Welcome back to my Toronto Maple Leafs Opponent Preview series. In this series, I will be previewing each team in the Atlantic Division and breaking down how they match up against the Maple Leafs. The purpose of this series is to refresh people on how teams in the Atlantic Division are built for the 2021-22 season, especially considering the Maple Leafs haven’t played most of these teams since 2019-20.
Last time around, I broke down how the Maple Leafs matched up against the Montreal Canadiens. You can find that piece here. This time around, I will be taking a look at how the Maple Leafs stack up against the Ottawa Senators in 2021-22.
2020-21 Record: 23-28-5 (51 points, missed the playoffs)
Notable Additions: Nick Holden, Michael Del Zotto, Zach Sanford
Notable Losses: Evgenii Dadonov, Derek Stepan, Artem Anisimov, Ryan Dzingel
2021 Draft: Tyler Boucher, Zack Ostapchuk, Benjamin Roger, Oliver Johansson, Carson Latimer, Chandler Romeo
2020-21 Season Series: 5-2-2 (TOR outscored OTT 35-32)
The Ottawa Senators are quickly establishing themselves as one of the most annoying teams to play in the league. While they’re still early in their rebuild and don’t have the high-end talent of other teams in their division, they have the reputation of a team that won’t be walked all over and a team that will work you into the ground.
Despite being the second-worst team in the North Division last season, they had the best record against the Maple Leafs of any team.
Senators Offense Hands the Torch to Young Talent
This was already sort of in place last season, but with the departures of veterans such as Evgenii Dadonov, Derek Stepan, Artem Anisimov, and Ryan Dzingel, it’s evident that the Senators are going to let their young players take care of business this season. Of course, they will likely be without one of their more prominent young forwards in Brady Tkachuk to start the season, seeing that he still doesn’t have a contract.
Aside from Tkachuk, though, they have a talented young group of forwards that features the likes of Tim Stutzle, Josh Norris, and Drake Batherson. Outside of those three, they also have Alex Formenton, Shane Pinto, and Nick Paul, who all have promise. While there’s a serious lack of veterans up front, the Senators aren’t in a position to contend this season. So it’s evident they’re just going to let the kids play and have fun with their group this season.
How Do the Maple Leafs Match Up?
It’s obvious the Maple Leafs have a better forward group than the Senators, but just like the Buffalo Sabres and the Detroit Red Wings, it’s an unfair comparison to make, seeing that the two teams are in completely different situations. Give it a couple of years, and I guarantee there’s going to be a debate to be had.
Senators Defense Arguably Sees Improvement
The Senators didn’t lose anybody notable on their back end, but with a couple of depth additions, I would say they improved. With the additions of Nick Holden through a trade with the Vegas Golden Knights and Michael Del Zotto through free agency, they’ve added a couple of veteran players to fit into a relatively young defensive corps.
Led by 2015 first-round pick Thomas Chabot, the Senators are also hoping that 22-year-old Erik Brannstrom is ready to assume a full-time NHL role and eat some crucial minutes, as he’s proven he’s too good for the American Hockey League (AHL) at this point. The addition of Artem Zub last year was a welcomed one, and otherwise, they’ll look to players like Nikita Zaitsev and Victor Mete to round out the back end.
How Do the Maple Leafs Match Up?
Just like the offense, the Maple Leafs’ defense is clearly better. And just like the offense, it’s unfair to compare the two. The Senators have some intriguing young talent coming up on the back end, including 2020 fifth overall pick Jake Sanderson and 2019 first-round pick Lassi Thomson. So again, this discussion could be much closer once the young core develops a little bit more.
Senators Relying on a Bounce Back From Murray
The word “relying” is used loosely here. It’s not like the Senators are a team on the brink of making the playoffs and need Murray to perform in order to make the dance. But seeing that he’s locked in for another three years at a cap hit of $6.25 million, I’m sure they would love for him to regain his confidence and bounce back from an abysmal 2020-21 season.
