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Canadiens pit continuity against new-look Maple Leafs

by Arpon Basu

MONTREAL -- The Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs will raise the curtain on the 2015-16 NHL season Wednesday at Air Canada Centre on opposite ends of the team-building spectrum.

The Maple Leafs offseason was defined by change, as it should be for a team that finished 27th in the overall standings last season. The expectations in Toronto are modest, looking to take the first step on what appears to be a long journey back toward the Stanley Cup Playoffs and, eventually, the franchise's first Stanley Cup since 1967.

The Canadiens, on the other hand, sought continuity, making minimal personnel changes and looking to build on three straight playoff appearances by adding a fourth, one they can legitimately hope will end with new captain Max Pacioretty raising the Stanley Cup.

The contrast between the NHL's two oldest and most iconic franchises is striking, and it will be on full display Wednesday (7 p.m. ET; SN, TVA Sports) as the Maple Leafs look to establish the type of team identity the Canadiens already seemingly have.

"They're going through a transition, as opposed to us, we're all set," Canadiens center Tomas Plekanec said after practice Tuesday. "Everything's pretty much stabilized, every player knows his role and knows his job to do. I'm sure in a couple of years they'll find that too."

The game Wednesday will mark the beginning of Mike Babcock's tenure behind the Maple Leafs bench, the start of a long-term rebuilding project being overseen by president Brendan Shanahan and new general manager Lou Lamoriello.

Babcock admits he's not quite sure what to expect.

"I'm going to know way more here after three games than even our four practices," Babcock said Tuesday. "We're going to get so that we're organized, we're going to get so that we're very hard-working and that we're in it together night in and night out, and we're going to be a hard group to play against and make it hard on teams.

"Now how long's that going to take? I don't know the answer to that question. I just know that we're going to work on getting better each and every day."

Phil Kessel, Toronto's most skilled offensive player, is gone as the Maple Leafs look to create a culture of winning around a more structured game Babcock is charged with putting in place.

Neither the Maple Leafs nor Babcock know exactly how that's going to work out, but they are going to start finding out as of Wednesday.

"There's hope," Babcock said. "For me it's very exciting and it's a new opportunity. I don't know a lot of things that I would normally know at this time of year, but I think that's exciting too."

Michel Therrien doesn't have that problem.

The Canadiens coach is entering his fourth season in Montreal, and as opposed to his counterpart in Toronto, Therrien knows exactly what to expect from his group.

Consider that in Maple Leafs training camp, center Nazem Kadri went through three or four different sets of players on his wings before Babcock finally settled on playing him with James van Riemsdyk and Brad Boyes. Therrien, meanwhile, hasn't touched his top-three forward lines since the first day of training camp, making the composition of the fourth line the lone source of debate.

"We were able to add two players in [Alexander] Semin and [Tomas] Fleischmann who added a certain amount of stability to our lines," Therrien said. "I think we're further ahead right now than we were at the same time a year ago at training camp. The team is different. It's the same thing on defense.

"I like the makeup, I like the depth of our lines offensively. It's going to allow us to try and create chemistry as fast as possible, and we've already been able to do that during training camp."

The Canadiens have the benefit of familiarity working for them in this area.

Of the 23 players on Montreal's opening night roster, which includes forward Paul Byron, claimed off waivers from the Calgary Flames on Tuesday, 13 were either drafted or developed by the Canadiens. There are six such players on the Maple Leafs roster, one of whom is Brad Boyes, who was taken by Toronto with the No. 24 pick of the 2000 NHL Draft but will play his first game for them Wednesday.

"We know that this is a business and there's always players coming in and leaving, so whenever you can keep a core group together, it's something special," Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban said. "When you're drafted to an organization and you have an opportunity to do some damage in this League and do something special, it means a little bit more, that's for sure. We're all thinking the same thing, we're all on the same page here."

Although they are coming into the game Wednesday with a firm grasp on the makeup of their lineup, the Canadiens will be testing out some new things for the first time in a game that counts. How will Alex Galchenyuk do at center? Can Semin find his game again? Can Lars Eller make the adjustment to playing left wing? How will David Desharnais react to a new role centering the third line?

They are all questions without answers right now for Montreal, but when they look at their opponents Wednesday, the Canadiens will probably feel lucky to have so few of them.

But if there is one area of common ground between these two historic rivals heading into the new season, Canadiens goaltender Carey Price probably found it.

"I think it's just managing expectations more than anything," he said. "Everybody has a really high bar set for us and we've just got to stay focused on the process and not worry about what we're doing compared to last year or the previous year."

Aside from the part about the high bar, that statement rings as true in Toronto as it does in Montreal.

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