MONTREAL - There are some very high hopes for the Canadiens in Montreal this season, and they are resting on the shoulders of some pretty young men.
What was once considered a solid stable of prospects has now come to maturity, and will be leaned on heavily if the Canadiens have any hope of winning the franchise's 25th Stanley Cup in its 100th season.
"You need guys like Saku Koivu, like Alex Kovalev, like Robert Lang, but the young guys have to push them all the time," head coach Guy Carbonneau said Saturday as the Habs had their first on-ice sessions of training camp in suburban Pierrefonds. "We showed that last year, and that's why we had so much success. If we want to repeat what we did last year, that chemistry will have to happen."
Montreal's chances for success this season begin with second-year goalie Carey Price, 21, who arrived at camp 28 pounds lighter than last season. He admits that he felt fatigued toward the end of last year and he wanted to be better prepared for the rigours of a full NHL season.
"I thought I was getting a bit heavy so I took it upon myself to lose a couple of pounds and so far I feel a lot faster," Price said this week. "I've always been a pretty calm and relaxed guy, but I learned how it is to lose in the NHL in the second round of the playoffs, and it hurts. I think that kind of fuelled my training this summer."
Carbonneau said the weight adjustment for Price was a natural evolution for someone who was fast-tracked to the NHL as quickly as he was.
"We asked him to lose some weight, but it's a problem that's quite common," Carbonneau said. "When you're 18 or 19 you can get away with things that you can't really get away with in the NHL. When you're playing in junior or even in the AHL, you're playing with boys. In the NHL you're playing with men, and things like that show."
Among the Canadiens top nine forwards, five of them are age 26 or younger, including two thirds of the top-line in Tomas Plekanec and Andrei Kostitsyn. Their linemate, veteran Alex Kovalev, feels the time is ripe for the young players to assert themselves.
"They definitely have to take control, step up and be the leaders," he said. "That's the most important thing. Every young kid that had that experience last year really has to step up and show that he's going to be the one that's going to do the job. I know I've been saying that everyone has to do that, but the young guys have to do it especially and show that last year wasn't an accident."
One young forward who enters camp with something to prove is Guillaume Latendresse. Even though he's only 21, this is his fourth training camp and third season with the Canadiens, and Carbonneau says he'll be given an important role on the team.
Latendresse showed up for camp 10 pounds lighter and worked all summer with a power skating instructor to help improve on his biggest weakness.
"I wanted to take control of my career," Latendresse said. "I've bouncing around from the third line to the fourth line and sometimes to the press box. I worked very hard this summer, and I didn't do that to be a healthy scratch."
Though Latendresse feels his job may be in jeopardy in camp, Carbonneau was quick to give him a vote of confidence.
"It will be tough for him to make one of the top two lines, but the arrival of a guy like Robert Lang will allow us to have three offensive lines and it will be good for him," Carbonneau said. "He scored 16 goals two years in a row playing just eight to nine minutes a night. We have confidence in his talent. If he can be a bit quicker it will lead to more scoring chances and allow him to beat more guys 1-on-1. With the hands he has around the net, you never know what can happen."
Finally, half of the Canadiens top six on defence are also young, with Mike Komisarek ready to take on major minutes this season at age 26 and Josh Gorges and Ryan O'Byrne - both 24 - expected to contribute significantly as well.
"We're not the young innocent guys who can go out there and make mistakes anymore," Komisarek said. "We're older now, more experienced veterans. We're leaned on more by not only the coaches and the team, but other guys for support and guidance."
Notes: Kovalev was placed on a line Saturday with Lang and Latendresse. Lang and Kovalev enjoyed the most productive years of their careers playing together in Pittsburgh with Martin Straka, now playing in his native Czech Republic. Carbonneau said he plans on keeping Kovalev with Plekanec and Kostitsyn this season, but the prior chemistry with Lang could come into play at some point. ...New acquisition Alex Tanguay is playing on the right wing in camp as opposed to his usual position on the left side. Carbonneau said some players will have to make the adjustment because none of his top six wingers have right-handed shots. ...The Canadiens begin their pre-season schedule Monday in Halifax, the first of six exhibition games in seven nights. Carbonneau said Jaroslav Halak will start the game against Boston in Halifax while newly-acquired Marc Denis will play Tuesday in Roberval, Que., against Buffalo. Denis is from nearby Chicoutimi, Que. Andrei and Sergei Kostitsyn, as well as defence prospect Yannick Weber, still have visa issues to clear up and therefore were not eligible to travel to Detroit for Wednesday's game against the Red Wings.