By Lori Bennett
Another NHL season is underway and, in the days leading up to opening day, teams made some last minute moves.
The Montreal Canadiens claimed defenceman Johnathan Kovacevic off waivers from the Winnipeg Jets. The Toronto Maple Leafs signed depth forward Zach Aston-Reese to a one-year contract, and placed Wayne Simmonds on waivers after reportedly offering him to 31 teams via trade. Derick Brassard signed a one-year deal with the Ottawa Senators, and the Calgary Flames lost defencemen Jusso Valimaki to the waiver wire.
On Wednesday, the Leafs were in Montreal to open the season against the Canadiens, a battle of two teams on completely different tracks.
The Habs are engaged in a rebuild, stacked with young players just getting their feet wet in the NHL. The few veterans remaining will, for the most part, gradually find their way out of town in favour of more youth.
The Leafs are staring into their wide open window. Their salary cap is weighted toward elite talent who are in their prime, and the time to win is right now.
NHL Insider Chris Johnston offered up a statistic during the game that told the story – Mark Giordano, with 1,024 games played, had more NHL experience than the entire group of defencemen the Habs would ice on opening night.
We know what that means for the Canadiens. Their young defence group is expected to make a ton of mistakes, but this is a team in development and wins and losses take second seat to young players being exposed to game action and getting the chance to learn at the pro level.
What it means for the Leafs is yet to be determined. Four core members of their defence are 30 or older, and their bodies are showing the wear and tear? Can they hold up?
On opening night, it was the rebuilding team that stole the show in a 4-3 Montreal win. Cole Caufield scored two beauties, Sean Monahan added one in his first game in Montreal, and Josh Anderson notched the winner at 19:41 of the third period. Michael Bunting, Denis Malgin and William Nylander responded for Toronto but, as is the way in autumn, the Leafs fell. It didn’t take long for the hand-wringing to begin in the Big Smoke.
In the spirit of new seasons, here are a couple of predictions for these rivals. I’m predicting that Coach Sheldon Keefe will be fired by February and replaced by Barry Trotz who will lead the Maple Leafs past the first round in the playoffs. The Habs will have a losing season but win the season series against the Leafs, and Caufield will be a thorn in their side in every single game. The Habs will enjoy another top five pick at the draft in Nashville.
On Tuesday, Hockey Canada’s President and CEO Scott Smith resigned along with the entire Board of Directors, and not a moment too soon. After months of politicians, sponsors, pundits, and fans calling for dramatic change, Smith and company finally accepted the inevitable and stepped down.
This comes shortly after the Bakersfield Condors, the Edmonton Oilers’ AHL affiliate, announced they had relieved their head athletic trainer of his duties after he was charged with a sexual offence concerning a minor, and the Tampa Bay Lightning announced that defenceman Ian Cole would be suspended during an investigation of online allegations of grooming and sexual assault.
Achieving culture change in the sport we love won’t likely come without a lot of blood, sweat and tears.
Blue Jays Babble
After getting swept in the Wild Card series, Toronto Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins held his end of season press conference this week. There are many things to address – core players need contract extensions, pitching depth needs to be added, the batting order can use some diversity, they need to land on a permanent contract – but these things need to be assessed when the emotions of how the Jays were eliminated have died down. Atkins spoke to this.
“We definitely want to think about why that occurred. Why were we out in two games? And what needs to change to decrease the likelihood of that? But I still feel that the hardest thing to do is to win a division to get into the playoffs and you put yourself in those positions to then be successful. But yes, we definitely need to be thinking about that and determine how to weigh that. We’ve just started that process.”
It’s a big job for sure – sorting out where things went off the rails and addressing them, while also filling holes that were glaring all year. Let’s hope the GM is up for it.
The NBA regular season kicks off on Tuesday, and the Toronto Raptors play their first game on Wednesday when they welcome the Cleveland Cavaliers. The young team will attempt to take the next step in their development, but they will start the season with sophomore Scottie Barnes recovering from an ankle injury, and both Chris Boucher and Otto Porter Jr. nursing hamstring injuries.
The Raptors are finalizing their roster, and the kids are ramping up for another exciting year on the court. The question for this season is whether the team has progressed enough for the management team to make moves to shift into contender mode, or if this will be another year of building. They promise to be a lot of fun to watch, either way. Get ready for tip-off.