MONTREAL — Shea Weber is approaching the start of Montreal Canadiens training camp and the upcoming season with eagerness, anticipation and even a few nerves.
It’s a far cry from last September, when the veteran defenseman was recovering from foot and knee surgery that caused him to miss the final 48 games of 2017-18 and the first 24 games of last season.
“Last year coming back, there was uncertainty not knowing when I was going to be able to play, pushing, trying to get back as soon as possible. Now I know that I’ll be ready to go from the start and I’m excited,” the Montreal captain said Monday at the Canadiens’ annual charity golf tournament under skies as sunny as his attitude.
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With a full offseason of work under his belt, Weber is ready to play a vital role in putting the Canadiens back in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, which they’ve missed three of the past four seasons.
Last season was especially bitter with Montreal falling two points short of the Columbus Blue Jackets for the second wild card into the playoffs from the Eastern Conference.
“I think we were right there last year. Everyone knows we were just about in (the playoffs) but obviously not quite good enough. [Ninety-six] points will get you in most years. We’re right there again, the same team pretty much, a little bit older with a little more experience, and that should help.”
What needs to be done to return to the playoffs, Weber said with a tight grin, is “win a couple more games. Everyone’s just got to be a little bit better. Every year you’ve got to have a little bit more. You would expect that from everyone. You’re never satisfied in this League. You shouldn’t be, anyway, or you won’t be around for very long.”
Weber was named 30th captain of the Canadiens on Oct. 1, replacing forward Max Pacioretty, who was traded to the Vegas Golden Knights on Sept. 9. The 34-year-old wouldn’t play his first game last season until Nov. 26, having been out since Dec. 16, 2017, but he played the remaining 58 games, scoring 33 points (14 goals, 19 assists).
A gold medalist for Canada at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and champion at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, Weber leads the Canadiens more by pedigree and example than by fiery word.
“His presence is something you can’t really describe,” said forward Brendan Gallagher. “It’s just something he has naturally, doing the right things day in and day out. His intimidation factor helps with his size (6-foot-4, 230 pounds) and his shot (clocked the hardest in 2015, 2016 and 2017 in the NHL All-Stars Skills Competition).
“But the biggest thing he’s always done is earn the respect of his teammates and everyone on the other team just by the way he’s gone about his business. When someone like that stands up and speaks, you’re obviously going to listen. When he goes out and does something, there’s really no reason for you not to follow. That’s what you’re looking for in a leader.”
Video: Shea Weber on the atmosphere at training camp
With Weber entering his 15th NHL season, his fourth in Montreal after 11 with the Nashville Predators, Canadiens management, coaches and the dressing room will rely heavily on his leadership to be a locomotive on this train of seasoned veterans and wet-behind-the-ears youngsters.
He is encouraged by a chemistry that remains largely intact from last season; scrappy forward Andrew Shaw is the only departure of note, traded to the Chicago Blackhawks on June 30.
“That should help big time,” Weber said of the players’ familiarity with each other and team systems. “There’s obviously new things that coaches implement but having the system in place and the chemistry of guys should make the adjustments easier, if there are any. The new guys coming in, the adaptation shouldn’t be very long.”
And Weber will be counted on to play a large role in reversing the fortunes of the Canadiens’ power play, which last season ranked 30th in the NHL with a success rate of 13.2 percent. He again will quarterback the man-advantage, seeing that special team as a key to a strong start that can put precious points in the bank early.
“You’re hoping you can get off to a good start and kind of build on that confidence and use that to go forward,” said Weber, who had six power-player points (five goals, one assist) last season. “Get off to a slow start, it’s hard to catch up. If you can get off to a good start and set yourself up well, it bodes well for the rest of the season.”
It’s been a long time since Weber’s made his NHL debut as a 20-year-old with Nashville in 2005-06, but he still feels goosebumps as training camp nears. This week, he’s ready to dive in healthy and fit.
“You still get a little nervous before camp,” he said. “You get the excitement and a little bit of a buzz around the team. You don’t really know what to expect from everyone (but) as you go through it, you start to get back into the groove. With a full summer to train and skate and be ready… it’s exciting.”
Video courtesy: Montreal Canadiens