Roger Whitaker once sang, "...you won't believe in if anymore. It's an illusion." He wasn't crooning about an NHL hockey team's chances to win it all, but he might as well have been. "If's" what it comes down to, in the end. The GM brings in the best players he can fit into his budget. He hires the guy he thinks will do the best job coaching them. He provides the team with the best support staff and facilities he can. Then the rest is up to "if."
Every team has its own "ifs." The Penguins are wondering now if Sidney Crosby will still be the same player after losing half of last year with a head injury. The Capitals are waiting to see if Alex Ovechkin can step it up and carry his team to the next level. Bruins fans want to know if their team is for real, or if it just lucked into being the healthiest one in the playoffs. Canadiens fans have a whole list of their own, including:
10. Faceoffs. The only notable statistical difference between the Habs and Bruins in their seven-game playoff series was in faceoff percentage. The Canadiens got killed in the circle and that ended up making the difference in a super tight match up. So, IF the Canadiens are to contend, they need to improve on draws, either by having Tomas Plekanec and Scott Gomez work harder to get better at it or by bringing in someone who's already good at it.
9. Scott Gomez. Speaking of Gomez, if the Canadiens are to improve on last year's finish, they need their second-line centre to play much, much better. Gomez not only failed to produce himself, but he also did nothing to help his linemates produce either. No team whose second-line centre puts up fewer than 40 points is going to go very far.
8. Max Pacioretty. This one's a big IF. Before his near-decapitation by Zdeno Chara, Pax had finally become a productive NHL player. Now he's got to not only pick up where he left off in terms of his development, but he's also got to do it while overcoming the huge mental hurdle left behind after an injury like that. Will he be able to continue the effective physical style he was developing before he was hurt? If he can, the Canadiens will benefit hugely.
7. Lars Eller. Eller started to show progression with his play in the post-season, particularly in his defensive awareness and the gritty way in which he soldiered on with a dislocated shoulder. He'll be coming off major surgery to start this season, but if he can continue to develop into the NHL player many people think he can, he'll give the Habs a solid third-line scoring option that will help the team improve.
6. Josh Gorges. Gorges is another guy coming back from a major injury and who may or may not be the same player he was before. One theory is that, having played essentially without a major ligament in his knee for his entire NHL career, he'll be a better, more mobile skater with an intact leg. The other theory is that some guys never recover from that kind of injury and become more prone to getting hurt after it. Obviously management fears the latter is a possibility, which accounts for the one-year deal Gorges has signed. If he's able to be the player he was before his injury, and if he's inclined to put aside hurt feelings about Gauthier's lack of long-term commitment to him, he'll help make the Habs defence a whole lot better than it was at the end of last year.
5. Erik Cole. A lot of hopes are riding on Cole's ability to provide muscle and skill for the top six. That will largely depend on Cole's ability to stay healthy and to find chemistry with at least one centre in Montreal. If he's able to do both, the first two lines will be improved immeasurably.
4. P.K.Subban. It's a rare talent that doesn't have some sort of sophomore slump. Subban's development has been so rapid and relatively flawless, a regression or plateau season wouldn't be at all unusual. If, however, he's able to continue to grow as a player and contribute like he did last year, he'll help anchor a much-improved defence.
3. The assistant coaches. These guys don't usually get a ton of credit, but they do have a role to play. Kirk Muller didn't just help with special teams and in-game communication, he also played an important part as the mediator between Martin and the team. And he was a passionate person who was able to rally the players for the big games. Without him, there'll be a void in the room. If Randy Cunneyworth can take Muller's place in that regard, Muller's loss can be mitigated.
2. Andrei Markov. One of the two biggest "ifs" facing the Canadiens this year is whether Markov, having not played for the best part of the last two years, can get his game back. Team management has banked on it, choosing to commit to him for three more seasons while letting James Wisniewski and Roman Hamrlik (who, ironically, played Markov's minutes the last two seasons) go. So many things can go wrong with this hope, and the team doesn't have a safety net if it doesn't work out. Markov not only has to come back from a devastating string of injuries, but also return with the all-star game he possessed before he got hurt. With him playing at the top of his ability, the Canadiens are a different, and a better, team. If he can do it.
1. Carey Price. The only "if" as big as Markov is Price. Going into last season in the wake of the Jaroslav Halak trade, Price was a huge question mark. Nobody knew if he could find the strength of will to come back from a terrible year and the character to not only withstand the heightened public scrutiny, but carry the team every night as well. He pulled it off and did it convincingly. Now the question is whether he can do it again. If he can...if the Price we saw last year is the real deal...then the Habs have a chance to contend.
Those are ten pretty big "ifs" leading into the new season. Should five of the ten work out in the Habs' favour, they'll have a pretty good year. Should all ten of those questions be answered in the affirmative and the team stays relatively healthy, the Canadiens can win the Stanley Cup. It's been a long time since we could say that with some degree of realism. Roger Whitaker said "if's" an illusion, and most of us have stopped believing all those "ifs" can really happen. Just imagine, though, if they did.