Call Of The Wilde: Toronto Maple Leafs handle the Montreal Canadiens

An exciting night for the Toronto Maple Leafs as they introduced their two new players, Ryan O’Reilly and Noel Acciari, in hopes of actually winning a playoff round for the first time since 2004. With this trade giving up a first-round draft choice, the general manager’s job is on the line. If Kyle Dubus doesn’t win a series this year, he will likely be sacked.

So the Leafs are focused while the Canadiens are simply trying to ice a full line-up. Toronto handled Montreal easily 5-1.

Wilde Horses

Justin Barron hit his own blue line in stride. He looked up as he carried the puck. Within one second, the puck was on the stick of a streaking Mike Hoffman down the left wing towards goal. It was another gorgeous outlet pass in the first period by Barron. Again, he freed a player for a strong chance.

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Recently, Barron and Mike Matheson have put in shot share numbers that rival some of the best defenders in hockey. In the Super Bowl weekend set, they had 80 shot share numbers as a partnership.

If a team wants to be a cup champion, their top pair has to have a little more overall game than Matheson and Barron, but as they evolve, it could be that the two defenders could be an excellent second pair.

Any time two defenders can put in a shot share as high as 80, all they are lacking is an ability to do that over and over again. Just be consistently good. That’s all it takes. The same commitment every night.

From a talent point of view, Matheson is already established. The talent of Barron is developing very quickly. Barron is just the type of defender that the Canadiens have lacked for a long time. It’s a pleasure to watch the smooth skating, outlet passes, and his ability to get shots on net by dancing along the blue line.

It’s hard to know the ceiling of defenders. One can’t just rely on their stats to assess against all of the other forwards’ stats and then simply pencil it in. Defenders’ ceilings are dependent not only on offensive stats but intelligent decision-making.

Taking it all into account, and his age of only 21, Barron could be a second pair NHLer. If he continues to play like he has with Matheson, it’s entirely possible that this player who was prematurely written off in Laval could be a vital cog in the rebuild.

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The overall rebuild on defence likely has a lot of second pair defenders. Many players have good pedigree to show strong results. However, someone still has to prove they have first pair potential. Cup-winning rebuilds need a Victor Hedman. They need a Cale Makar.

While injuries are making it difficult for Kent Hughes to get top value, Josh Anderson is peaking at the right time. Anderson scored his ninth goal in 17 meetings against the Leafs as a Canadiens player with a deflection off a Matheson point shot.

Anderson is on the top line of the club with Nick Suzuki and Rafael Harvey-Pinard. They’re getting the bulk of the team’s goals in the last two weeks. Anderson is loved by GMs. He could fetch a first round pick and a top prospect. Hughes has said that he has an ask in mind, and it has not been met.

Wilde Goats

The injury to Arber Xhekaj appears to be serious. Xhekaj pointed to his shoulder after a fight against the Edmonton Oilers Vincent Desharnais last weekend. Seven days later, the Canadiens have put Xhekaj on the injury list and recalled Corey Schueneman from the Laval Rocket.

The Canadiens released an interesting bit of information when describing the injury. They said that Xhekaj will see a specialist in the coming days. After that visit, an assessment of his future can be ascertained.

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Usually, a specialist is not required for a simple shoulder injury. They are usually quite straightforward. Normally, the doctor on duty is able to give a diagnosis. Then someone more advanced is required to assess this is a sign that it could be significant.

The only positive here is that it is mid-February, and the next important game that the Canadiens will play is next October, so even if it is a grave injury, Xhekaj should be healed by next season.

Even if it were Tommy John surgery for a UCL injury, Xhekaj would be available close to opening day. The worst-case scenario is not costly, except for the games played in development that Xhekaj is enjoying this season.

It’s been quite a season of major injuries for the club this year, including losing their top scorer, Cole Caufield, to shoulder surgery. Hopefully, next season can be better when the club would like to lift another level higher in their rebuild.

Wilde Cards

The Ryan O’Reilly trade from the St. Louis Blues to the Toronto Maple Leafs was a good one for the Montreal Canadiens. The market has been set and it favours the sellers by a large margin.

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Two of the four centres are now off the board and they cost the buyers a lot.  Bo Horvat went to the New York Islanders from the Vancouver Canucks and he fetched a lot, including a first round draft choice. O’Reilly was traded Friday night and he also fetched a lot, including a first round draft choice.

Two are left, and one it appears may not be traded at all with Jonathan Toews continuing to have lingering long-term health issues. That leaves only Sean Monahan as a highly touted centre for the remaining teams to shore up their roster down the middle.

The wild card is that Monahan has to be back on the ice before March 3 to play some games and prove to the hockey world that he can still play at a high level like earlier this season. In his favour, the injury to his foot that he suffered has nothing to do with the hip issues that plagued him.

The injury that he is healing from now is simple and it is structured, but that doesn’t mean other GMs won’t have an emotional red flag up as if the player needs to carry a four-leaf clover in his pocket. GMs can be as emotional as the next guy. The hip bone is not connected to the foot bone here, but tell that to a GM.

Unless he shows that he can play on that foot bone, then teams will be anxious. Saturday afternoon, Canadiens Head Coach Martin St. Louis said that Monahan’s healing had reached a plateau. That’s a mysterious statement that no one could really cut through to know if that means he will play soon or not.

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Monahan has graduated to a contact-wearing jersey in practice, so his return normally would be sooner. If he can perform at all before the trading deadline, he should fetch a good return considering that Monahan’s point-per-game at centre is actually better than O’Reilly’s this year.

Not to suggest they are equal, but that they are in the same ballpark. O’Reilly has a Stanley Cup to his name, but so does Joel Edmundson, and you don’t hear the argument that he is worth a high price tag. Both O’Reilly and Edmundson are shadows of their former selves since the Blues won the cup.

It’s difficult to know how the league will view Monahan. From a points perspective, face-off numbers, and shot share, Monahan’s season is superior to O’Reilly’s, but after that, all of the intangibles favour O’Reilly from health to a ring on his finger.

It is not inconceivable that if Monahan can put in some respectable hockey before the deadline showing health and some points that he will also fetch a first rounder.

The most likely suitor is the Colorado Avalanche. Last season, the Avs and Canadiens were trading partners, so the history is helpful. Colorado won the cup with a strong middle, and they do not have the same middle as last season. The Avs did not replace Nazim Kadri.

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If the Avs hope to win a cup again this year, they absolutely must get stronger at the centre position. It’s up to them. They make a run for the cup again with a better middle, or they will simply not make a run. If they want to win the middle, there’s only one player available to win the game.

That’s likely the best bargaining chip that General Manager Kent Hughes has. Every team wants to be stronger down the middle. In fact, Toronto already had Auston Matthews and John Tavares and still didn’t feel like they had enough.

There are 14 teams with cup aspirations who have not strengthened their club at centre heading into the deadline, and only one centre who can make a difference to them.

All the Canadiens need is Monahan to play some games and be healthy. If he manages that, expect another first-rounder for the Canadiens for this NHL draft. That would make three in this outstanding draft.

That’s how you do a rebuild. Get a first-rounder taking the Monahan contract on, and get another first-rounder selling the contract. As managing goes, this is the stuff of legend. Two weeks until we will know if it all falls into place. Should be exciting, or if Monahan can’t get healthy, a big disappointment.

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


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