Toronto Maple Leafs v Vancouver Canucks

PHT’s Pressing Questions: Will Toronto finally make the playoffs?

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Every day until the season starts we’ll explore an intriguing storyline for the upcoming year.

Last April, Florida’s gain was Toronto’s pain.

When the Panthers clinched a playoff spot on Apr. 5, they snapped the NHL’s longest postseason drought — 12 years — and passed that depressing mantle onto the Leafs.

It’s been seven years since the Leafs last made the playoffs. The last time they did it, in 2003-04, the roster included the likes of Mats Sundin, Joe Nieuwendyk, Ron Francis, Ed Belfour and Brian Leetch.

All five of those guys are now in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

So yeah, long time.

Long time.

For one of the league’s most storied franchises — one recently fired GM Brian Burke called the “crown jewel” and “Vatican” of the NHL — that stretch of futility is unacceptable.

Which brings us to the question at hand:

Will the futility end this season?

If the early parts of training camp were any indication, there’s not a lot of optimism.

Toronto began the campaign in the most dysfunctional way imaginable — by firing Burke, the club’s outspoken architect.

His dismissal went down almost exactly as many figured it would, with a hailstorm of controversy, sound bites and unanswered questions as to why owners decided to turf the GM eight days prior to the start of a condensed regular season.

That hasn’t been the only distraction in Leaf land, either.

The goaltending situation — the bane of Burke’s four-year existence — is as convoluted as ever. Talks of an impending Roberto Luongo acquisition continue to swirl and, should that trade never come to fruition, there’s debate over which in-house candidate would be No. 1.

Former No. 1 James Reimer should be the starter by default, but he hasn’t played a competitive game since March 2011. He’s also looked shaky in camp and could be surpassed by Ben Scrivens, who has been playing frequently in the AHL and, according to CBC’s Glen Healy, looks like a confident goalie.

“Just looking at Scrivens’s body language, he seems to have a lot of swagger,” said Healy. “The biggest thing for goaltenders is that six inches between your ears — that belief that you can accomplish what you want to accomplish. That you can do it. That you’ve got confidence.

“His emergence into [the NHL] game could not be better timed, with the lockout ending and a lot of other players not playing.”

As for other personnel, the Leafs didn’t upgrade much from a roster that finished 13th in the Eastern Conference a year ago.

James van Riemsdyk came aboard (at the expense of losing Luke Schenn) and checking center Jay McClement was signed in free agency. Morgan Rielly, the fifth overall pick at the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, could challenge for a roster spot, but is only 18 years old.

Which means Toronto might be seeking improvement from within.

To that end, the Leafs should have some optimism. One of the biggest disappointments from last year was Nikolai Kulemin, who saw his goal production decrease from 30 in 2010-11 to seven in 2011-12.

The 30-year-old Russian was active during the lockout, playing with Magnitogorsk of the KHL, racking up 38 points in 36 games.

He’s just one of a number of Leafs that need to improve from disappointing 2011-12 campaigns (others, to name a few: Tim Connolly, Cody Franson, Mike Komisarek, John-Michael Liles.)

But really, improvement has to come across the board. The only way the Leafs are going to make the playoffs is if everything about the team gets better, something head coach Randy Carlyle acknowledges.

“I’ve left the message with the players in departing last year that we were not competitive enough in all three zones,” Carlyle explained. “We have to be prepared to go — if you want to call it war in some situations, so be it — we want to be able to compete night in, night out, for every puck, every faceoff.

“That’s the message that’s been delivered. That’s the type of style we’re expected to play.”

Related

For all the PHT Pressing Questions, click here.

Poll: Where will the Canadiens finish in the East this year?

MONTREAL, QC - APRIL 17:  Carey Price #31 of the Montreal Canadiens watches play during Game Two of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals  of the 2015 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Bell Centre on April 17, 2015 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.  The Canadiens defeated the Senators 3-2 in overtime.  (Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)
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Expectations were high for the Montreal Canadiens going into last season.

In the first month of the 2015-16 season, it seemed like the high expectations were justified, as the Canadiens jumped out to a 9-0-0 start.

They continued their strong play through the month of November.

In November, the Canadiens lost both Carey Price (knee) and Brendan Gallagher (hand) to injury. The Price injury, in particular, really hurt the Canadiens.

Price was initially supposed to be out for 6-to-8 weeks, but he never ended up returning. Without him, the Canadiens just weren’t the same team.

“It’s been hard mentally,” Price said last April, per NHL.com. “This has been the most trying year of my career. I feel more tired now than I do when I play hockey,” Price said. “Watching, I don’t know how fans do it to be honest. It’s hard to sit and watch and not be able to do anything about it. It’s the hardest part about this process.

“I think I’ve learned a lot of things in the aspect of preparing myself for a long season. I’ve changed a few things like my diet plans and my preparation for practices. As you get older (Price turns 29 on Aug. 16), you have to do more things like that. And I think I can carry that into next year and it will be beneficial.”

Now, it sounds like Price is back to full health and that can only be a good thing for Montreal. With Price, it’ll be interesting to see if Montreal can find their winning ways.

Montreal also added Shea Weber and Andrew Shaw via trade. Both players figure to be important parts of the team in 2016-17.

How high do you expect the Canadiens to finish in the Eastern Conference standings? How do they stack up against the Panthers, Lightning, Red Wings, Bruins, Senators, Sabres and Maple Leafs in the Atlantic Division?

Time to vote!

Adding toughness was an offseason priority for the Canadiens

CHICAGO, IL - JANUARY 12: Andrew Shaw #65 of the Chicago Blackhawks collides with Shea Weber #6 of the Nashville Predators at the United Center on January 12, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. The Blackhawks defeated the Predators 3-2. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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After a miserable 2015-16 season, the Canadiens needed fixing. This offseason, it became clear that Montreal wanted to be bigger, tougher and meaner.

