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Montreal Canadiens & Toronto Maple Leafs: NHL's flagship franchises must return to relevance

By Nicholas J. Cotsonika

They are the crown jewels of the National Hockey League and iconic institutions of Canadian culture. The Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs have won more Stanley Cups than anyone else – the Habs 24, the Leafs 13. They have proud traditions and passionate fans. They sell out every game and rake in the revenue.

But the Habs haven't held the Cup since 1993, the last time a Canadian team won a championship, and the Leafs haven't done it since 1967, giving them the longest drought in the league. And now they have plummeted to the bottom of the Eastern Conference – the Habs last, the Leafs second-to-last.

The Habs fired coach Jacques Martin in December; the Leafs fired coach Ron Wilson in March. The Habs fired general manager Pierre Gauthier on Thursday, and though Leafs GM Brian Burke should be safe for now, the normally quiet, corporate crowd at the Air Canada Centre has gone from calling for Wilson's head to calling for his.

The situations are different. But the common thread is simple: The present does not live up to the past, and the best way to recapture old glory is to build like a modern NHL team.

"This organization has had the most success of any hockey organization in the history of the National Hockey League," said Canadiens owner Geoff Molson in a news conference Thursday. "If you look back over the years, we've had some great moments. We've had some success. But we haven't been at the level our organization needs to be, which is one of the best."

The rest of the Original Six are thriving: The Boston Bruins won the Cup last season. The Chicago Blackhawks won it the season before. The Detroit Red Wings won it in 2008, for the fourth time since 1997. Though the New York Rangers haven't won it since '94, they have an up-and-coming club that has already climbed to the top of the East.

But the fact remains that the NHL is now a 30-team, salary-capped, multicultural league. It is harder to win than ever before. It is especially harder to win with certain types of people – the Habs with francophones, to appeal to the majority of their audience; the Leafs with Ontarians, to appeal to Don Cherry.

There are no advantages to Montreal and Toronto. The owners can't spend more there than they can anywhere else. But there are no excuses, either, despite the higher expectations and greater pressure that threaten to suffocate the coaches and players.

It's the same for the Habs and Leafs as it is for everyone. It comes down to good management – drafting and developing, signing and trading, doing it all within your vision and the confines of the cap.

Gauthier had to go. So did Bob Gainey, his predecessor as GM, who had remained involved as a team advisor. The Habs are handcuffed by cumbersome contracts, paying too much to veterans who produce too little.

Worse, Gauthier couldn't carry on the Canadiens' tradition of class, no matter how he addressed everyone as "Mister" as he disposed of them.

He fired assistant coach Perry Pearn before a game. He fired Martin the morning of a game and put interim coach Randy Cunneyworth in no position to succeed – failing to anticipate the controversy over Cunneyworth's inability to speak French, apologizing for hiring him.

He traded forward Michael Cammalleri during a game – pulling him in the third period against the rival Bruins, putting him in a taxi and sending him back to the team hotel, even though the Habs had checked out.

"Unfortunately sometimes timing doesn't play in your favor," Molson said. "But it is extremely important in our organization to have respect for everyone from training staff to the general manager."

Good. It was also good that Molson said the Habs will go through "a long process of evaluating all the potential candidates," with hockey leadership ability the most important qualification.

Language is important in Quebec. It is ignorant to deny that. The customer is always right, and the Canadiens must consider how their leaders communicate with their fans. But to have the best chance of winning, they cannot limit their talent pool to francophone executives and coaches. They cannot hire someone like Patrick Roy just because it would be the popular thing to do.

They must hire the best GM, and he must hire the best coach who fits his plan. They have to make the right choices at the draft, find a way out of some of these contracts and keep developing the young talent they already have – Max Pacioretty, Carey Price, P.K. Subban.

"All things being equal, it is our preference to have somebody that can speak French," Molson said. "But at the same time, we will never make a decision that will put in jeopardy our chances of being the most successful possible."

