Maple Leafs-Canadiens Preview
The Toronto Maple Leafs were on the verge of winning their first postseason series in nine years when they came unraveled in the third period of Game 7 of against Boston.
That collapse led to general manager Dave Nonis making numerous roster changes that have Toronto thinking big heading into Tuesday night's season opener on the road against the equally optimistic Montreal Canadiens.
Toronto (26-17-5) made its first playoff appearance since 2004 with a solid showing in the lockout-shortened 2013 season, but it ended prematurely after blowing a 4-1 third-period lead and falling 5-4 in overtime in the deciding game of its first-round series.
David Clarkson, a 30-goal scorer with New Jersey in 2011-12, signed a seven-year deal worth $37 million on the first day of free agency, and the team resolved a contract dispute with defenseman Cody Franson, signing him to a one-year, $2 million deal.
Nazem Kadri re-upped for two years and $5.8 million on Sept. 11 after a breakout season with 18 goals and 26 assists.
"I've done what I can do," Nonis said. "We're pretty happy. I think we'll be pretty competitive. I can tell you (coach Randy Carlyle) is happy with the options we have in a lot of areas."
Though Clarkson is suspended for the first 10 games for leaving the bench to join a fight in a preseason game against Buffalo, Carlyle believes his addition, along with Bolland's, is a step in the right direction.
Bolland scored the winning goal in the final minute of Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals against Boston to help the Blackhawks win their second title in four seasons.
"We think both of these players, Clarkson and Bolland, bring elements to the game that are important for our young players," said Carlyle, who has yet to name a starting goaltender for the opener. "They're veteran guys. They've scored big goals in playoff games."
They'll be a nice complement to leading scorer Phil Kessel (20 goals, 32 assists), who signed a $64-million, eight-year contract extension early Tuesday, and fellow winger James van Riemsdyk, who had 18 goals and 14 assists last season.
"I really like where our team is at and where we're going," said defenseman Dion Phaneuf, who is an unrestricted free agent after the season. "We made some real good additions this year."
The Leafs will have some tough divisional competition due to the league's realignment, as they're part of a revamped Atlantic that features Boston, Detroit, Ottawa and Montreal - all playoff qualifiers a season ago.
"We have to go out and prove it," Carlyle said. "Just because we've added some people it doesn't make the statement that it's this type of club or that type of club."
The Canadiens (29-14-5) are hoping to make their own statement after falling to the Senators in five games in their first-round playoff series. Despite winning their first division crown since 2007-08, they are looking for a deeper run behind returning leading scorer Max Pacioretty, new forward Danny Briere and reigning Norris Trophy winner P.K. Subban.
The 35-year-old Briere received a contract buyout after six seasons with Philadelphia, then signed a two-year, $8 million deal with Montreal in July. He looks to add to the already strong Canadiens power-play unit that finished fifth with a 20.7 percent conversion rate last season.
"We know that we're in a tight division, and it's important to be ready and to get off to a good start (on special teams)," Briere told the team's official website. "You never know how it's going to go, but at least we're spending a lot of time on it in practice."
Subban, who tied Pittsburgh's Kris Letang for the NHL lead in points by a defenseman with 38, won't be joined by former Penguin Douglas Murray on the blue line any time soon, though.
Murray signed a one-year, $1.5 million contract in the offseason, but the team announced Monday he will miss the first 4-6 weeks with an upper-body injury.
Still, the Canadiens are remaining upbeat heading into a season of high expectations.
"It's good that everyone in the group can have a laugh together," center Lars Eller said. "It's good for the team as a whole. These things will make us grow together. Everyone is excited to get going."
Carey Price, who went 21-13-4 with a 2.59 goals-against average and tied his career worst with a .905 save percentage, should be in net for the opener. He's 1-4-0 with a 3.86 GAA in his last five starts against Toronto.
The Leafs won last season's series 3-2 and took both meetings in Montreal.