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Warmup for Wednesday: Habs at Leafs

On Wednesday night the Montreal Canadiens will be in Toronto to face the Maple Leafs for their first game of the season, the first of four meetings this season for the division rivals.

The Leafs will enter this game, and this season, with much to prove after being eliminated in the first round last year by the Habs. This was the fifth first-round exit for Toronto since 2006, having missed the playoffs in the other years. Last season was expected to be their golden opportunity to exorcise their demons and advance to the quarter finals from the pandemic-birthed Canadian division.

The Montreal Canadiens had something to say about that. After falling backwards into the playoffs, the Habs fell behind in their series with Toronto. Then it started coming together for the bleu, blanc et rouge, and before they knew it the Leafs watched a 3-1 series lead evaporate into an elimination. It was the Habs who would advance from the North Division and go on to lose to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Stanley Cup Final.

The Leafs had the better roster but the Habs had the better team.

This is an old rivalry that has found new life. The Maple Leafs are comprised of some star players entering their primes. If this roster can’t break them out of their “one and done funk” it’s unlikely another will for some time. Undoubtedly, they have a point to prove.

The Habs, on the other hand, are a team in transition trying to land their identity. Their run last season was a Cinderella story that ended just a little too early. They have some good young parts coming up but they lack star power, lost significant parts in the off-season, and have been ravaged by injuries. They’ll be in tough to prove they weren’t a flash in the pan.

It all gets under way on Wednesday and here is a look at how the teams match up.

The management and coaches add some drama heading into the 2021-22 season.

Brendan Shanahan – NHL veteran turned President and Alternate Governor of the Toronto Maple Leafs – is the architect of the Shanaplan, the rebuild he initiated in his first full season with the team. His protégé is Kyle Dubas, a young GM with a reputation for using data and analytics in decision-making. Dubas is responsible for the hire of Sheldon Keefe, a rookie coach at the time, to shepherd this team to greatness. This trinity is expected to make the Leafs a winning franchise, a task for which some mystical powers might be required.

After watching Amazon Prime’s All or Nothing: Toronto Maple Leafs I confess I was a little surprised to see Keefe extended so early. A missed playoff and a first-round exit with that roster is hardly early extension material in my view. It’s television, but I can’t say Keefe left much of an impression. Here he is with an extension before his current contract has ended, and I’m not convinced he even begins the new contract if he can’t get the Leafs over their hump this year.

In Montreal, the President and CEO is the co-owner of the Canadiens. Geoff Molson is a beer magnate with questionable hockey acumen. He is responsible for the 2012 hire of GM Marc Bergevin, a journeyman NHL defenceman who played 1191 games and learned hockey management in Chicago under Stan Bowman. Bergevin generated some controversy this summer with his decision to draft a sex offender, and there are questions about the extent of his awareness of the sexual abuse scandal in Chicago during his time there. Entering his tenth season, Bergevin is on his third coach.

Dominique Ducharme first joined the Habs as an assistant coach to Claude Julien. He was promoted to Interim Coach when Julien was relieved in the middle of the 2020-21 season. Ducharme was given the Head Coach role this past off-season, having led the Habs to an unlikely Stanley Cup Final appearance. Bergevin, on the other hand, has entered the last year of his current contract with no plans to negotiate during the season. It is suspected he may walk away at the end of the contract.

Both teams have pressure on their front offices, for different reasons.

The Leafs have greater stability in net to start the season.

Carey Price is on leave to start the season having entered the NHLPA Players Assistance Program. The Habs have one of the strongest back-ups in the league in Jake Allen, who will take on the starter role. Samuel Montembeault was claimed off waivers earlier in the preseason and he will back up Allen until Price returns. The length of Price’s absence is unknown, and when well he will need conditioning time having had meniscus surgery in the off-season.

The Leafs added Petr Mrazek in the off-season, and he is expected to form a solid goalie tandem with Jack Campbell. On Wednesday we should see Allen go up against Campbell.

The Habs will not be icing the defence group that toppled the Leafs last season.

In the summer the Habs announced Shea Weber would miss this season due to an injury that may, in fact, be career threatening. David Savard was signed via free agency to try and stop that bleeding, while Chris Wideman was repatriated from Russia to try and fill a need for a puck mover that has existed for years. Joel Edmundson arrived at camp with an injury and will miss 2-3 weeks. Camp hopeful, Mattias Norlinder, and late free agent signing, Sami Niku, were both injured during the preseason. All of that adds up to a Montreal defence group that will be the subject of considerable groaning in the immediate future.

The Leafs defence group looks more solid than it has in years, but the big story is Morgan Rielly. Toronto’s top D is entering the last year of his contract, and there are questions about whether the Leafs can afford to re-sign him. This will be an intense drama until it reaches resolution, one way or another.

Toronto should continue to dominate down the middle.

Auston Matthews is expected to miss some time to start the season following off-season wrist surgery, but this seems to be more precautionary than a serious concern. Tavares is back and healthy. Alexander Kerfoot is an adequate 3C, and David Kampf is expected to bring a strong defensive conscience to the group in the 4C hole. Mike Amadio will get a shot at 4C while Matthews is recovering.

The Canadiens experienced somewhat of a reverse metamorphosis this summer where their centre group is concerned. Phil Danault, the second line centre responsible for shutting down Matthews in the playoffs, left via free agency. Jesperi Kotkaniemi was stolen via an offer sheet. The Habs compensated by trading for Christian Dvorak to play behind Nick Suzuki. Jake Evans will get a chance to prove himself in the 3C role, Cedric Paquette was added for depth, Ryan Poehling will try to stick in Montreal, and on Monday Bergevin claimed Adam Brooks on waivers from the Leafs. Someone from that pool will claim the 4C role.

If Ducharme has any sense of drama whatsoever, Brooks will be in the line up against the Leafs on Wednesday.

The Habs strength this season is their depth on the wings.

Mike Hoffman, the goal scorer the Habs signed in free agency, will miss a couple of weeks to start the season… and it’s okay. If the Habs have an insurance policy against their young group of centremen, it’s their pool of versatile wingers. It’s not a group of superstars, but they have seven or eight wingers who can play in the top six. A couple of them can also play centre but unfortunately, none can play defence.

Depth has been the Leafs nemesis. When you invest so much in three superstar forwards, the other nine guys may leave you with some question marks. The Ilya Mikheyev injury hits hard for this reason. Then when one of the superstars misses a few… well, you get the picture.

The Habs will continue to rely on their depth every time they face the Leafs this season.

The Habs expect to continue to come together as a team to overcome adversity, while the Leafs are unsure if they have any of that trait in them.

The obstacles the Habs overcame last season are well documented. They are no strangers to injuries and leaves, and they worked through them with a COVID interruption and a coaching change. Overcoming without their captain is just another adversary, or that’s what they’re hoping at least.

When the Leafs encountered adversity in the first round they folded, which does not bode well for a team that hopes to contend for the Cup. But whatever happens, they can take solace in the fact that this is the last season that Phil Kessel will count against their salary cap.

You’re well warmed up for Wednesday. It’s the Leafs greeting the Habs for their first game of the season. Happy Puck Drop!

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