The Leafs don't have to deal with such politics, except when Cherry goes off on one of his rants on CBC. But their fans might have less patience.

At least the Habs went to the conference final two years ago and went to overtime of Game 7 against the eventual Cup champs last year. Assuming the Florida Panthers make it, the Leafs will have the longest active playoff drought in the league. They haven't appeared in the playoffs since 2004.

Burke came to Toronto in November 2008, fresh off a Cup victory with the Anaheim Ducks. He said he didn't believe in five-year plans. He said he wanted to rebuild on the fly. He said he wanted a belligerent, truculent team.

Now it's 3-1/2 years later. The Leafs have a better base of young talent, but they still lack elite talent – particularly a No. 1 center and No. 1 goaltender – and they are a speed team, not a tough team. They were in a playoff position as recently as early February, but then, as Burke put it, they fell off a cliff. They have lost 10 straight at home.

Burke deserves more time, but not much more. Although Wilson was his college teammate, he inherited him. He didn't hire him. Now he has hired Randy Carlyle, his Cup coach in Anaheim, who shares his hard-hockey philosophy. He needs to give him players who fit that philosophy, too, and he needs to do it this summer.

"I don't know if some of our newer fans understand the significance of the Toronto Maple Leafs," Burke told me in February, in happier times. "It is one of the great sports brands in the history of the world.

"If we went to some remote village in South America and sat on a stone wall, the first thing that walked by us – a baseball cap, a T-shirt – would be one of these teams: New York Yankees, Dallas Cowboys, Boston Celtics, Manchester United and the Toronto Maple Leafs."

Burke might have mentioned the Montreal Canadiens instead. No matter. In this context, they're one and the same.

"We have not had recent success, but that doesn't change the fact that this was one of the dominant, dominant teams in the '40s, '50s and '60s," Burke said. "We need to get back to that level of competition."

We're waiting.

FIRST PERIOD

If you're a San Jose Sharks fan, this quote ought to make you cringe.

"We have a lot to lose," said forward Joe Pavelski.

It's true. The Sharks do have a lot to lose.

This is the only team that went to the conference final in each of the past two years. This is a team that was supposed to have gotten stronger over the summer, acquiring Brent Burns and Martin Havlat from the Minnesota Wild for Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi in two trades. This is a team that prognosticators have been picking for years – that one idiot in particular (cough, cough) picked back in October.

The Sharks have screwed around all season, and Wednesday night in Anaheim, they lost a game they hardly could afford to lose, 3-1. They gave up the Pacific Division lead to the Dallas Stars and dropped from third to eighth in the West. They have as many points as the seventh-place Los Angeles Kings, but they have only one point more than the ninth-place Phoenix Coyotes.

They could lose their playoff spot. If that happens, people could lose their jobs. And maybe the reality of that will cause the Sharks to squeeze their sticks and stumble to the finish.

But the Sharks still have a lot to gain.

Look at their schedule the rest of the way – at Phoenix on Thursday night, Dallas at home on Saturday night, at Dallas on Tuesday night, at Los Angeles next Thursday night and finally, in the final game on the NHL schedule, Los Angeles at home next Saturday night.

In other words, they play all the teams with whom they are competing. Win, and they can keep that playoff spot. Win, and they can win the division. They're only one point behind the Stars. They don't need any help. They can take care of business themselves if they're up to it. No one else has that kind of control.

The Sharks had won three in a row before Tuesday night – beating the Bruins, the Coyotes and the Colorado Avalanche, another team fighting for a spot in the West. It can be done.

Will it?

SECOND PERIOD

The Sharks have been the Washington Capitals of the West; the Caps have been the Sharks of the East. Great regular-season teams. Disappointing playoff performers. So it goes that the Capitals also lost a critical game early this week, falling Tuesday night to the Buffalo Sabres, 5-1.

