Finally, opening night is here. Almost five months after one of the Canadiens' most encouraging seasons in decades was brought to an abrupt end, the Habs will start their journey anew against one of their oldest rivals.
The Toronto Maple Leafs made some substantial changes over the offseason, hoping to improve on a team that made the playoffs for the first time in a decade. Much the like the Canadiens, the Leafs bowed out in a very disappointing (albeit significantly more heart-wrenching) manner last year. Now, they hope a big free agent addition, a new goalie, and some defensive upgrades will have them chasing the cup for a second consecutive year.
The Leafs will return one of the NHL's premier offensive weapons, Phil Kessel, and appear prepared to again pair him with unfit sidekick Tyler Bozak. The Leafs forward corps will also include the talented Joffrey Lupul, and last year's sensation, Nazem Kadri. Kadri was a top-25 scorer in the league last year, but it seems that he was the beneficiary of some serious puck luck. In any case, last year's performance will be a tough act to follow.
One longtime Leaf who will not play for the Buds this year is Mikhail Grabovski, who was bought out this summer. Grabovski is a talented two-way centre and a strong puck possessor on a team that had difficulty in that regard last year.
Indirectly replacing Grabovski is David Clarkson; a big, tough winger who grabbed a significant payday after demonstrating some scoring prowess with the New Jersey Devils. Clarkson, with his size and propensity for pugilism, fits well with the Leafs Smythian philosophy of "beating them in alley." While the Leafs are not a team that has trouble scoring, they'll need to hope that Clarkson can contribute offensively if they wish to justify his sizeable price tag.
David Bolland will assume the rare and dubious distinction of being Toronto's second most notable David, and their second most notable acquisition of the summer. Bolland has a reputation as a strong defensive presence and agitator, but his play has fallen off of late. Bolland will man the middle of the Leafs depth chart at Centre, hoping to team with Jay McClement to create a formidable defensive presence in the bottom six.
While the Leafs moves up front are certainly debatable, the move they made in the crease may be even more confusing. James Reimer, a decent young goaltender, came off an above average season last year in which he was forced to play behind one of the poorer defensive squads in the league. Nonetheless, the Leafs' brass moved to find a new keeper, moving some young talent to scoop up Jonathan Bernier of the LA Kings. While Bernier is regarded as an up-and-comer in some corners, it is arguable that he is even less established than Reimer at the moment. The move to acquire Bernier, along with the Clarkson signing, will be two transaction to watch as Leafs progress.
Having discussed the Leafs forwards and goalies, we are left to discuss the position group that was among the poorest in recent memory. Toronto, on a nightly basis, dressed the likes of Michael Kostka, Mike Komisarek, Korbinian Holzer, and Mark Fraser. While it is unclear if the Leafs were cognizant of their shortcomings of the back-end, they decided to shore up their lineup with the trade deadline acquisition of Ryan O'Byrne. My ability to construct a suitably exasperated analogy fails me.
In summer of 2013, all of the above defenders, save for Fraser and Holzer, were shown the door in one way or another. Taking their place are number of more promising candidates, which may or may not create a substantial uptick in the Leafs defensive play and overall performance. After being imprisoned in the AHL last year, Jake Gardiner looks set to bear some NHL minutes this year. The Leafs also picked up former Lightning Paul Ranger on a low-risk deal, and even managed to re-sign Cody Franson, against all odds. Those three will round out a corps that also includes Carl Gunnarsson, and of course, Dion Phaneuf.
So, where does this leave us for this evening's affair? The Leafs are a high-scoring team with decent goaltending, and even a better back-end group than last year. Phil Kessel is, by far, the biggest threat on their roster, and is the type of talented scorer that can pose problems for any team. Where Toronto runs into problems, however, is with their depth. Kessel and Lupul can cause problem, but after they and Kadri, the Leafs aren't particularly dangerous. When one ranges into their bottom six, where lugs like McLaren and Orr are often played too much, the quality of talent becomes particularly poor. On paper, the Canadiens third line of Galchenyuk - Eller - Gallagher should be leagues ahead of their competition. The Habs should also hold an advantage between the pipes, as well. While Carey Price is looking to bounce back from last year, he's also one of the most talented (if not the most) goaltenders in the entire league. The tandem of James Reimer and Jonathan Bernier leave Toronto in decent shape going into the year, but an argument could be made that both are not yet truly proven. After ending their streak of playoff absences last year, the Leafs will look to start a new streak this year. In order to accomplish that, one or both of Bernier and Reimer will have to be outstanding.
For more on the Leafs, including their recent signing of Cody Franson and trading of Joe Colborne, head over to Pension Plan Puppets. Alternatively, stay here for the obligatory pump-up videos and game thread!