Behind Murray will more than likely be Anton Forsberg, who only appeared in eight games for the Senators last season. The backup job seemed to be an open battle between Forsberg and Filip Gustavsson, but with Gustavsson getting sent to the AHL’s Belleville Senators, it appears the gig will belong to Forsberg to start the season.
How Do the Maple Leafs Match Up?
The Maple Leafs have the better goaltending. Unless Murray pulls a Vezina-calibre season out of a hat and one of Forsberg or Gustavsson proves to be a reliable backup, I’d take my chances with Jack Campbell and Petr Mrazek between the two tandems.
Head Coaching Matchup: Sheldon Keefe vs. D.J. Smith
This one is kind of funny because D.J. Smith was an assistant coach for the Maple Leafs up until the 2019-20 season. And once again, it’s hard to compare the two.
Keefe looks like the better coach on the forefront simply because of his winning record, but I feel like it would be unfair to say he’s far and away better than Smith because the latter has only been the coach for the worst parts of the rebuild.
Senators Prospect Corner
A second-rounder of the Senators in 2020, Jarventie is set to begin his first full hockey season playing in North America. He spent last season playing for Ilves of the SM-Liiga in Finland and put up 25 points in 48 games.
Related: Senators 2021-22 Prospect Pyramid
He got a brief look in the AHL with Belleville at the end of the season, and registered three points in four games. He’s set to start this season with Belleville, and could see a call-up, barring any injuries up front.
Thomson began last season playing on Ilves as Jarventie’s teammate, but he couldn’t get the ball rolling offensively with only two assists in 18 games. He spent the second half of the season with the Belleville Senators and put up 13 points in 35 games. Like Jarventie, Thomson will start in the AHL. But if there are any injuries to the defensive corps, he could see himself as the first man up.
Originally a second-round pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Gustavsson was traded to the Senators in 2018 and has been in their system ever since.
Gustavsson impressed over a nine-game sample size with a record of 5-1-2 along with a goals against average (GAA) of 2.16 and a save percentage of .933. To see him start in the AHL is mildly confusing, and I would bet he gets another chance at the NHL level sooner rather than later.
Message From Enemy Lines
“As it stands, the Maple Leafs outmatch the Senators in nearly every way. Ottawa just doesn’t have the forwards to neutralize the trio of Auston Matthews, John Tavares, and Mitch Marner, especially with Brady Tkachuk still sitting out. Thomas Chabot gives Ottawa some life on defense, and Michael Del Zotto and Nick Holden will try and fix the defensive issues they faced last season, but it still doesn’t have a top shutdown guy to contain the Leafs’ high-octane offense. If Matt Murray can rebound, they’ll have the advantage in goal, but that’s a big if based on the way his career has gone lately. And yet, the Senators beat the Maple Leafs four times out of 10 matchups in 2020-21. This is a team that defies expectations, so despite the obvious mismatch, Ottawa still can’t be taken lightly.”-Dayton Reimer, The Hockey Writers
Oct. 14 @ Ottawa
Oct. 16 vs Ottawa
Jan. 1 vs Ottawa
Apr. 16 @ Ottawa
2021-22 Season Prediction: Sixth in Atlantic
While the Senators won’t be a playoff contender this season, I think they’ll finish higher than the Red Wings and the Sabres. And as previously stated, their resilience will make them tough customers, even for contending teams.
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Once Tkachuk signs and they have all of their young forwards intact, I think sixth is a fair spot to put the Senators for this season. But once their recent draft picks develop and their young core really starts to take its form, they have the potential to make some noise in the Atlantic.
Alex Hobson is a third year broadcasting student at Niagara College. He has been writing about sports since 2005 and has been with The Hockey Writers since October of 2020. He covers the Toronto Maple Leafs, World Juniors, and the NHL Entry Draft, and is also part of the Maple Leafs Lounge Podcast, presented by THW. For interview requests or any other inquiries, you can follow Alex’s social media pages listed at the bottom of his articles like this one.