But that comparison has been a little unfair to the Sharks, because they have gone three rounds deep recently, while the Capitals haven't been past the second round since making the 1998 Cup final.

And the Caps are in even bigger trouble. They're ninth in the East – two points behind the eighth-place Sabres and four points behind the seventh-place Ottawa Senators. All three teams had five games left entering Thursday night.

The Sens' schedule: at Philadelphia, at the New York Islanders, Carolina at home, Boston at home, at New Jersey.

The Sabres' schedule: Pittsburgh, at Toronto, Toronto at home, at Philly, at Boston.

The Caps' schedule: at Boston, Montreal at home, at Tampa Bay, Florida, at New York Rangers.

This is lining up perfectly for the NHL. It all could come down to the final day of the regular season. Buffalo, Ottawa and Washington all play simultaneous matinees on the road, and the Caps could be fighting for the eighth seed while the Rangers could be fighting for the top seed at Madison Square Garden. It could be the first game of an eight-game series.

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THIRD PERIOD

It is truly amazing that Quebec City announced firm plans for a new arena Sunday, and yet there has been relatively little chatter about the Coyotes' future. The league has kept an extremely tight lid on this. There are obviously business reasons, but there are also competitive reasons.

The day the Coyotes opened the playoffs in Detroit last year, the news broke that they were moving to Winnipeg. Even though the news turned out to be false – the Atlanta Thrashers ended up moving there, not the original Jets – it had a real impact as the 'Yotes were swept by the Red Wings.

"The minute you lose, you're going to Winnipeg," Coyotes captain Shane Doan told me earlier this season. "Or the minute you lose, you're moving to Kansas City. Or the minute you lose, you're going somewhere.

"Instead of being able to enjoy the fact that you're in the playoffs, you're having to deal with answering questions from your family, having to answer questions from friends. Instead of having everyone talking about the playoffs, you're talking about everything else besides it.

"That, I think, is disappointing, because it kind of cheapens the experience of being in the playoffs."

Eventually, the Coyotes will want closure. The Thrashers' move was announced officially on May 31 last year.

"You look at the situation like with Atlanta and how quickly it was dealt with, you're sure they're thankful that they got it done and they got to go to Winnipeg and they have a stable situation now," Doan said. "For us to still be kind of waiting to see what happens is tough, and hopefully it gets done quickly."Just not too quickly.

POWER RANKINGS

Now that the regular season is headed down the stretch, we're shaking up the format for NHL Power Rankings. No more top six, bottom six. It's time for the top 10.

St. Louis1. St. Louis Blues: What makes the Blues great makes them difficult to honor. How do you separate their individuals from the team concept? David Backes is a candidate for the Selke Trophy, Alex Pietrangelo for the Norris. Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott might as well split the Vezina. But the one with the best chance of winning an award is the man who pulled it all together, coach Ken Hitchcock, the favorite for the Jack Adams.

New York Rangers2. New York Rangers: Wednesday night's 4-2 victory over the Winnipeg Jets was impressive. It was the second of back-to-back games on the road, in maybe the loudest rink in the league, against a team fighting for its life. The Rangers have won three in a row and look prepared for the playoffs, but after the Habs on Friday night, they still have to close with the Bruins, Flyers, Penguins and Capitals.

Pittsburgh3. Pittsburgh Penguins: Sidney Crosby is the Penguins' third-line center. No wonder they have gotten greedy since his latest comeback, playing too wide open in an 8-4 loss to the Ottawa Senators and a 5-3 loss to the New York Islanders. Perfect time for a wake-up call. This can be fixed before the playoffs.

Vancouver 4. Vancouver Canucks: Look, Roberto Luongo is going to start Game 1. But he should be on an even shorter leash than he was last year, and it's a great sign – not some anxiety-inducing controversy – that backup Cory Schneider is playing so much and playing so well. Especially if Daniel Sedin is out for a long period, the Canucks cannot afford meltdowns in goal and have the luxury of a top-shelf tandem.

