P.K. Subban and Phil Kessel may be the faces of the historic Habs and Leafs, but neither team is any good right now. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
The streets of downtown Montreal will still have that wonderful, vibrant feel. The lobby of the Chateau Champlain will be a zoo. And the game itself might even be something worth watching.
But there is a real emptiness to Saturday night’s meeting between the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs. Remember the days when a game between these two Original Six powers actually meant something substantial? Check that. Anyone over the age of 40 remember when a game between these two Original Six powers actually meant something substantial?
It’s remarkable how these two franchises have failed spectacularly – with the exception of 1993 when they came tantalizingly close to meeting in the Stanley Cup final for the first time since 1967 (please include vicious references to Kerry Fraser and Wayne Gretzky in the comments section) – to have their fortunes intersect over the past four decades. When the Canadiens have been brilliant, the Leafs have been dismal. And in the years that the Leafs have been good enough to almost come close to actually winning something, the Canadiens have struggled.
Well, at least this season they both have something in common. Both teams suck wind and by all accounts Montreal is playing out the season with a lame duck coach who will lose his company parking spot and cell phone shortly after this miserable season ends. Both teams are destined to miss the playoffs – yes, it’s over, Leaf fans – simultaneously for just the fifth time in their franchise histories, 2006-07, ’69-70, ’25-26 and ’19-20 being the only other occasions.
In Toronto, Ron Wilson was fired Friday evening and replaced by Randy Carlyle. You sensed something was up when Leafs GM Brian Burke, who rushes to the defense of his players every time one of them gets booed or comes out looking bad in a player poll, made no vociferous stands for his beleaguered coach and college hockey buddy.
The fact is, though, that ship has already sailed. Even though the Leafs made a change behind the bench, it’s doubtful it will give them the spike they need to finish the season strong and have a meaningful playoff run. In case you haven’t noticed, this team just isn’t very good. Coaching has something to do with that, but the responsibility goes much higher. More on that later.
In Montreal, one of two things would have saved Randy Cunneyworth’s job behind the bench. The first would be that he would begin to speak in tongues with French being the dominant language or that he did a coaching job so masterful that Scotty Bowman would be calling him for tips. Neither of those has happened. Cunneyworth is still unilingual and he has graciously given the Canadiens an easy out from the public relations nightmare they foisted upon themselves.
In fact, they are worse. The Canadiens were 13-11-7 when Jacques Martin was fired and have a record of 12-19-3 since then. Their offense is only marginally better on a goals-per-game basis and their team defense is worse. They’ve dropped four spots in the Eastern Conference and their power play is 28th in the league. The Canadiens have blown a remarkable number of leads with Cunneyworth behind the bench. That’s hardly a body of work that forces Canadiens management into making a difficult decision at the end of the season.
In both organizations, management has to take as much, or more, than its share of culpability here. Pierre Gauthier has made questionable decision after questionable decision, but he at least got the Canadiens some future returns at the trade deadline.
The same can’t be said for Burke, whose stubborn loyalty to his team is mystifying. Yes, Burke has made some very shrewd trades and done a good job restocking the Leafs farm system with decent, but not great, prospects. For that he deserves kudos.
But where Burke has come up woefully short is in acquiring free agents. In fact, his body of work has been nothing short of disastrous. Among the roster players Burke has been responsible for signing during his tenure are Philippe Dupuis, Colby Armstrong, Joey Crabb, Brett Lebda, Mike Zigomanis, Clarke MacArthur, Jonas Gustavsson, Jay Rosehill, Tim Brent, Francois Beauchemin, Tim Connolly, Colton Orr, Mike Komisarek and Jay Harrison. You can count on one hand, and still have a couple of fingers to spare, the number of players among that group who have made a positive contribution to the organization.
And for Burke to tell people that he could have garnered four first round picks at the trade deadline, but chose instead to show faith in a subpar roster, should have fans on the verge of mutiny. If you’re a Leaf fan, ask yourself the following question: Would you rather go into the off-season with the situation as it is, or with a blown-up roster with the prospect of having five picks among the first 30 in the draft?
At least the Canadiens appear to be getting that one right. As it stands now, they’re in 28th place, which gives them a chance to win the draft lottery and get the first pick overall, plus they have Nashville’s second-rounder.
But that won’t help right now. And it doesn’t change the fact that Saturday night, two once-proud franchises have sunk to the depths where they’ll play a game that means almost nothing.
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN's other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.