Monday, September 6, 2010
Based on last year it might seem foolish to compare both teams. The Canadiens managed to make it all the way to the Eastern Conference Final, while the Leafs not only finished dead last in the Eastern Conference, but gave their second overall draft choice to the Boston Bruins.
However, it took Montreal until the last game of the season against the Maple Leafs to clinch a playoff berth – which they narrowly achieved by losing in overtime.
Montreal starts the new season largely the same – minus their team MVP who is now in St. Louis. The Leafs made dramatic changes in January and have made minor tweaks this off-season.
How do these teams compare now? Let’s break it down.
Phil Kessel is the Leafs’ only legitimate threat to score each night. Kessel scored 30 goals last season after missing training camp and the first month of the season. With a full off-season to build strength and a full training camp it is possible that the Leafs’ winger could score 40 goals, which considering his teammates, might be necessary. The rest of the Leafs’ forwards are a mix of young, promising, yet mainly unproven, players who will need to take a big step forward for Toronto to improve on last year’s 25th ranked offense.
The additions of Kris Versteeg and Colby Armstrong will surely help as both are capable 20-goal scorers. And the recent signing of Clarke MacArthur is an intriguing option, but hardly a sure-thing.
The Leafs will need continued progression from Tyler Bozak and Nikolai Kulemin and a bounce-back year from Mikhail Grabovski, or else risk languishing at the bottom of the league in goals for again. (We’ll discuss Nazem Kadri later)
The Canadiens have a better group of forwards now. Mike Cammalleri is the best goal-scorer on both teams, while Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez are both legitimate 60 point players (although that’s horrible for Gomez considering his contract, but we’ll get to contractual issues later).
Andrei Kostitsyn (and his Hulk Hogan skullet) seems to have plateaued after exciting Montreal fans in his rookie season. However, if he can regain his form the second line becomes dangerous provided Tomas Plekanec didn’t just perform well in a contract year (something every Montreal fan needs to worry about).
Both Lars Eller and Benoit Pouliot are interesting players for the Canadiens this upcoming season. Pouliot erased his bust status after arriving from Minnesota as he scored like crazy early in his Montreal tenure. He cooled off to end the season, but if Montreal has found the player Minnesota thought they were drafting in the top-10 the Canadiens will have a much more balanced attack that doesn’t solely involve Mike Cammalleri.
Montreal acquired Eller from the Blues for Jaroslav Halak and he should provide the Canadiens with a good two-way second line player. He seems ready to step in immediately, although he will likely begin his Canadiens career as the third-line centre.
This is where the Leafs’ strength truly lies (in theory). On paper, the Leafs have the best defensive group in the league. However, I thought the same thing last year and they ended up being one of the worst. That is mainly attributable to goaltending, considering they had a goalie that couldn’t stop anything and refused coaching because he thought he was above that. After trading for Dion Phaneuf and J.S. Giguere the Leafs tightened up defensively, leading to a much improved winning percentage.
The Leafs’ best defenceman last year, Carl Gunnarsson, is now on the outside of the top-6 (based on salary, which doesn’t include Jeff Finger’s monstrosity). It’s possible he starts the year in the AHL or is even a part of a trade.
Montreal’s defence looked better than it actually was last year because of stellar goaltending by Jaroslav Halak. Sure they blocked tons of shots in the playoffs, but there are too many liabilities on their blue-line even with the departure of Marc-Andre Bergeron.
I’ve never been a fan of Roman Hamrlik, especially since he makes Jaroslav Spacek look decent.
Andrei Markov certainly isn’t a liability and is one of the ten best defencemen in the league, but he also starts the season on the IR. Markov has now undergone multiple major surgeries over the past few seasons which are a cause for concern.
Hal Gill and Josh Gorges are solid players, but Gill is aging and cannot be expected to block the amount of shots he did in last year’s playoffs. His skating is also laughable, but after seeing him play in Toronto he’s somehow able to get the job done. I’m just not certain how much longer he can do it. Gorges is probably the Habs’ second best defenceman behind Markov, but risks being exposed facing tougher competition while Markov is unable to start the season. (We’ll discuss P.K. Subban later)
This was the Leafs’ major downfall last season. They went into the year believing that a surgically repaired Vesa Toskala would provide them with the type of consistent goaltending required to make the playoffs. Instead, Toskala couldn’t stop anything and openly bristled with the coaching staff. Toskala’s failure meant a reliance on rookie Jonas Gustavsson, who had two heart surgeries and a groin injury to deal with in addition to being a rookie.