Philadelphia5. Philadelphia Flyers: Scott Hartnell has had a hell of a season. He's tied for the league lead in power-play goals with 16, and he's tied for fifth in goals with 36 – six more than his previous career high. He's a career-high plus-21, too.

Nashville6. Nashville Predators: The Preds are 3-4-1 in their past eight games. Is it because of a road-heavy schedule? Is it because they have had to adjust to four new players – Hal Gill, Andrei Kostitsyn, Paul Gaustad and Alexander Radulov? Is it because of the higher expectations?

Detroit7. Detroit Red Wings: Ian White struggled while defense partner Nicklas Lidstrom missed 11 games with a bruised ankle, and he has continued to struggle since Lidstrom's return. That's got to be a concern for the Wings, who need their top pair to play like it did in the first half of the season.

Boston8. Boston Bruins: The Bruins look like the Bruins again. They've won three in a row and five of their last six, giving up only 10 goals over those six games. If they get a lead, they're lethal. How well can they shut it down? They're 30-0-0 when leading after two periods.

Chicago9. Chicago Blackhawks: The Blackhawks have tried just about everything. They even had scout Barry Smith – a longtime coach and special teams expert – come onto the ice to help. But the power play remains poor, sixth-worst in the NHL.

New Jersey10. New Jersey Devils: The Devils have gone 3-4-1 and have scored only 11 times in their past eight games. But they're still sitting pretty with the sixth seed in the East – far better than being in a No. 4 vs. No. 5 battle or sitting on the playoff bubble. So they've got that going for them.

PLUS/MINUS

PLUS: Michael Ryder has scored 18 goals since the all-star break, a big reason why the Stars continue to contend for the Pacific Division title and the Western Conference's third seed, not just a playoff spot. Only the Tampa Bay Lightning's Steven Stamkos (22) and the Penguins' Evgeni Malkin (19) – the likely Rocket Richard and Art Ross winners – have scored more goals in that span.

MINUS: How can the Calgary Flames play so poorly Wednesday night with so much on the line? They weren't sharp at the start, fell into a hole and couldn't penetrate the Kings' defense at all. Facing a 2-0 deficit entering the third period, they mustered four shots. Four.

PLUS: Ryan Miller has played in 30 of the Sabres' past 31 games, and you know he'll play in the final five as they fight for a playoff spot. He has been as stellar as ever as the Sabres have gone 14-2-4 in their past 20 games.

MINUS: Did anyone really think Miller had lost the ability to be an elite goaltender in the NHL? Did everyone forget he suffered two concussions within a year and fail to consider the impact it would have on his mental game?

PLUS: Just want to whisper this one, for fear of jinxing it. But it has been more than a year now since the Penguins' Matt Cooke was suspended. After sitting the final 10 regular-season games and the first round of the playoffs last year because of a head shot, Cooke has more goals (19) than minor penalties (18).

MINUS: This is a plus for the Panthers, obviously, but it's a big minus for Canada's NHL contingent. That team from Sunrise, Fla., the one that plays in the arena by the Everglades? It is 14-3-3 against Canadian teams this season.

@COTSONIKA TWEET

“Karlsson leads D-men by 27 points. That's more than half the total of next closest guy, and that more than makes up for defensive gap.”

After I wrote that he deserved the Norris Trophy – because his offense is immense and his defense is legit enough – the Senators' Erik Karlsson added three more assists and was plus-5 on Monday night. He has 76 points. Entering Thursday night, no other defenseman had more than 49.

The Norris is supposed to go to the best all-around defenseman. That doesn't necessarily mean it goes to the most complete player, though. Compare players like investment portfolios: Portfolio A includes a segment that vastly outperforms. Portfolio B is strong across the board. The question isn't which portfolio is more balanced. The question is which has the higher total return. If that one special segment shoots high enough, it's Portfolio A.

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