By Bob Trask – There are no two teams in the NHL that represent a starker contrast the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs. That contrast is limited to the on-ice performance from last season, the teams differ on many fronts.
Despite falling short in the playoffs the Leafs put up 111 points in the regular season while the Canadiens finished with the 5th worst record, accumulating 68 points. The high-powered Leafs offense scored 47 more goals than the Canadiens and surrendered a whopping 85 fewer goals.
But last year is in the books and the path forward for the two teams remains vastly different.
The Canadiens have a stable, experienced management team that has been in place for 18 months; one that has had a chance to evaluate every aspect of the team’s operations and prospect pool. The Leafs are now without a General Manager, this even with the draft quickly approaching. They also have several contracts approaching critical status and free agents to deal with. It is a lot for a new GM to absorb in the next 5 weeks.
Toronto has 15 players under contract for next season and $9 million in cap room. That leaves them with just over $1M per player, on average, to fill out their roster. The Leafs have at least 10 UFAs and RFAs with some of them being relatively important players
Montreal has 19 players under contract and a similar amount of cap space. A lot of that will be dedicated to a new contract for Cole Caufield, leaving them with a minimal amount to round out the roster – unless some high priced contracts are shed.
Both teams have LTIR candidates that could open up more cap space for them. For the Leafs, it is Jake Muzzin and his $5.625M cap hit; for the Canadiens it is Carey Price and his $10.5M cap hit.
The Canadiens may have some additional flexibility if they can move one or two veteran contracts to make room for potential UFA or trade acquisitions. In no specific order these are the contracts of Joel Edmundson, Mike Hoffman, Joel Armia and perhaps even Christian Dvorak. The Leafs have the bulk of their cap space tied up in the Core 4 and Morgan Rielly. Unless they drop a bomb, those players aren’t going anywhere, leaving the Leafs with limited opportunity to create additional cap space.
The average age of Leafs’ forwards is 28.4 years and 30.2 years for their defensemen. It seems unlikely they will get any younger in a sport that is increasingly becoming a young man’s game. The average age of the Habs’ forwards is 27.4 years and 26.4 years for their defensemen. These averages could drop even further if 2 or 3 of the veterans mentioned earlier are traded.
It is often suggested that players reach their peak at around age 28 and then plateau for a while. If that applies to team age as well, then it would be expected that the Leafs have plateaued while the Canadiens could improve with experience.
The Toronto Marlies did outperform the Laval Rocket in the AHL last year, but that is a poor measure of each team’s overall prospect pool.
Once you get past Matthew Knies, Topi Niemela and maybe William Villeneuve, the caliber of Leafs’s prospects drops off considerably. Rodion Amirov and his health situation leave him as a question mark. Nick Robertson could still be considered a prospect but the under-sized forward has never played more than 38 games in a season since turning pro.
Even if Juraj Slafkovsky is excluded the Canadiens have Joshua Roy, Riley Kidney, Kaspari Kapanen, Jesse Ylonen, Sean Farrell, Emil Heineman, Filip Mesar and Owen Beck as legitimate prospects at forward. Lane Hutson, Logan Mailloux, Adam Engstrom, William Trudeau and Jayden Struble head up a deep cast on defense. That is not including Nicolas Beaudin, Mattias Norlinder or Gianni Fairbrother, but in fairness, those three look like long shots at best.
At the moment, there is no comparison between the prospect pools but trades and the draft can change that quickly.
At the moment, Montreal holds 11 picks in the upcoming draft with their first pick coming at #5 and their second pick no later than #32. The team’s second round pick at #37 is almost equivalent to a late first round pick. Toronto’s first round pick, courtesy of the Boston Bruins, comes in at #28.
After exercising that first round pick, the next time the Leafs step to the podium will be for pick #154. The Canadiens have 8 picks currently available to them between #28 and #154. These are #31 or #32 (from Florida), #37, #69. #101, #110 (from Pittsburgh), #127 or #128 (from Vegas) and #133 and #145 (from Calgary).
Needless to say, this draft is heavily stacked in Montreal’s favor as compared to Toronto.
The top of the Leafs’ lineup is very talented and their goaltending situation looks better than Montreal’s. Having said that Toronto could struggle to match last year’s totals. The Canadiens’ lineup still has a lot of question marks with some big holes to fill but they should be on track to improve significantly over last year. It won’t be enough, however, to catch the Leafs.
Long Term Outlook
The management team of the Leafs has to choose one of two paths. They will either need to keep the Core 4 and Rielly intact to challenge or decide to go in a different direction entirely. Their choice will affect the long term outlook for the team. If they stick with the current core, they have a short window of opportunity before the depletion of the prospect pipeline takes affect. If they break up the core and can add key pieces through trades, they could remain competitive for a long time.
In other words, the picture is murky at best.
The Canadiens, on the other hand, have stressed a long term focus and have clearly moved in that direction. The current team is relatively young, the prospect pipeline is fully and the next two or three drafts already hold a lot of promise.
There is almost no aspect of the game where there isn’t a stark contrast between the Canadiens and the Leafs. The short term favors the Leafs but it should shift to the Canadiens over time. And for even more good news, the same contrasts with similar results could be applied to a comparison between the Canadiens and the Boston Bruins.
Rivals beware! The Canadiens are on the hunt.