However, the Leafs’ goaltending solidified with J.S. Giguere. Giggy provided the Leafs with stable goaltending, allowing them to slowly develop Gustavsson, who benefitted greatly from Giguere’s arrival.
Giguere’s Conn Smythe winning days are behind him, but he’s still a capable goalie. His numbers after arriving in Toronto suggest this (2.49 GAA, .916%). He isn’t going to play on his head, but he will provide the Leafs with reliability in the pipes – something they haven’t had since Ed Belfour in the pre-lockout.
Allowing Gustavsson to play once a week seems prudent, as he seemed overwhelmed in his first year in the league – often learning new techniques during a morning practice and then being thrown to the Washington Capitals the next night. At this point Gustavsson’s potential is still unknown, but it never hurts to have a young, physically talented goalie on your team.
Montreal struggled for most of last season until they decided to give Jaroslav Halak the number one job outright. At that point the Canadiens made a push for the playoffs and squeaked in at eight. Halak then played out of this world and almost single-handedly upset both the Capitals and Penguins. Now Halak is gone and Carey Price is once again the de facto number one goalie.
Statistically speaking, Price actually played pretty decent last season (2.77 GAA, .912%), but suffered from terrible goal support during his starts. Regardless, Montreal fans booed him mercilessly at points during the season and he seemed destined for a new locale this summer.
Price is a former top-10 pick and is still very, very young. He could still potentially become one of the best goalies in the league if he can regain whatever it was he lost after his rookie season. If he doesn’t, the Habs are in trouble because they chose to sign Alex Auld as a back-up instead of someone capable of pushing Price and playing a large number of games in case the former golden boy faltered (like Dan Ellis).
At this point the Leafs have a more stable goaltending situation. However, the Canadiens’ goaltending has a higher ceiling and long-term future (barring rampant cocaine use).
Allegedly, Ron Wilson is one of the best coaches in the league. Well, at least that’s what people said before the Leafs hired him two seasons ago. I haven’t seen any evidence of his excellence. Even before he arrived in Toronto he made the finals once (with a sham Washington Capitals team) and was the coach of the perennially playoff underachieving San Jose Sharks. So it wasn’t like his pedigree spoke volumes.
Now after two seasons behind the Leafs’ bench his team has finished seventh worst and second worst. Even more concerning is the special teams statistics. Special teams are an area where coaches can have a major influence since they rely primarily on tactics. Yet the Leafs have languished at the bottom of the league in both power-play and penalty kill for the past two seasons.
To make matters worse, Wilson is snarky towards the media and acts as if he’s deserving of better treatment from them.
Wilson’s French counter-part, Jacques Martin, also shares the distinct honour of coaching an underachieving powerhouse. Martin coached the Ottawa Senators dynasty that never was in the late-90s and early 2000s and reached one conference final, while consistently bowing out in the opening two rounds – often against the Leafs.
I thought hiring Jacques Martin was horrible for the Canadiens and unfortunately, thanks to Jaroslav Halak, he’ll enjoy a brief reprieve from criticism after leading his team to the Eastern Conference Final. Halak perpetuated the stereotype that Jacques Martin is a competent hockey mind.
Edge: Nobody can win in this situation; fire them both
The Leafs have had a horrible penalty kill the previous two seasons – due in large part to Vesa Toskala. Once the Leafs traded for J.S. Giguere and Dion Phaneuf the penalty kill operated at an efficiency worthy of the top-10 in the league. However, the power-play tumbled at this same point.
Tumbled is being generous. The Leafs finished with the absolute worst power-play efficiency in the entire league. They scored only 14% of the time. Horrible!
It can’t be as bad this year considering the Leafs have more options for an entire year. They can go to Kessel on the side boards or Phaneuf at the point. But if no one is willing to get in front of the net it won’t matter who is shooting.
To go along with their worst-ranked power-play the Leafs had the absolute worst penalty kill as well. They managed to kill off only 74.6%. Is Ron Wilson actually coaching these guys?
Considering the Leafs have Phaneuf and Giguere for a full year the penalty kill shouldn’t be nearly as bad. If the Leafs are able to improve their penalty kill to the level they played at for the final few months of the season that alone could propel them up the Eastern Conference standings.
