In 2020, the NHL invited 24 teams into its expanded post-season. The Montreal Canadiens were the 24th best team in the field. This season, the playoff dance was back to the traditional 16 teams. The Montreal Canadiens were the 16th best among that group. So it should probably come as no surprise that the Canadiens are down 3-1 to the Toronto Maple Leafs and face elimination Thursday night against a team that hasn’t beaten them in a playoff series in 54 years.
The Canadiens have won 10 Stanley Cups since being upset by the Maple Leafs in the 1967 final, a loss that denied the Habs the opportunity to win five titles in a row for the second time in their history. Man, that’s a lot of Cups. But all the Canadiens can cling to these days is their glorious past. There was never really any path to victory for the Canadiens in this first-round series. And unless there’s a reversal of fortunes the likes of which are almost never seen in this sport, the Canadiens will almost certainly be the first foe the Leafs have vanquished in the playoffs in 17 years. Talk about your role reversals.
When the Leafs beat the Canadiens for their 13th Stanley Cup in 1967, it put them one behind the Canadiens for the most in the NHL. Since then, it’s been a complete rout for the Habs. The chasm between the two organizations has widened in the past 50 years, with the Canadiens spending much of that time setting themselves apart as the gold standard in sports, doing everything right, on and off the ice. The Leafs on the other hand, spent much of that time stumbling around in the dark without a flashlight, either too greedy or too incompetent – or too both - to get much of anything right.
But the worm is turning. Now it’s the Leafs, under the guidance of president Brendan Shanahan, who are winning both games and headlines. And the Canadiens seem to be sinking further into the abyss. To wit:
It used to be the Canadiens who were the high-flying offensive machine and the Maple Leafs who, bereft of superstars for virtually all their existence, had trouble scoring goals. The Canadiens have historically had more superstars than people have fingers and toes to count them, while the Leafs, with the possible exception of Charlie Conacher, have never had one. The Leafs have had two Hart Trophy winners and have never had a defenseman win the Norris. Now the Leafs have Rocket Richard Trophy winner Auston Matthews. They have Mitch Marner, a two-way threat whose skill level is sublime. William Nylander has as many goals in this series than the Canadiens have combined. Montreal’s power play is impotent and at 5-on-5 a clean breakout seems like too much to ask. Forget about Connor McDavid. Habs goalie Carey Price has gotten so little run support that he might be considering a lawsuit. We’re only half kidding.
It used to be the Maple Leafs were the dysfunctional hot mess, firing coaches willy-nilly, not drafting particularly well and ruining their young talent by rushing them into situations they were not prepared to face. Under the leadership of GM Kyle Dubas and his handpicked coach, Sheldon Keefe, the Maple Leafs are the picture of management stability. The Canadiens, on the other hand, clearly panicked when they fired coach Claude Julien and associate coach Kirk Muller and installed Dominique Ducharme as the interim. When they fired Julien, they were 9-5-4, fourth in the North Division, three points ahead of the Calgary Flames. Under Ducharme, they were 15-16-7, finishing fourth in the division, four points ahead of the Flames. If the Canadiens bow out meekly in Game 5, it would be impossible to imagine that Ducharme would be back permanently. And GM Marc Bergevin could very well be out of a job as well.
As far as team-building, the Maple Leafs’ lineup in Game 4 boasted seven players – Matthews, Marner, William Nylander, Travis Dermott, Morgan Rielly, Pierre Engvall and Adam Brooks – who were both drafted and developed by the team. Three more – Zach Hyman, Ilya Mikheyev and Justin Holl – were not drafted by the Leafs, but developed in the organization. When Dubas signed John Tavares as a free agent, he vowed he would be able to keep Matthews, Marner and Nylander and he has done that so far. The Canadiens, on the other hand, had just four – Carey Price, Brendan Gallagher, Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Cole Caufield – who were drafted and developed in-house. Nick Suzuki was not drafted by Montreal, but the Canadiens have developed him.
As far as the draft, the Maple Leafs have leveraged high picks to build the core of their team. The Canadiens’ drafts from 2013 through 2018, with the picks that should now be making up the foundation of their roster, have been little more than a wasteland. The only two picks from the 2016 draft – Mikhail Sergachev and Victor Mete – are gone. In 2015, the Leafs were under pressure to draft Noah Hanifin with the fourth overall pick, but instead chose Marner. And we all know how that turned out. Three years later, the Canadiens picked third overall and chose Kotkaniemi. Just think for a minute how good Brady Tkachuk, who was taken with the next pick by the Ottawa Senators, would look in a Canadiens’ sweater right now. The Canadiens made the huge mistake of using the draft to fill an immediate need, in this case help down the middle. But you can’t do that in hockey because, with rare exceptions, the player is not ready to fill that need. Which brings us to how the Canadiens have handled Kotkaniemi. Which is badly.
The Maple Leafs have an awful lot of work to do before they even come close to reversing the damage they’ve inflicted on their fan base over the past 50 years. First, they have to win something. Not almost win something, but actually win something. One playoff triumph over the Canadiens isn’t going to do it. But as you watch the paths these two franchises, you can’t help but think they’ve switched places.