Yes, they are.
It's a story that won't take long to develop. The emergence of the league's most storied franchise is undeniable and their stacked roster will only strengthen as the year's progress.
Right off the bat, let's take a look at the Habs' depth chart:
Left Wing: A. Kostitsyn A. Tanguay S. Kostitsyn T. Kostopoulos
Center: T. Plekanec S. Koivu R. Lang M. Lapierre
Right Wing: A. Kovalev C. Higgins G. Latendresse G. Laraque
Defenseman: A. Markov M. Komisarek R. Hamrlik F. Bouillon J. Gorges R. O'Byrne
Goaltender: C. Price J. Halak
Let's start with their strongest asset -- goaltending. Stability and dominance will reign between the pipes in Montreal for the foreseeable future. Why you ask? Carey Price. The 21-year old AHL Calder Cup MVP didn't take long to find his place among the mass of the NHL. In his first season, Price registered a remarkable .920 SV%, a 2.56 GAA, 3 SO and a 24-12-3 record in 41 games played. His poise and composure was so impressive that GM Bob Gainey opted to trade goaltender Cristobal Huet, sending him to the Washington Capitals for a 2nd-rnd pick. Price then took the starting role and never looked back, leading the Montreal Canadiens into the Stanley Cup Playoffs -- where they would eventually fall to the hands of the Philadelphia Flyers in the second round. For a goaltender so young -- age 25 is the usual age for a goaltender to break into the league -- Price had a spectacular rookie season. With more experience and added pressure, Price could now become the Habs' catalyst for the entire season, showing the NHL only glimpses of his dominance that is surely to come.
Upfront the Habs boast an impressive group as well, one that uses their speed and transition game to overcome their opponents. While the Habs lack a superstar forward, they contain a balanced group to round out four solid lines. Statically, Alexei Kovalev stands as the Habs top player, serving as their sniper and one of their many leaders. At 34, he will continue to lead the group, prolonging his chemistry with Tomas Plekanec and countryman Andrei Kostitsyn. While captain Saku Koivu's production appears to be dwindling, his character and leadership will never diminish. On a young team like the Canadiens, Koivu's determination and fiery attitude will benefit the team for years to come.
Taking a look at the Habs' depth chart above, it's easy to see how their offensive attack will get more lethal as the young guns mature, and considering they scored 257 goals last season (ranked 1st overall on the PP), that’s reason enough to be feared. Perhaps the most promising of their young forwards though is Tomas Plekanec. Plekanec broke-out last season with 29 goals and 69 points, ranking 2nd overall on the Habs in points. Among other talented young forwards include the Kostitsyn brothers (Andrei and Sergei), who many are hoping will bring a similar dimension to what the Sedin brothers bring in Vancouver. While not on the team as it stands, the talented Max Pacioretty is expected to bring some size and grit to a Habs club that is still in need of it upfront. It's not unrealistic to expect the young powerforward to find his place on the team this season, barring injuries or poor play from the regulars.
Defensively, the Habs are among the strongest in the league. They contain a strong defense core that brings size, skill and speed. They own one of the best offensive defenseman in the league with Andrei Markov and he’s proven that he knows his way in his own end as well. They also have one of the better defensive defenseman in the league with Mike Komisarek. The young, aggressive, stay-at-home defender ranked 1st overall in blocked shots last season and was 2nd in the hits department. To round out the D, Josh Gorges, Roman Hamrlik, Ryan O'Byrne and Francis Bouillon are present, giving the Habs a lethal mix of offensive and defensive capabilities.
Going to the Pittsburgh Penguins comparison, I wouldn't hesitate to say that the Habs will be in a better position than the powerful Pens. While both teams display strong rosters, the Habs have the upper hand in one crucial aspect; it's what makes the world go around -- money. Looking ahead to the '09/10 season, the Pens have US$ 41.3M tied up on 11 players, leaving 14 left to be signed (6 RFA's and 8 UFA's). Among that group are Ruslan Fedotenko, Miroslav Satan, Petr Sykora, Jordan Staal, Hal Gill, and others. It'll be a challenge to sustain the same core for the future, and the Pens will probably have to weaken in order to fit under the NHL Salary Cap.
The Habs also have 14 players to sign for the '09/10 season (10 UFA's and 4 RFA's), but only have US$ 23.3M invested in their returning players. That leaves a whopping US$ 33.4M for the Habs to spend on players like Tanguay, Koivu, Kovalev, Lang, Komisarek, Plekanec, and others. Even with Plekanec, Higgins and Komisarek due for raises, the Habs can easily manage to contain their core while staying under the Cap.
That's not to say the Pens will fall from grace or anything, with players like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin leading the charge, their destined for greatness. With that said, however, the Eastern Conference has a new sheriff in town, and it's the Montreal Canadiens.