The Montreal Canadiens had a fantastic 2013-14 season.
The team's leaders played excellent hockey. Their playoff candidacy was never really in doubt. When they did reach the playoffs, they steamrolled an up-and-coming Tampa Bay team, before dethroning the conference-leading Bruins. Take away a sudden injury to Carey Price, and anything could have been possible.
Despite the success, however, the team was not without its weaknesses. Their third pair was among the NHL's worst. Spending a roster spot on one-dimensional players like George Parros definitely didn't make Carey Price job any easier. When these shortcomings were exacerbated by a system that didn't maximize the skill of the roster, the Canadiens' play ranged from good, to frustrating, to incompetent.
Today, the Habs are a different team, presided over by a general manager who appears to have checked all of the boxes on his off-season to-do list.
P.K. Subban and Lars Eller, two of the team's most important young players, are locked-up long term. The Canadiens made an obvious upgrade by trading Daniel Briere, who was replaced by P.A. Parenteau. Gone are the team's anchors, replaced by younger, faster, and more skilled players like Tom Gilbert, Nathan Beaulieu, and Jarred Tinordi. Nary a detail was overlooked, as even the team's cap situation (improved by the trade of Peter Budaj) and minor league depth is better than last year.
Their best season in recent memory is behind them. Now, we'll see how much further the Habs can push the envelope.
Tale of the Tape
Know Your Enemy
Of course, the Habs aren't the only team that looked in the mirror over the off-season. Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren failed to make the cut with the Leafs, as did Korbinian Holzer. Troy Bodie, he of 47 NHL games last year, will not be in tonight's lineup. In the same way that Douglas Murray and Francis Bouillon's absences should be addition by subtraction, the Leafs have rid themselves of much of their dead weight.
Their star first line, of Phil Kessel, Tyler Bozak, and James van Riemsdyk, will be dangerous as ever. Nazem Kadri, flanked by a healthy Joffrey Lupul and former CHL scoring champ Brandon Kozun, should pack an offensive punch. David Clarkson, Leo Komarov, and Mike Santorelli will form a useful third line, while the utility of Daniel Winnik, Peter Holland, and Matt Frattin as a fourth line can't even be measured on the same scale as Orr and McLaren.
It's worth remembering that Randy Carlyle is still in charge, but unless he's had an epiphany, it would appear his influence in the organization has diminished somewhat. If the Maple Leafs are successful this season, it likely won't be in the same logic-defying fashion that has characterized their play of the last decade.
Last Time Out
The last Habs-Leafs game is something of a pleasant memory of those old Leafs, as the Habs were able to exploit Toronto in the same way that many teams did last season.
Most of the damage was by Toronto's frequent habit of limiting themselves to a diminished forward crew. Colton Orr played for 2.5 minutes. Bodie got almost 10, but was nearly invisible. Other supposed contributors, like David Bolland and David Clarkson played around 9 minutes. Kessel's group didn't hurt their team, and Nazem Kadri's line was tremendous, but it takes more than half of a roster to win most hockey games.
Fortunately for the Leafs and Canadiens, they each seem to have finally grasped that concept. Tonight, we'll see how far they've come.
The game will be carried on TV by TVA Sports, and Sportsnet.