Call of the Wilde: Toronto Maple Leafs edge the Montreal Canadiens

The greatest tradition in National Hockey League history played out this Saturday night in Montreal. It was the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens at the Bell Centre. These last three years, there has been zero dispute about who is the better of the two clubs.

The Canadiens are trying to close that gap in a rebuild. In this one, however, they fell one goal short for the 21st time this season with a 3-2 Toronto final.

Wilde Horses 

An NHL first line of considerable merit is often thought of as a line that piles up points. However, what if the line that scores a lot also gives up goals at the same rate? Compare that to a line that scores fewer goals overall, but hardly gives up any. Which of the two is the line that contributes most to wins?

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Those questions come to mind considering where the Canadiens are in their rebuild, relying on Nick Suzuki, Juraj Slafkovsky, and Cole Caufield to be their number one line. Discussion is lively whether they are truly a number one line. Based on points, it’s a debate. Based on goals for versus goals against, the debate is over.

Suzuki’s goals numbers are a far cry from Auston Matthews who is the best sniper in all of hockey putting together a pace of goals that rivals the great seasons of Wayne Gretzky.

Suzuki was matched up against Matthews on Saturday and Montreal’s line had an outstanding night. The Goals Expected favoured Suzuki’s line at a 65 per cent share. That’s a big win as Suzuki is quickly becoming a first-line player in the tradition of Patrice Bergeron. Suzuki won’t ever be a 120-point player, but he may just be a winner where it truly counts.

The league is starting to take notice as the head coach of the Florida Panthers described Suzuki as reminiscent of Aleksander Barkov. He is one of the best centres in the game. He wins the middle. He controls the sheet and often the result of the game. Just like Bergeron.

Suzuki since the all-star break has the second most goals in the league behind only Matthews, so in their head to head, it was a night to feel optimistic about what Suzuki is able to do against the league’s best players.

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Suzuki could be buoyed by the Canadiens also having a second line one day. He will find more freedom in match-ups that he isn’t getting with the club having no effective second line. The return of Kirby Dach will make next season interesting. Suzuki and Dach are the centre pieces of a much better hockey team.

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Suzuki and Dach may surprise down the middle, and that trickle of respect that has started may turn into a torrent.

Wilde Goats

Credit goes to the coaching staff to have the club ready to play and put in a respectable effort. It’s no secret that they’re a bottom feeder still, but they compete so hard and stay in so many games that they have kept it interesting to watch.

Montreal has 21 one-goal losses this year. Just a couple more finishers and those losses turn into ties heading into overtime, and those can always become wins.  Once again, no goats for a club that continues to believe that each game is a chance to grow even when the playoffs are out of reach.

Wilde Cards

Some may feel disappointed at the trading deadline for the Canadiens, but the more trades that were registered, the more it became clear that it was a buyer’s market this year.

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Three weeks before the deadline, GM Kent Hughes acquired a first rounder for Sean Monahan. By 3 pm Friday, it was obvious that Hughes was wise to take that early offer from Winnipeg. The return of a first simply dried up for high quality players.

Monahan fetched a first, but Tyler Toffoli and Jake Guentzel did not, and that’s good business from the Canadiens GM.

It was not so long ago that Ben Chiarot and David Savard were worth firsts, but this year, the same Savard, with the same skill set, and many with his skill level and even higher did not fetch first round picks.

It was surprising to see the sellers taking a return that was so insignificant. Toffoli is a perfect example. He is a legitimate NHL scorer. The Devils top return for him, a late second rounder, has a five percent chance of being an NHL player. In all likelihood, the Devils gave this terrific player away for hope and a prayer.

Hughes was able to not bite on all of the inadequate offers, because all of his top free agents have term remaining. Hughes is hoping the trend reverses next March. David Savard, and Joel Armia can hit the market again next season.

If the market does not improve, he has lost nothing in mathematical terms. Hypothetically, let’s take Savard as an example. Perhaps the market gets even worse and Savard moves from a second round return to a third round return. The success rate between the 55th pick and the 85th pick is barely different. The former hits at seven per cent and the latter at five per cent.

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That means hoping for a first was the only logical choice because the 25th pick hits at 50 per cent. Hughes understands the numbers. Any GM who does not is at a massive disadvantage. That’s why Toffoli for a second is a head scratcher.

The goal posts have moved in the trading landscape. If the weak teams want to get strong, they need to fight back for those first rounders in exchange for their best assets, or the draft becomes even more crucial — overly crucial. Miss on your top-ten selection, get only seconds for your expiring assets, will mean a poor team will remain in the basement a long time.

Let’s see what next year brings. Look for the sellers to reclaim some ground. They must, or they can’t build a team. They’ll look at their white board depth chart and see the folly of their actions.

Good for Hughes to not give in to that folly. Canadiens fans should feel relieved.

Brian Wilde, a Montreal-based sports writer, brings you Call of the Wilde on after each Canadiens game.


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