There’s a great deal to be said for tradition and history.
There’s more to be said for winning.
So as fans of the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs prepare to embark on a new season – the teams face off for the 776th time in their intertwined history at the Bell Centre on Saturday evening – they’ll allow themselves to hope a shortened 48-game schedule may smile on their playoff chances.
In the old days, merely making the postseason would constitute a shocking lack of ambition for hockey fans in Canada’s two largest cities, but it’s been a lean few years for two of the NHL’s biggest-grossing franchises.
The Leafs haven’t made the playoffs since 2003-04 and finished 13th in the Eastern Conference last year after a shocking late-season collapse. But until that point, Toronto was a team on the move, possessed of a swagger not seen in years.
The Habs have been a regular fixture in the playoffs, but in 2011-12, just two years removed from a run to the conference final, they slumped to dead last in the East.
It’s now been almost exactly 20 years since they won their record 24th Stanley Cup; the chants of “67” in the nosebleeds at the Bell Centre – a reference to the last Toronto championship team in 1967 – ring hollower with each passing year.
Despite all that, these teams aren’t as terrible as the franchises that typically draft third (Montreal) and fifth (Toronto) in any given summer. The top three or four teams in the conference are fairly easy to identify, but after that it’s a wide-open derby for the remaining playoff spots.
So how do these old rivals stack up going into the regular season? There are several aspects to the answer, each raises its own questions:
Where will the goals come from?
Leafs: Phil Kessel, for one. Kessel was tied for sixth in goals in the NHL last season with 37 in 82 games and would have likely topped 40 had linemate Joffrey Lupul not missed the tail end of the year. Goal production was actually the least of the Leafs’ worries a year ago, as they finished in the top 10 and have added even more offensive depth. The only concern is Randy Carlyle’s more defensive system could hurt their ability to produce offence. Habs: Max Pacioretty, mostly. The power forward scored a career-high 33 in 2011-12, but only four on the power-play. Look for improvement. He’ll be reunited with Erik Cole (35 goals) and David Desharnais (44 assists) and is bigger and stronger. After that, it gets tricky. Tomas Plekanec is coming off a poor year offensively, but having a healthy Brian Gionta and explosive 18-year-old rookie Alex Galchenyuk on his line to start the season will help. The Habs were 20th in goals per game last year, they should improve on that with all hands on deck.
Where will the defence come from?
Leafs: Here’s a question that will be unanswered even when the puck drops on Saturday. With Jake Gardiner out with a concussion and Luke Schenn traded to the Philadelphia Flyers in the summer, the Leafs blueline appears to be thinner than a year ago and will rely on a couple of members of the Toronto Marlies to start the year. Much of the improvement here will have to rest with Carlyle, as he still has a top line that struggles in its own end and few strong defensive defencemen outside of Carl Gunnarsson. Habs: Ask the players and to a man they’ll tell you that a healthy Andrei Markov makes a difference not just on the ice, but to the general outlook of the defence corps. The addition of Francis Bouillon will help on the physical front, and Alexei Emelin and Raphael Diaz will benefit from having a year’s NHL experience under their belts. The big question mark surrounds P.K. Subban, a 36-point guy who led the team in ice time, but is still unsigned. He’ll sign eventually and when he does, the Habs will have above-average puck moving ability on all three pairs.
Will they improve in goal?
Leafs: It would be hard not to. Toronto has perennially been one of the weakest teams in the league in goal, and there’s the danger of that again given they enter the season with the NHL’s least-experienced tandem. That said, James Reimer and Ben Scrivens have a strong minor-league pedigree, and they could surprise provided they don’t see too many pucks. These two are the biggest wild card in the Leafs’ season, provided a deal for Roberto Luongo doesn’t materialize. Habs: Yes. Carey Price may have lost 28 games last year, the underlying stats suggest he’s still a top-10 goalie. The question is whether a guy who has played more minutes than almost everyone the last two years can hold up for 40-plus starts. He’s only 25, and slimmer than last year. He’s also intensely focused on improving his performance in shootouts (a notable weak area), so chalk that up as a qualified ‘yes.’ Backup Peter Budaj wasn’t a world-beater in his first year in Montreal, but he won’t be asked to perform miracles, and with a healthy defence should do fine in limited action.
Will the new coach help?
Leafs: He had better. Carlyle has spent Toronto’s six-day training camp attempting to give his troops a crash course in winning one-on-one puck battles and special teams. Carlyle has his work cut out for him given this isn’t a roster flush with good defensive players or big bodies, but his attention to some of the details should give Toronto a small boost in the standings. Habs: Not to be unkind to Randy Cunneyworth, but it’s hard to imagine Michel Therrien will do a worse job. For one thing, he won’t regularly dress seven defencemen, and he’ll be more judicious with match-ups. The Canadiens will be tougher and grittier under Therrien, and should have a better defensive structure; the former Penguins coach has a good track record as a turnaround artist and will push underachievers hard.
Who has a better shot at playoffs?
Mirtle: The Habs, by a nose. Montreal was better than its record a year ago (allowing only seven more goals than it scored) while the Leafs continue to have bigger holes in the most important areas (goal, defence and centre).Gordon: Montreal. The Habs were terrible in shootouts and blew a lot of third-period leads last year, and should regress to the mean. They have an all-star goalie and two competent scoring lines. The defence won’t scare anyone, but they may not need to be anything more than average.