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Original Six Hockey Trade: Maple Leafs rising up, Canadiens falling back

The Toronto Maple Leafs are winning games and becoming a first-class organization. That sounds like the old Montreal Canadiens, who have class but little else these days.

(Editor’s note: This column originally appeared in the March 5, 2018, issue of The Hockey News. It has been edited and updated for online purposes.)

After last season, some of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ alumni group got together and quietly made a request to upper management. They certainly appreciated the luxury box they had for games, but the sightlines weren’t the greatest. So they asked team president Brendan Shanahan whether an upgrade might be possible.

You have to remember these guys don’t generate any revenue, so to relocate them to a better box would mean potentially displacing customers who were paying insanely large money for the privilege. So Shanahan handed over his luxury box to the alumni. Now, the men who have sweated and bled for the Blue and White have impeccable sightlines and enjoy the best food and drink money doesn’t have to buy.

There’s been something happening in The Center of the Hockey Universe™ and it isn’t limited to the ice. Largely because of the presence of Shanahan, the Maple Leafs are becoming the gold-standard franchise of the NHL. Pre-game ceremonies that were once cheesy and amateurish are classy and poignant. The team’s 100th anniversary celebration was impressive from beginning to end, starting with the official repatriation of prodigal son Dave Keon and the long overdue retiring of numbers.

The Leafs have Shanahan, who does nothing but make the right moves, the dean of GMs in Lou Lamoriello, the best coach of his generation in Mike Babcock and a player who stands to become the organization’s first true superstar in Auston Matthews. (And yes, I said it. The Leafs have never had a true superstar, always valuing the collective over the individual. Now fight me.)

Meanwhile, 313 miles northeast, the Montreal Canadiens are still treating their former players like royalty and hitting all the right notes when it comes to pomp and circumstance. But when it comes to the on-ice product, the two organizations could not be going in any more different directions. When it comes to what we’re seeing on the ice, the Maple Leafs are morphing into what the Canadiens used to be, and the Canadiens are deteriorating into Les Feuilles d’Erable, a French Canadian version of what the Maple Leafs once were.

The Leafs have gone 50 years without winning a Stanley Cup, and they’ll probably make it 51 this spring. Simply put, they’re not quite ready to position themselves as a serious contender. But for the first time in forever, there is a plan. The Canadiens? Well, they haven’t won in a quarter-century and their youngest fans are the first in the organization’s history to have absolutely no recollection of seeing their team win the Cup. Care to make a wager on which of the two droughts will end first?

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What makes it even worse from a Canadiens’ perspective is there looks as though there’s no semblance of a plan, no success in giving this team an identity. The Canadiens have been too small and not productive enough down the middle since “La Macarena” was popular and they responded to that by getting bigger and slower at every position, but not getting bigger or better at center. They’ve made panic moves that have managed to land them such luminaries as Andreas Martinsen and Dwight King and the needle continues to move backward. Prior to 2016, when they took Mikhail Sergachev and Victor Mete, they hadn’t drafted a top-flight defenseman since P.K. Subban – and we all know how that turned out. Of the 25 players they took in four drafts from 2008 through 2011, just Brendan Gallagher is on the roster. They hit home runs in 2007 with Ryan McDonagh, Max Pacioretty and Subban, but two of the three are gone (and you might want to keep an eye on Pacioretty).

Sound like an organization we all used to know? You know, the one that ran really good players out of town (see Subban), or traded players without giving them a chance (see Sergachev) in order to plug gaping holes in its roster? The Leafs once traded the pick that New Jersey used to get Scott Niedermayer to acquire Tom Kurvers. The Habs could’ve had a defense corps with McDonagh, Subban, Sergachev and Mete on it. Remember when the Leafs destroyed their young players the way the Canadiens are doing with Alex Galchenyuk? Remember when they would get players, overhype and miscast them, kind of the way the Canadiens are doing with Jonathan Drouin?

Here’s the thing. I never bought the notion the Leafs were obsessed with simply making money. Over the past two decades, you’d be hard-pressed to find an organization that has frittered away more money in an attempt to build a contender and a legitimate organization on and off the ice. It wasn’t that the people who ran the Leafs were greedy, they were simply incompetent. As desperately as they wanted to win, they had no clue how to go about it. Now, they do.

In Montreal, well, we’ll allow the recent history to speak for itself. The Canadiens have become the dysfunctional, panicky, knee-jerk operators of a hockey team and there’s a real possibility things are going to get worse. These are the kinds of moves that can take years to untangle. And if that happens, their fans are going to get a long dose of the kind of hell their English Canadian rivals have gone through for decades.