Last season Montreal had the second ranked power-play, operating at close to 22%, which was second only to the Washington Capitals. With Andrei Markov injured to start the year and Marc-Andre Bergeron gone (yes, he actually had some value), the primary responsibility to quarterback the power-play will fall to P.K. Subban.
The Habs penalty kill ranked 12th in the league, at a modest 83%. This stat can’t even be attributed to Jaroslav Halak who managed only a .838% while a man down. Meanwhile, Carey Price had a .944% when the Habs were short-handed.
Both teams play in the two largest hockey markets in the world and constantly face a media scrum so large that it would constitute a good fan turn-out in Florida. This means that everything is continuously analyzed and second guessed, meaning small errors get blown way out of proportion. It also exposes personal foibles which newspapers and TV shows use as headlines for weeks. This entire process has nearly consumed Carey Price the past two years.
But this year there is more pressure than the normal Toronto/Montreal media provides. The Leafs are once again without a first round pick and if they repeat last year’s performance there is a good chance that both coach and GM will look for work elsewhere. If the Leafs even stumble to start the season, not even as badly as last season’s disaster, Ron Wilson will surely be fired. Handing over another lottery selection to the Boston Bruins might force Leafs Nation to collectively kill themselves.
Montreal’s pressure stems from the exact opposite. The Habs made a surprising run to the conference final last season and defeated the President’s Trophy winner and previous Stanley Cup champion in the process. That success caused fans to over evaluate players based on their unlikely playoff success. In reality, there is no way Hal Gill plays as well as he did in the playoffs. That said, Mike Cammalleri is a legitimate 40-goal threat and P.K. Subban is certainly a good player, despite the Montreal propaganda campaign.
But the real pressure in Montreal falls on Carey Price. The Habs are Price’s team now after Halak's trade to the Blues in the off-season and the Habs made Alex Auld the backup goalie. Price has allowed the pressures of Montreal (and the partying) affect his performance in the net and the fans have noticed (justifiably or not). He was constantly booed last season and I didn’t think there was any way he could ever play in Montreal again. But here he is. It will be interesting to see if the Montreal fans give Price a longer leash if he starts slowly mainly because he’s their only option.
Slight Edge: Habs
Both teams are currently pressed tightly to the salary cap. The Canadiens have around $2 million to spend, while the Leafs are actually over the limit. This means that Jeff Finger will undoubtedly join the Marlies in the AHL, thus opening up around $2-3 million in cap space depending on who makes the team in the fall.
Next year the Canadiens do have substantial money coming off the cap. Roman Hamrlik is in the final year of an ill-advised $5.5 million deal, which is good news for the Canadiens since Andrei Kostitsyn, Benoit Pouliot, and Josh Gorges are all RFAs. More importantly, Andrei Markov is a UFA and the Canadiens cannot afford to lose their best defenceman. Other notable players in the final year of deals are Hal Gill and Maxim Lapierre.
So the Canadiens should have money to retain their talent, but it doesn’t seem like there is much money to do anything else. The Habs have over $23 million committed long-term to Brian Gionta, Mike Cammalleri, Scott Gomez, and Tomas Plekanec.
Plekanec is a bit of an enigma. He scored 70 points last year, which was a huge bounce back from a dismal 39 point season in 2008-2009. That season came after his breakout 69 point campaign in 2007-2008. It debateable which Plekanec is the real Plekanec considering he was largely disappointing in last year’s playoffs. I doubt he’s the 70 point player, but he certainly isn’t the 39 point player. Somewhere in the middle is more likely.
Cammalleri is certainly worth the money he makes and is easily the Canadiens’ best player.
Gionta might be slightly overpaid considering he’s north of 30, but he’s settled into a consistent 50-60 point player capable of scoring close to 30 goals. $5 million is the going rate for this type of player (like it or not).
Scott Gomez is the anchor that will drag the Canadiens’ cap space into a nebulous abyss. He has one of the top-10 largest cap hits in the league and the Habs actually traded assets to acquire him (despite having four years remaining – five at the time of the trade). He’s grossly overpaid and will never be able to justify the contract, so Montreal can only hope he provides enough production to keep the fans placated. This is a bad contract and will limit the Canadiens’ ability to acquire top-tier talent.
