TORONTO — With individual accolades all around him at the NHL Awards in Las Vegas, Carey Price’s mind was still on the Stanley Cup that had eluded him and his teammates.
“I’d trade all four of these in for that one,” the star Montreal Canadiens goaltender said. “We have a lot of very good parts in Montreal and a very good hockey team. We’re gaining experience and I’m very, very happy and very excited about our future.”
Price is the biggest reason to be excited about the Canadiens’ present and future. The reigning Hart and Vezina Trophy-winner is only one player, but his presence makes Montreal the most likely team to end Canada’s Cup drought that currently sits at 21 seasons.
Oddsmakers give eight NHL teams better odds than the Habs (18-1), but they have the most realistic shot of any Canadian-based team. The Calgary Flames and Winnipeg Jets are 28-1, the Edmonton Oilers 33-1, Ottawa Senators 40-1, Vancouver Canucks 66-1 and Toronto Maple Leafs 100-1, according to the online sportsbook Bodog.ca.
If the Habs are going to lift the Cup for the first time since 1993, they’ll need to do more to support a goaltender who is playing at the level of two-time Conn Smythe Trophy-winner Patrick Roy. Price led the league with 44 wins, a 1.96 goals-against average and .933 save percentage, but skaters have to score more and be better, too.
“We’re fortunate to have him, and obviously as players we want to help him out a little bit more than we did last year,” centre Tomas Plekanec said. “A big part was Pricey, which is one thing that obviously we want to get better at and play better in front of him.”
The Habs will have defenceman Jeff Petry for an entire season and should be better by having him on the second pairing behind one of hockey’s most dynamic players in P.K. Subban. They also have a captain for the first time since Brian Gionta left in the summer of 2014, giving left-winger Max Pacioretty the honour. Talented forward Alex Galchenyuk moves to centre in the hopes of sparking his career.
For all the minor changes in Montreal, Price is the constant. And what a constant to have.
“My expectations for him are no different from what they’ve been since I started playing on this team and that’s to remain and be one of the best goaltenders in the world,” Subban said. “He proved that he could be that last year. He’ll have to continue to prove that for our team to win a Stanley Cup.”
Immediate Stanley Cup aspirations are hard to find elsewhere across Canada, though the Flames have real expectations on them this season after a surprise run to the playoffs ahead of schedule. With the addition of defenceman Dougie Hamilton, the return of captain Mark Giordano and the maturation of Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau and Sam Bennett, there’s reason to believe the Flames are a legitimate playoff contender.
“On paper today, if you look at our roster, we do look like a deeper, better team than last year, but we have to, as players, bring that now and prove it on the ice,” Giordano said.
On paper, the Jets aren’t quite as formidable as they were in making their first playoff appearance since returning to Winnipeg. Gone are forwards Michael Frolik and Jim Slater and deadline pickups Lee Stempniak and Jiri Tlusty, and there will be an infusion of youth into the Jets’ lineup.
The Jets were banged up beyond recognition when they were swept in the first round by the Anaheim Ducks. A healthy under coach Paul Maurice could provide better results this season, much like how the Tampa Bay Lightning rebounded following their 2014 first-round sweep.
“I guess I do feel more encouraged by it that you realize we’re not that far off,” said defenceman Jacob Trouba, who played with a broken bone in his left hand.
Adding phenom Connor McDavid, coach Todd McLellan, goaltender Cam Talbot and defenceman Andrej Sekera should make the Oilers substantially better. Centre Ryan Nugent-Hopkins said the Oilers are still young but trending away from that label, and new general manager Peter Chiarelli has certain expectations for improvement, even if he’s not willing to share.
“What I can tell you is I believe the margins are very, very thin on making the playoffs,” Chiarelli said.
“There’s a lot of new faces. I’ve got to see it.”
There may not be much to see in Vancouver and Toronto come April, even after the Canucks made the playoffs in their first season under coach Willie Desjardins. Vancouver is a team in “transition,” according to GM Jim Benning, while the Leafs hope they’re on the way back up — eventually — with Mike Babcock behind the bench.
In Ottawa, the expectation is still the playoffs. But the Senators know they can’t wait until mid-season to make a miraculous run like they did a year ago, thanks in large part to goaltender Andrew Hammond.
“What we did is one in a million,” captain Erik Karlsson said. “I don’t know if we could do it again.”