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Toronto Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf reacts after scoring the game winning goal while playing against theTampa Bay Lightning during over-time NHL hockey action in Toronto on Thursday, April 5, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette (Nathan Denette/CP)
Toronto Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf reacts after scoring the game winning goal while playing against theTampa Bay Lightning during over-time NHL hockey action in Toronto on Thursday, April 5, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette (Nathan Denette/CP)

NHL Weekend

Who's in better shape: <br>The Habs or Leafs? </br> Add to ...

This probably wasn’t quite what the NHL schedule makers had in mind when they plotted out the 1,230-game season and pitted two historic rivals against each other to end it all.

Yet, here we are, heading into Game 82 for the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs at the Bell Centre with little more on the line than positioning in Tuesday’s draft lottery.

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Call it the Battle of the Basement or the Lottery Bowl – it’s not much for drama, not when you consider all the optimism that these two franchises brought into the season.

This was supposed to be an intriguing end-of-season matchup, to decide playoff positioning, between two clubs that were on the upswing.

Instead it was a year of firings, on both sides, with two assistant coaches, two head coaches and one general manager getting the axe.

Along the way, Montreal and Toronto lost a combined 97 games, in regulation or a shootout – a record for the two franchises – in one of their worst five campaigns in the NHL’s modern era.

With the train wreck of their seasons already long since picked over, the question now becomes which team has a better foundation to build from and climb up the standings next season and beyond?

Who is in better shape for 2012-13: The Habs or the Leafs?





Montreal Canadiens

Toronto Maple Leafs

Recent history

Here there’s no question Montreal has the edge. The Habs have missed the playoffs just once in the last seven seasons and took the eventual Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins to seven games in Round 1 a year ago. The hope is that this season is merely a blip, caused at least in part by their ore than 400 man-games lost to injury.

Anything resembling success has been hard to come by in Toronto since the lockout, as the Leafs have one of the worst records in the league over that span and will miss the playoffs for their seventh consecutive season. They also have had only half the number of man-games lost as the Habs, staying relatively healthy until recently.

Edge: Montreal

The core (skaters)

PK Subban, Max Pacioretty, Tomas Plekanec, Brian Gionta, Erik Cole and Josh Gorges

Phil Kessel, Dion Phaneuf, Mikhail Grabovski, Joffrey Lupul, Carl Gunnarsson and John-Michael Liles

Edge: Even

In goal

At 24, Carey Price has established himself as a solid No. 1 and key building block for the future. Now he needs a contract – and it will be big.

An organizational black hole for years. The Leafs still lack a dependable starter, which constitutes GM Brian Burke’s main task this summer.

Edge: Montreal

In the system

Louis Leblanc, Brendan Gallagher and Jarred Tinordi are considered the names on the rise, even if Montreal’s prospect system isn’t believed to be the deepest overall.

Long term, there are reasons for optimism, as the Marlies are one of the top teams in the AHL. Immediate help is in short supply outside of Nazem Kadri, Jake Gardiner and Matt Frattin, however.

Edge: Toronto

Cap questions

Montreal has a couple key contracts to give out to Price and Subban this summer, which should eat up most of their cap space. And Scott Gomez and Tomas Kaberle’s combined $11.6-million cap hit isn’t helping their long-term cap situation.

Toronto has already committed $57-million in salary to next season and needs to add a No. 1 goaltender and No. 1 centre. Mike Komisarek’s $4.5-million cap hit is one of a few ugly ones on the books.

Edge: Even

The draft

Moving the pick isn’t out of the question if there’s a major deal to make, but it’s more likely the Canadiens select a big centre.

Like the Habs, Toronto needs size down the middle or on the wing. Burke has said he is “inclined” to keep the pick.

Edge: Montreal

Management and coaching

There’s a clean slate here, with plenty of names in the rumour mill but no clear front-runners. Good hires could set the table for a significant rebound.

Burke’s reputation is at an all-time low, and his bloated management team may be pressed into a desperate move. They need to dump several bad contracts.

Edge: Montreal

Ownership

Geoff Molson wants a winner and he wants it now. That mentality may be enough to get them back to being a playoff team next spring but will they sacrifice the future?

Who knows? There’s an ownership transition set to take place this summer that will see a consortium of media giants Rogers and Bell take over. But Burke isn’t expected to go anywhere.

Edge: Even

Prognosis

Even in their struggles, these two franchises have become almost the exact opposite of one another this season.

Toronto can score goals (10th in NHL) but is weak in goal and on the back end. Montreal lacks an 80-point game breaker like Kessel and out scored only two teams in the East, but it has Price and the second-best penalty kill.

The wild card in all of this is who takes over the Canadiens and how they proceed. Montreal mainly needs better luck on the injury front and to convert some of their dead wood into offensive help.

Short of a miraculous off-season for Burke, meanwhile, the Leafs appear to be in tough to make the playoffs again next year given how little is available in free agency.

Neither franchise is poised to be a Stanley Cup contender in the near future, but the Habs’ house cleaning should give them a leg up heading into next season if they bring in the right people.

And maybe the final meeting of the season will mean a little more a year from now.

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