The two major Leaf contracts expiring after the season are Tomas Kaberle ($4.25 million) and J.S. Giguere ($6 million). There is no way Kaberle returns, but Giguere very well could, although his salary would certainly be much less ($4-$4.5 million perhaps?).
The Leafs have three significant RFAs to re-sign: Luke Schenn, Tyler Bozak, and Carl Gunnarsson. Both Schenn and Bozak have heavy incentive based contracts that increase their cap hit ($3.725 for Bozak and $2.975 for Schenn). I don’t see either making much more (if any) than their current cap hits (according to Cap Geek – obviously when dealing with unknown bonuses this isn’t exact).
The Leafs certainly have enough money to retain their young players and should have some left over to acquire talent from outside the organization.
The Leafs don’t have any real bad contracts considering Jeff Finger will be in the minors and J.S. Giguere only has one year remaining. You could argue Mike Komisarek is overpaid, but $4.5 million is the going rate for a shot-blocking, physical defenceman (i.e. Robyn Regehr, Anton Volchenkov) – much like $5 million is the rate for a player like Brian Gionta.
The top prospects for both teams, Nazem Kadri and P.K. Subban, are both equally talented, although Subban has a slight edge in the immediacy due to his time in the AHL and his late season call-up. According to Hockey’s Future, Kadri is the 13th ranked prospect, while Subban is the 20th.
The Leafs didn’t have a first round pick last year, nor do they this year, but they’ve still done a good job acquiring young assets to (somewhat) off-set these loses. Acquiring college free agents such as Tyler Bozak, Christian Hanson, and Brayden Irwin adds to the Leafs talent pool (although Bozak seems like the only one capable of playing in the top-6). Burke has also scoured Europe to pick up players like Jonas Gustavsson, Jussi Rynnas, and Marcel Mueller.
Montreal has also bolstered their future, not only with an actual first round pick, but with an off-season trade of Jaroslav Halak. Adding Lars Eller gave the Canadiens a top-30 ranked prospect, which combined with the selection of Jarred Tinordi in this year’s entry draft, the Canadiens have added to their prospect pool in the more traditional way.
Hockey’s Future ranks the Leafs as the 6th best organization, while the Canadiens are 16th. However, this was last updated in April 2010, which means the Leafs should probably fall considering their off-season trade for Kris Versteeg and their lack of draft picks. The Habs should also gain ground considering the Jaroslav Halak trade and their 2010 draft.
Both teams are banking on two rookies to solidify their key weaknesses. This is certainly a lot to expect from such young players in two rabid hockey markets, but if they are able to succeed then both teams will perform better than expected.
The Leafs desperately need last year’s seventh overall pick, Nazem Kadri, to immediately join the top-6 forwards and show he belongs. Kadri scored 93 points in junior last season and added another 27 in 12 playoff games.
He’s gained over 15 pounds this summer and now weighs close to 190 pounds. Kadri’s strength was the main reason he returned to junior last season after impressing during training camp. Kadri has enough speed and skill to play for the Maple Leafs, the question is whether he is strong enough to stand the rigors of the pro game.
Kadri has the potential to give the Leafs another top-6 forward who could form a dangerous combination with Phil Kessel .Yes, Leaf fans are already hoping a 19-year-old can step in and become the number one centre. That’s fine; we were ready to anoint Tyler Bozak the number one centre immediately after his first call-up. Montreal fans, as you will see, are no better.
Montreal is hoping the way-too-likeable-to-be-a-Hab P.K. Subban bolsters their lacklustre defence.
Subban joined the Canadiens during last year’s playoffs and became an instant fan favourite for his dazzling offensive ability and his solid defensive play (although, when you have to watch Marc-Andre Bergeron play defence every night you begin to think everyone else is the next Doug Harvey). He struggled at times, but he played lots of minutes against some of the best competition after Andrei Markov injured his knee, so it’s understandable.
Since Markov is unable to start the beginning of the year the Canadiens are hoping that Subban is able to immediately step into a first pairing role (anyone who thinks Hal Gill will replicate his tremendous playoffs is fooling themselves). That could be a stretch, but if he is able to play at that level the Canadiens will fill a glaring weakness.
Neither team’s fans will care to admit it, but these are two pretty similar teams. They will both end the season battling for the last few playoff spots.
There are question marks surrounding both teams, which means the media will have plenty of opportunities to bleed the life out of stories. Hopefully, Montreal has a full season of this.