It’s an interesting time to take that approach, especially when the NHL seems to be moving in a different direction.

The Pittsburgh Penguins used speed and skill to their advantage during their 2016 Stanley Cup journey and we should expect to see more teams try to emulate that this season.

But GM Marc Bergevin clearly isn’t interested in following the latest hockey trends.

Bergevin made two trades on draft night. He sent Lars Eller to Washington for a pair of draft picks and he acquired Andrew Shaw from the Chicago Blackhawks.

“Two Stanley Cups in five years,” Bergevin said of Shaw, per NHL.com. “I like guys who don’t like to lose. Everybody likes to win, everybody’s happy when you win. I want guys, when you lose, it gets them inside. It hurts. And then you go back to work the next day.

“Andrew Shaw has it. I was in Chicago long enough to know they don’t take losing with a grain of salt. I want guys who don’t like to lose.”

Days later, Bergevin stunned the hockey world when he shipped P.K. Subban to Nashville for Shea Weber.

Again, Subban is no push-over, but he isn’t as nasty as Shea Weber.

“He’s the toughest defenseman to play against in the NHL and I’m glad I don’t have to do any net-front battles with him again … maybe in practice,” Shaw said earlier this month, per the Montreal Gazette. “But I think it’s going to be huge for the team. He’s a good leader guy, a good team guy. He’s got that experience, too. He’s got that shot from the point that will help both on the power play and even strength as well. He’s just that big, strong man in front of the net that’s going to help out defensively as well.”

Clearly, the Canadiens feel that having Carey Price back and playing a physical brand of hockey will allow them to be competitive in the Eastern Conference.

Time will tell if they chose the right approach.

Under Pressure: Michel Therrien

GLENDALE, AZ - MARCH 07:  Head coach Michel Therrien of the Montreal Canadiens watches from the bench during the NHL game against the Arizona Coyotes at Gila River Arena on March 7, 2015 in Glendale, Arizona. The Canadiens defeated the Coyotes 2-0.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Being a head coach in a hockey market like Montreal isn’t easy when times are good, so imagine how hard it can get when the team finishes near the bottom of the standings.

In his second stint as head coach of the Montreal Canadiens, Michel Therrien has had success. From 2011-12 to 2014-15, Therrien helped guide the Canadiens to a 125-64-23 record. But the “honeymoon” came to a crashing halt this season.

Montreal got off to a 9-0-0 start, but injuries to Carey Price and Brendan Gallagher derailed the Canadiens’ season.

With Price and Gallagher on the shelf, the Canadiens went through a miserable stretch in December. From Dec. 3 through Dec. 26, the Canadiens played 10 games and won just one those contests. Things didn’t get much better from there.

Without the defending Hart Trophy winner at their disposal, it’s normal that the Canadiens would dip a little bit, but the lack of solutions from the coaching staff was concerning.

The Habs have made plenty of changes to their roster after last season’s disappointment. Gone are Lars Eller and P.K. Subban and in come Shea Weber, Alexander Radulov and Andrew Shaw.

The Canadiens also added Kirk Muller as an associate coach, but the rest of the coaching staff remained intact.

“Given what we went through in the last six months, to panic and change everything, I’m not ready to do that,” Bergevin said in April, per CBC.ca. “I’ll look at every aspect of the organization to see where we can improve, but to turn everything upside down? No.

“Last year we had 110 points. I’m not ready to throw people out the door based on what happened this year. Nobody is walking away with a clean slate, but we have to break down what happened. Michel learned a lot. We all learned. We’re not happy. It’s my job to address this team moving forward, but Michel will be behind the bench on opening night.”

With plenty of off-season change and the return of Carey Price, there are no more excuses for Therrien. As loyal as GM Marc Bergevin has been to his head coach during this rough patch, don’t be surprised if a slow start costs Therrien his job.

Therrien has already been fired twice before (Montreal and Pittsburgh), so this could be his last head coaching gig in the NHL.

The pressure is definitely on.

Looking to make the leap: Sven Andrighetto

SUNRISE, FL - APRIL 2: Sven Andrighetto #42 of the Montreal Canadiens skates prior to the game against the Florida Panthers at the BB&T Center on April 2, 2016 in Sunrise, Florida. The Panthers defeated the Canadiens 4-3. (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)
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This post is part of Montreal Canadiens day at PHT…

Heading into the off-season, it was clear that the Canadiens needed to address their lack of scoring.

They signed free agent winger Alexander Radulov on July 1st, but he’s far from a sure thing at this point. Montreal also traded a pair of second round picks for Andrew Shaw.

Depending on how things shape up in training camp, there could still be an opening at left wing on the team’s second line.

Sven Andrighetto, who spent parts of the last two seasons with Montreal, might be ready to make the leap and become a regular offensive contributor.

“My personal goal is to be on the roster,” Andrighetto said earlier this month. “I showed last year, I played 44 games and I want to be on the team full-time this year.”

The 23-year-old scored seven goals and 17 points during his stint with the big club last season.

Andrighetto’s greatest asset is his speed, which makes him a good fit for today’s NHL.

After his entry-level contract expired this summer, the Canadiens gave Andrighetto a one-year contract for this season. He’ll need to show them that he’s capable of being an everyday NHLer or he may need to find work elsewhere.

“I played with Andrighetto while Gallagher was hurt and he’s really shown flashes of greatness,” said captain Max Pacioretty. “He’s got tremendous skill. What it comes down to with a player like that is doing it game-in and game-out. We know the skill is there.”

It might be now or never for Andrighetto.