TORONTO – Mike Babcock will join the oldest rivalry in hockey when he debuts as coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs against the Montreal Canadiens on Wednesday.
The NHL's two oldest franchises have played 728 times with Montreal holding a 335-293-88-12 record.
After 10 seasons with the Detroit Red Wings, Babcock signed an eight-year contract worth a reported $50 million to coach the Maple Leafs, who have not won the Stanley Cup since 1967.
Babcock is not under the illusion that a quick fix is available for a franchise that has missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs in nine of the past 10 seasons. On the day he was hired by the Maple Leafs he said, "If you think there's no pain coming, there's pain coming."
When reminded of that comment, veteran left wing James van Riemsdyk smiled and said playing for a new coach allows all the players to hit the restart button.
"I don't know the context of the quote about pain, but we have worked hard and we've been paying attention to all the details they want us to play with," van Riemsdyk said. "It's a fresh start for everyone. Everyone gets a clean slate and every new season there's lots of optimism, and now we have to go out there and play hard."
The Maple Leafs are going with mostly veterans, having shipped the majority of their top prospects to the Toronto Marlies of the American Hockey League. The expectation is the Maple Leafs are a long shot to make the playoffs, but that does not discourage Babcock.
"I think we have 23 guys in the room, a coaching staff and management team that expects us to compete every night," Babcock said. "I come to the rink every day expecting to win and it's going to be no different this year."
Van Riemsdyk will be looked upon to lead the offensive charge this season with Phil Kessel, Toronto's leading scorer last season, traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
"It's exciting," van Riemsdyk said of the start of the season. "It's like Christmas morning almost. You're excited to get going. It was a long summer – for us, obviously too long – and we're excited to get back into it and start with the live bullets today."
Left wing Daniel Winnik said the fact people aren't expecting much from the Maple Leafs this season could work in their favor.
"Playing as an underdog motivates guys," Winnik said. "When you are favored you sometimes go into games with expectations to win and sometimes you take games off against certain teams because you expect to show up and win. Hopefully we're one of those underdog teams that rallies. Nobody expected much from the Calgary Flames last season and they made the playoffs."
The Canadiens are considered legitimate Stanley Cup contenders, but coach Michel Therrien said their first goal is simple: make the playoffs. Montreal had the second-best record in the NHL last season (50-2-10,110 points) but were eliminated from the Eastern Conference Second Round in six games by the Tampa Bay Lightning.
"We want to make sure every game we mean business," Therrien said. "Every team in the NHL, their ultimate goal is to win the Stanley Cup, but we have to concentrate on the first step, which is making the playoffs. We need to have a business attitude starting tonight."
Therrien said it would be a mistake for his players to take the Babcock-coached Maple Leafs lightly.
"The Leafs are going to have better discipline and better structure, and I know they are going to compete hard," Therrien said. "I am expecting they are going to battle like a lot of teams to make the playoffs."
Montreal defenseman P.K. Subban echoed Therrien's sentiments.
"As far as I'm concerned we're prepared to play a good team tonight; a team that is going to come out and compete for 60 minutes," Subban said. "If we're not prepared to do that then we're only hurting ourselves."
Here are the projected lineups:
Max Pacioretty – Tomas Plekanec – Brendan Gallagher
Lars Eller – Alex Galchenyuk – Alexander Semin
Tomas Fleischmann – David Desharnais – Dale Weise
Brian Flynn – Torrey Mitchell – Devante Smith-Pelly
Andrei Markov – P.K. Subban
Jeff Petry – Alexei Emelin
Nathan Beaulieu – Tom Gilbert
Scratched: Paul Byron, Jarred Tinordi, Greg Pateryn
James van Riemsdyk – Nazem Kadri – Brad Boyes
Shawn Matthias – Tyler Bozak – Joffrey Lupul
Leo Komarov – Peter Holland – Mark Arcobello
Daniel Winnik – Nick Spaling – PA Parenteau
Morgan Rielly – Roman Polak
Dion Phaneuf – Matt Hunwick
Jake Gardiner – Martin Marincin
Scratched: Frank Corrado, Michael Grabner
Injured: Stephane Robidas (knee)
Status report: The Maple Leafs recalled defenseman Scott Harrington from the Marlies … forward Richard Panik cleared waivers and was sent to the AHL.