This is the time of year for dreaming. The barbeques, the long evenings, the golf and the garden warm the body and the soul, reminding us that it's good to be alive. We glory in the few, brief weeks of exposed skin and salt water, gentle breezes and quiet cabins. Our game is never far away, though, even in the dreamy summertime. In the end, these beautiful weeks serve as happy, sleepy holidays as we wait for the fall and the new hockey season. The Canadiens aren't finished tinkering with their lineup, but, while nothing's really happening, we can look forward to what might be awaiting us when the leaves change colour. Here are the top ten things that might surprise us in the coming season:
10. P.K.Subban - Subban swooped in from the AHL and landed in the midst of last year's Cinderella playoff run, played 20 mintues a game and looked completely ready for the big time. Since then, he has rocketed up both the fan-favourite list in Montreal and the most-hated player list everywhere else, while establishing himself as an offensive threat and a tough guy to beat on D. He took over the number-one spot on the Habs' blueline after Andrei Markov went down for the year, acted with grace in the face of ungracious criticism, and he did it all in his rookie season. He's a potential surprise mainly because just about everybody expects him to not only duplicate that performance, but to improve upon it. The thing is, it's a rare player who follows an upward trajectory year after year, without at least a plateau season. If Subban does anything less than make the All-Star team, a lot of people will be unpleasantly surprised. We should, however, keep in mind that he wasn't perfect last year and got a lot of ice time despite rookie mistakes because there was nobody else to take it. This season, with a hopefully healthy D, Martin will have options regarding Subban. This could possibly be a tough year because of the expectations he, and we, have of him. Drew Doughty, Tyler Myers and Erik Johnson have all had seasons in which they didn't seem as dominating as they did at the very beginnings of their careers. It doesn't mean they're not stud defencemen, and Subban might very well experience something similar.
9. Yannick Weber - Weber, on the other hand, has been following a bit more of a traditional development path. Chosen forty spots after Subban in the 2007 draft, Weber has spent the last three seasons honing his craft between Hamilton and Montreal. Last season, he scored his first NHL goal and began to look more at home on the blueline. He proved serviceable as a bottom-six forward too, although one would hope he doesn't have to spend much time in that situation. It was encouraging to see him score two goals in three playoff games. Weber's misfortune is to be from the same draft year as Subban, playing a similar offence-oriented style on the same side. If he wasn't facing that daunting comparison, Weber would be a really bright young prospect for most fans. Judging him on his own merits, he could very well be about to come into his own this year, which would be a pleasant surprise.
8. Scott Gomez - A lot of fans have written off Gomez as a complete waste of salary, cap space, ice time and oxygen. They may be right. Then again, maybe all his blather last season about how he knows he can be better will be worth more than spit. Perhaps he'll put the work in this summer, study some tapes and find it within himself to give a little more on the ice. If he can somehow make himself a useful player again, he'll surprise just about everybody.
7. Jaroslav Spacek - Spatcho has had a rough go of it in Montreal. He's played most of the time there on his off-side. He's had to play big minutes when other defencemen get hurt, and he's not a young guy anymore. He struggles late in games when he plays more than twenty minutes. This is likely his final season with the Canadiens and he'll hopefully be given his proper role at last. Fewer minutes and a spot on his proper side might rejuvenate the old guy and surprise us all.
6. Pierre Gauthier - Gauthier's not done yet. The team still likely needs a veteran defenceman to replace Roman Hamrlik and a tough player, preferably a good character who can skate and win faceoffs for the third or fourth line. He needs to bring in an assistant coach as well. We've learned by now to expect the unexpected. Gauthier will surprise us before the season starts, and probably again once it's underway.
5. Goal scoring. The Habs have the potential to surprise in this category because of the ripple effect of the Erik Cole signing. Cole himself isn't likely to put up more than 60 points. He will, however, help his linemates by crashing the net and opening space for them. Given that any of Plekanec, Cammalleri and Gionta are well able to take advantage of extra space, Cole's presence should help them. Cole's speed also draws a lot of penalties, which helps a Markov-led PP. A faster, stronger top-six also reduces the number of dumbass penalties that keep guys like Plekanec on the PK instead of scoring goals.
4. The newcomers. It's going to be fun to see if Alexei Emelin or Raphael Diaz can make an impact at the NHL level. It'll be interesting too, to see if Ryan White can be more than a rambunctious call-up over the course of a whole season. If any of these guys can effectively step into an NHL role, it'll be a nice surprise.
3. Lars Eller - The most valuable return from the Jaroslav Halak trade probably should have spent some time in the AHL last year. Whether because the team believed he was ready or because sending him to Hamilton would have been bad politics after the trade, he stuck it out in Montreal for the season. He exhibited great patience with his learning curve and by the time the playoffs rolled around, he was showing better use of his size and speed. He will, unfortunately, begin the year recovering from shoulder surgery, but there's still a chance that if Gomez doesn't surprise us in the second-line centre role, Eller will.
2. Andrei Markov - A lot of people will be surprised by Markov this season. On one hand, there are the people who think age and repeated injury have made the General fragile and he'll never be the player he once was. On the other, there are those who believe there's no reason why Markov won't come back as strong as ever. Either way, Markov has the potential to be one of the biggest surprises of the season...not least if he actually stays healthy all year.
And, the number one potential surprise this year is:
1. Max Pacioretty - Nobody who saw Pacioretty lying on the ice after getting crushed by Zdeno Chara and thought for a minute he might be dead will ever forget it. The outrage that followed when the league decided to call the hit a "hockey play" and decline to suspend Chara cemented the whole incident in the minds of many as the lowest level to which the game could sink. That Pacioretty sustained a concussion and broken neck just as he was emerging into a real power forward just added to the shame of it all. So now the young man says he's working out normally and will pick up where he left off before the hit. Anyone who saw the hit will be wondering this summer whether it's possible for a guy to come back the same after that. So many players don't. If he does, though...if he really is turning into a big scoring winger with grit...it'll be the best surprise of the year.