All-Canadian Division: Habs Vs Leafs Rivalry To Be Resurrected?

Quebec vs Ontario. French vs English. Montreal vs Toronto. Canadiens vs Maple Leafs. There’s an old history between the two Canadian cities that cannot be denied. If the Federal Government gives something to Quebec, Ontario wants it too… and vice-versa. In hockey, the two original-six teams are the two winningest teams in history. The Habs with an astonishing 24 Stanley Cups, the Leafs second with 13 of their own. This used to be the biggest rivalry in the NHL. But years of mediocrity from the Toronto franchise has cooled off the emotions between the two biggest fanbases of the league, replaced by the defunct Nordiques, and now the Bruins are the Habs’ biggest rival. Aside from a period in the early 90’s, the Leafs have been rather irrelevant. But times seem to be changing for the franchise whose last playoffs’ series win dates back to 2004.

In the meantime, the Canadiens went through a reset, as team General Manager Marc Bergevin called it. They cleaned house in the dressing room, replacing individuals with team-driven players, brought in quality leadership, character and a better attitude. Just two short years after the reset, the young Canadiens surprised everyone by beating the Pittsburgh Penguins and although they’ve lost to the Philadelphia Flyers in the second round, they were the better team. All of that with an extremely group of centres. Phillip Danault (27) was the senior of the crew which included Nick Suzuki, who turned 21 in the Philadelphia series, Jesperi Kotkaniemi who turned 20 juste before the Pittsburgh series, Max Domi (25) and Jake Evans (24).

Leafs’ off-season changes

After yet another disappointing finish forcing their fans to go pickup their chairs along the parade route, the Leafs made some much needed changes. They are a team that is extremely top heavy, paying over $40 million for their top-4 forwards. On a cap of $81.5 million, that represents 49.7% of their salary cap! What does this do? It leaves very little room for the rest of the team so they have to rely on a wing and a prayer to have success. As it stands right now, they’re over the cap by about a million dollars. They will get under it but they will be tight once again, making it difficult to address needs throughout the season.

Here are the main changes the Leafs have made in the off-season so far:

OUTIN
Tyson BarrieT.J. Brodie
Cody CeciZach Bogosian
Kasperi KapanenJoey Anderson
Kyle CliffordWayne Simmonds
Andreas JohnssonJimmy Vesey
Frederik GauthierJoe Thornton

Analysis

Barrie for Brodie is, at best, a lateral move. although it seems like Barrie has slightly more upsides.

Going from Ceci to Bogosian is a substantial downgrade for a team which desperately needs to improve their defensive corp.

Joe Thornton

Another huge step down is trading Kapanen for Anderson. While the new Leafs is two years younger, 24 year-old Kapanen scored 20 goals just two years ago.

There is no denying that Simmonds, even today, is an improvement over Clifford. But if we look at last season alone, the margin between the two rugged forwards isn’t as much as it used to be, believe it or not.

Vesey taking Johnsson’s spot is a wash. Johnsson is better offensively, Vesey is bigger with less offense.

Then you have Big Joe. One would be silly to say that it’s not an improvement over Gauthier, as far as hockey skills goes. But having watched him play here out west, he is slow as molasses now. He managed 7 goals last season, three of which came on the powerplay. His faceoffs’ percentage, which used to be good, dropped below 50%. Now here’s the thing… did the Leafs need help on the powerplay? Didn’t they say just two years ago that they needed toughness? Thornton won’t bring that. And he won’t bring help on the defensive side, as he was minus -19 last season. They gain on experience, but loose the energy Gauthier was bringing. The jury is out on this signing as to how much of an improvement that is.

Habs off-season changes

On the other hand, the Canadiens made some significant changes and the consensus goes well beyond the Montreal media. Everyone is praising Bergevin for his off-season. They’re deeper, tougher and better at every position.

Here’s what the Habs did this off-season:

OUTIN
Max DomiJosh Anderson
Keith KinkaidJake Allen
Charles HudonJoel Edmundson
Dale WeiseTyler Toffoli
Alexander Romanov

Analysis

Domi had one great season two years ago but found himself on the outside looking in when playoffs started. He started the first series centring the fourth line and eventually moved to the third on the wing. He lost his spot to Kotkaniemi and Suzuki. While naysayers will claim that Anderson is a risk, it’s one that was worth taking, in my opinion. Players like him are extremely rare now days.

Tyler Toffoli

Allen will not only allow more time off for Carey Price (and we saw what he can do while rested), but he will win the team some games, something previous backups couldn’t do. Again, culprits will tell you that he will only bring so many points (games won by him), but they forget the immense impact of a rested Price and the points this will also bring.

Edmundson was a top-4 on a strong St. Louis team, and had the same role in Carolina. He’s not flashy, but he’s efficient, a great defender. And like Shea Weber and Ben Chiarot, he’s experienced and he’s tough as nail.

As for Toffoli, do I need to explain, really? A perennial 20-25 goals’ scorer, he solidifies the right wing side along with Anderson and Brendan Gallagher. He also adds another element to the powerplay.

Claude Julien feels like Romanov, who practiced with the team in the bubble in the last playoffs, will be stepping right into the line-up. He will likely start on the third pairing and they’ll go from there. He was a solid defenseman in the KHL and while the step is substantial to the NHL, he has everything to succeed. Worst case scenario, he will definitely be an upgrade over career-AHLer Xavier Ouellet, who played that position in the playoffs.

The return of a rivalry

All in all, I personally feel like the Leafs took a step back in this off-season, while their fans will cry wolf at me. I have a feeling that many of them will be pick up their chairs along the parade route… once again. And they better not suffer any substantial injuries to one of their top players or their defense, as their depth isn’t great.

Have the Canadiens done enough to be a Stanley Cup contender? I doubt it, mostly because I don’t want to put too much on their young centres. But what does help those young centremen is the fact that they all have quality wingers to play with. Even on the fourth line as it stands, Evans (or Ryan Poehling) will benefit of having solid veterans Paul Byron and Joel Armia with them. It is important to note that every player brought in is a character player and all are good on the defensive side of the puck. In order to win hockey games, you have to score more goals than your opponent. It is equally true that you have to allow fewer goals than them too. Those additions, without losing players in return, only improve the team depth in case of injuries.

With the possibility of an all-Canadian division, the old rivalry only needs one little spark to get re-ignited. The Habs are one of the most improved team, perhaps the most improved in the off-season. They should easily be a playoffs’ team… maybe more. Go Habs Go!

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