a huge loss last year he was to the lineup.
Now, I am not convinced that he can find the best form of his career because the meager offensive numbers in Russia are a mystery to me but a Markov is a big upgrade from the players who tried to fill in for him last season. And if he can be the best Markov? Well, use your long memory. He was a very special player.
Brian Gionta missed much of the campaign and last season really started to find its carnage when he got operated on. There were others too that weren't there for much of the campaign: the steady Travis Moen, and Ryan White couldn't figure out why his hernia operation wasn't healing comfortably.
There is also improvement in the free agent signings that bring grit to a team that got pushed around too often last season. Hockey is a game of intimidation and the ones who can be intimidated should not be asked to always fend for themselves. Tomas Plekanec should not be wondering if anyone has his back, so the addition of Colby Armstrong, Brandon Prust and Francis Bouillon adds grit and they do it with a good skill set too.
The combination of skill and grit is vital or the player simply gets diminished minutes as games become more important.
Add some fitness to the equation too from last year. Tomas Kaberle went through a difficult time personally last season and though we are always told to be professional and put in our best, that is a perfect-world demand that is much harder to live than it is to talk.
Kaberle's increased weight told you all you needed to know about how much his heart was in it. This off-season he worked out hard with the BioSteel people and it is obvious he is in better form. The little paunch is gone. He looks faster in his stride. If the Kaberle brain is still firing at what was an all-star level, the Habs might find that he has some good hockey left in him still.
Expect more from Emelin, Diaz, Eller and Bourque
What about experience too? There are the players who tried hard in their first season but made rookie mistakes, and rookie mistakes on the blue line are even more costly. Alexei Emelin, now in his second season, should be able to handle the grind of the NHL better than last year, and also get even more comfortable laying out hits of destruction.
Don't forget the acclimation process coming from Russia is even more difficult. Same second-year hope goes for Rafael Diaz who tore it up as one of the best defenceman in the entire, vastly improved with NHL talent, Swiss League this season. Diaz put in remarkable numbers with 7 goals and 22 assists in 32 games and he had a plus 19 -- one of the best in the league. Diaz's game is designed for the bigger ice but to predict he won't be better this year over last is impossible to cogently argue.
More experience is Lars Eller's go-to move too this year. This is the season, usually, when a first-rounder like Eller breaks out and shows the skill that he has - when comfort finally catches up to skill set. Therrien has said that he wants Eller to take it to the next level. His comfort and decision making seems to indicate that he can.
One player could be better for a different and unusual reason. The time it takes to get over shock is why one can believe Rene Bourque will be better. Bourque did not have any clue the possibility existed that he could be traded and he played like Montreal was not his home. That could change. It simply can't get worse for Bourque; 27 goals in three different seasons at his age is just too impressive to fall completely off the NHL landscape.
Sky-high expectations for hot-shot rookie
To the rookie Alex Galchenyuk: When you draft a kid who missed nearly a season of hockey during a vital developmental year, you really can't have much expectation that he will be ready the following season. An argument that he just needs to play some games in the easiest league is the most logical one. To argue that he is going to be good enough to make an NHL team when he missed a season as a 17-year-old is preposterous. But here he is.
Galchenyuk is a gifted offensive player. This week, he has had the best shootout moves on the team. At one point, he left Peter Budaj on the wrong side of the net after a deke. He also lays out these gorgeous spinning saucer passes that land at the perfect moment for the recipient to fire. He has great vision and even looks like he has the size, even though it doesn't seem possible that the musculature could be developed enough at his age. He's 18. He's on the second line. He's on the first powerplay unit. Get excited Montreal. You finally have the real deal in town.
The players that remain unmentioned are the ones who were the best last year and their equation remains stable. That means they have every chance to succeed in the same manner. Max Pacioretty is getting stronger. Erik Cole is aging and has had a hard career on his body but looks strong still. David Desharnais is brimming with confidence this week. He is making one sweet play after another. No one is talking about Desharnais at all, but he might just have had the best camp of any forward.
So here's my logic and how I come to a prediction of where they will finish.
Every single defenceman: Markov, Emelin, Gorges, Kaberle, Bouillon and Diaz gets a higher grade from last year whether it be because they are more experienced, fit, or simply because they're actually here.
Every single forward is in a better position too: the first line should still perform well as they continue to gel. The second line of Gionta, Plekanec and Galchenyuk has a chance to be very good instead of the biggest weakness of the club last season. The third line of Eller, Moen and Bourque is far more stable than last year's and the fourth of Prust, White and Armstrong embarrasses last year's merry-go-round of AHLers.
Oh and did I mention one of the best goalies in the world? Carey Price says he wants to be better on shootouts this year and at camp this week, he was. The second day's shootout was about 6 to 2 for Price over Budaj after the about 25 players shot.
So out of that 20 man roster opening night is there even one player in this mix who will provide less instead of more this season over last? Think about it.
I know. Me too. I can't find a single player who won't logically be better than last season, or at least as good as last season.
So come on down P.K. Subban, you may be missing something surprisingly good this season by not signing yet.
I know the Habs finished 15th last year and it takes time to get better but I am going to predict they fight right to the last night of the season and sneak into the playoffs.
I sure didn't see myself saying that last May but a lot has come together positively for the Habs and nothing but Subban's absence has rotated to the negative.
It is hard to not be excited about the prospects of watching some entertaining hockey this year because that was certainly not on the agenda in 2011-2012.