Many historic names have taken part in one of hockey’s oldest and biggest rivalries. From Maurice Richard to Darryl Sittler and Johnny Bower to Ken Dryden, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens have developed one of the best rivalries in all of sports over the years.
The Leafs and Canadiens have met 719 times with the Canadiens taking the all-time series, thus far. The blue and white have a 291-331-88-9 record against their rivals and will look to better that by one game when they open the 2014-15 season against their Atlantic Division foes.
Last season, the two teams battled it out five times with the Canadiens coming out on top – winning three of them. The games, however, were extremely close which seems fitting considering the storied history of the rivalry.
In the five games, Max Pacioretty led the way for the Canadiens with seven points (5g-2a) while P.K. Subban wasn’t far behind – putting up six points (2g-4a). Phil Kessel was the hottest player for the Leafs in last season’s set against les Habitants scoring seven points (2g-5a) with former Leaf Mason Raymond putting up three goals and three assists.
The Leafs watched as Montreal made their playoff run last season, finishing sixth in the division and 16 points behind their arch enemy. But every time they took to the ice together, both teams found a way to bring their A-game – the Canadiens outscoring the Leafs 18-17.
Now, what makes this rivalry so intriguing is that it becomes a part of any player that pulls on a Leafs or Habs jersey. And as the Toronto Sun’s Mike Zeisberger explains, Subban and Nazem Kadri could be the best players to carry on – or rather rekindle – the Leafs-Habs rivalry.
The two bring a overt cockiness to the ice that the NHL’s youth movement seems to play with. Every play – every stride they take – seems to be done with more intensity against their familiar foes. Toronto-born Subban and Kadri’s Montreal fandom are forgotten in favour of the crest stitched to the front of their jerseys. And this fires up the rest of their respective clubs.
While the rivalry won’t change heading into 2014-15, both the Leafs and their Quebec-based opponents will bring new faces into this Atlantic Division battle.
Filling Out the Bottom
Instead of entering the season with a bottom six including Mason Raymond, Colton Orr, and Jay McClement, the Maple Leafs will counter Montreal’s speedy lineup with a more skilled – and rather low-risk – third and fourth line.
The blue and white went out this offseason and – rather than dipping into the insanity of free agency – picked up some veteran players for small, short-term contracts. Along with adding oft-injured David Booth – who should add some depth to their lineup – the Leafs filled the loss of Jay McClement by adding Daniel Winnik who is coming off a career year in terms of offensive output.
There’s no question that McClement will be missed in Toronto as he played the majority of the Leafs penalty kill opportunities – a necessary component in this rivalry. In fact, in 2013-14, he played nearly 267 minutes on the penalty kill. In that time, he had a Corsi For Percentage of 0.055.
In comparison, Winnik played 177 shorthanded minutes with Anaheim in 2013-14 and had a Corsi For Percentage of 0.085 – which is certainly part of the intrigue that had the Leafs interested in his services.
The Analytical Way
The Maple Leafs also made a splash in the analytical department this offseason by bringing in 28-year-old Kyle Dubas as the team’s assistant general manager. Dubas, who has an already stellar resume, will bring a different perspective to the Maple Leafs this season. Whether it’s fair or not, Dubas will be closely tied to the advanced statistics movement that seems to be encompassing the NHL.
Coincidentally, the Leafs then signed Jake Gardiner to a five-year deal worth just over $20-million. What makes this an interesting move is that Gardiner ranked number one on the Leafs in Corsi For Percentage (0.465) while playing in 1,363 minutes.
But are these changes good enough to help the Maple Leafs take on their historic rivals? Or will the Canadiens find a way of maintaining the upper hand once again in 2014-15?
A New Era of Leadership
This year, the Canadiens will hand their ‘C’ onto someone new with the departure of former captain Brian Gionta. Gionta left the Canadiens this offseason after being offered a three-year deal to play for his hometown Buffalo Sabres.
Upon the departure of their leader, Josh Gorges seemed to be the front runner to take on the captain’s role in Montreal before he – too – was shipped out of town. Oddly enough, Gorges ended up in Buffalo as well, in return for a second-round pick in 2016.
Habs Pacioretty just said the Leafs rivalry has surpassed the Bruins in his mind in terms of intensity and bitterness
— David Amber (@DavidAmber) March 2, 2014
So now, the Canadiens will look to their younger core to play larger leadership roles. From Max Pacioretty to Subban and on to Brendan Gallagher, the Habs will be looking for them to grow up fast in leading the team back to the promise land. Whoever ends up wearing the ‘C’ next season, it will be a team effort on and off the ice in 2014-15.
Silencing the Critics
P.K. Subban’s arbitration hearing was one of the most publicized stories of the offseason – at least in terms of contract negotiations. Entering the hearing, Subban and the Habs were not even close – with Subban asking for $8.5-million over a long-term deal.
In the end, the Habs gave the young defenceman an annual average of $9-million over eight years. But can Subban live up to the big contract?
First impressions might suggest that players often break under such pressure. However, Subban is different – cocky and intense. While the absence of former leaders like Gionta and Georges might put more attention on Subban, it doesn’t seem affect the Toronto native. If he can evolve defensively, Subban should be the cornerstone of Montreal’s blue line for the next eight years.
The Original Rivalry: Leafs-Habs Face-Off in 2014-15
It will start early, as usual, as the Leafs will open the season against the Canadiens on October 8 in Toronto. The game is sure to see sparks fly as both teams will be gearing up and ready to go for another season.
After last season’s Orr-Parros tilt that silenced the crowd, hard hits and chippy play will be the two items on the menu this season with Subban and Kadri leading the way for their respective clubs.
The two teams will meet four times during the upcoming regular season and they should be fun to watch. It will be interesting to see how the changes affect both teams, but this season could be another split for the two Atlantic Division rivals. For the Maple Leafs, these four games will be even more important if they want to climb their way to the top of the division and into a playoff spot.
One thing’s for sure, this is the perfect time for the Maple Leafs and Canadiens to renew and revitalize one of hockey’s original – and most heated – rivalries.
Other Atlantic Division Rivals
For more hockey news, follow Andrew on Twitter at @AndrewGForbes or his THW column at @Tape2TapeTHW.
Andrew is in his 8th year reporting for The Hockey Writers covering the Toronto Maple Leafs. He began his broadcasting with CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada team as well as being part of their coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. He’s the former play-by-play voice of the London Jr. Knights for Rogers TV and currently hosts the Sticks in the 6ix podcast. You can follow him on Twitter at @AndrewGForbes.