The Battle of Ontario is back in a big way. Fans on both sides have been clamoring for these matchups to be good hockey again. With the moves made by the Ottawa Senators this year, these games are the ones fans need to have circled on the calendar. The Toronto Maple Leafs may still boast some bigger firepower but this matchup will be the closest the two have had in years. With that in mind, let’s dive into how the national capital matches up to the provincial capital.
A Clear Offensive Advantage
I won’t lie, it’s lopsided. But it is not an insurmountable challenge for the Senators. The addition of Alex DeBrincat opens the door for some big scoring potential, just not as big as what Rocket Richard winner Auston Matthews offers. Tim Stützle is showing rapid development playing in the middle of the ice and has been making some sneaky good passes with speed. Unfortunately, Mitch Marner makes them a little bit faster and can do so from the periphery. Captain to captain, it’s a different story. Brady Tkachuk is on the rise. Coming off of a 30 goal season and laying the body on anyone who stands in his way, he’s poised for another big season. John Tavares, on the other hand, is slowing down. There are questions about how he performs this season, but he is facing a regression in his career.
DeBrincat / Stützle / Tkachuk vs. Matthews / Marner / Tavares
The Senators needed to find a way to add goals. Last season they got great chances, but struggled to find the finish on a number of opportunities. By adding DeBrincat, they get someone who has hit the 40 mark twice. That scoring ability is a major addition for the roster. In this matchup, however, it’s competing against a back-to-back Rocket Richard winner in Matthews. It’s sacrilege for the fans in Ottawa, but I think we all have to admit that Matthews is good at scoring. As he continues to improve his shot and rounds out his 200-foot game, he’ll be even more effective next year. There’s no question, he is the top dog here.
Beyond their place in the standings, who stands to benefit the most from adding DeBrincat? Stützle, of course! This season should see his point totals skyrocket as he gets some help burying the pucks he sets up. With the transition to center working well so far, getting a little more comfortable in the interior of the ice should help him collect some of his own goals as well. As a crafty set-up player, Marner is a relatively large margin ahead of Stützle. He’s been in the league longer and has benefitted from competition keying in on linemates. Sure, the German rookie who just signed an eight-year deal, has room to grow but so does Marner. Neither has reached their plateau, but the Maple Leaf is definitively better at this point.
Oh captain, my captain. One on the rise and one on the decline. To be clear, Tavares has plenty left to offer the team. Sure, he’s slowed down, his shot isn’t what it used to be, but he remains an integral part of the forecheck and his ability to hold the puck before making a play is strong. Beyond his on-ice role, he is a level head in the locker room and has the capacity to hold the team accountable. His influence can be seen in the work ethic of most players on the team. Tkachuk is a decidedly different captain. He’s a true energy player who throws himself into each game (and accompanying celebration). With a fresh 30-goal season, he’ll be looking to find more ways to push himself forward. With big hits, a strong net-front presence, and the ability to score when it’s needed most, Tkachuk is the one most teams would want to ice today.
A Battle of Defensive Archetypes
There’s a number of bright spots and some missing pieces for the defensive groups of both teams, but they both share one key component. The No. 1 defender for both squads is a solid puck mover, unafraid to drive offense, and he doesn’t shy away from defensive responsibility. The Maple Leafs’ No. 1 rearguard faces a lot of criticism for his defensive play, but Morgan Rielly continues to be a standout player. For the Senators, Thomas Chabot will be tasked with bringing rookies up to speed and continuing to eat the majority of minutes for the team.
Chabot vs. Rielly
I feel bad for Rielly. Genuinely, I do. Being a team’s No. 1 defenseman under the brightest spotlight in the NHL has to be exceedingly tough. He managed to hit some lofty targets in terms of scoring. Since his career-high 2018-19 season, he hasn’t hit the 20-goal mark again. Last season, his 68 points was just four shy of the previous high of 72. He’s faced his fair share of criticism in Toronto, but has continued to play an integral role for the Maple Leafs. His defensive play has left much to be desired, but he’s not the black hole some would have you believe.
For the Senators, Chabot is the No. 1 workhorse of the defensive group and he occupies a similar role as his Leafs counterpart — eating minutes, quarterbacking the power play, and generating offense where applicable. He does, however, maintain some better defensive numbers even if his offense falls a bit short. As Chabot looks to build on last season, he should find some additional points this year. With high-profile rookie Jake Sanderson coming in, some of the weight could be coming off his shoulders, allowing him to take some bigger risks at the moment. If he can find his finish, he stands to benefit greatly. If the Senators secure another top-pair defenseman, Chabot could explode this season. Even without a major boost in performance, it stands to reason that Chabot slightly edges out Rielly in a head-to-head matchup.
Old(ish) Dog, New Tricks in Net
There was a heck of a goalie shakeup across the league this offseason. Carey Price hit long-term injured reserve, Robin Lehner went out for surgery, and there were numerous transactions. One of the most discussed transactions was the trade involving Matt Murray as the Senators managed to send him to the Maple Leafs with minimal retention. In the wake of the trade, Anton Forsberg will be staring down the starter role, but he’ll have to battle for it.
Murray vs. Forsberg
There are a number of people who don’t believe in Murray. The narrative so far has been that general manager Kyle Dubas has staked his career with the Maple Leafs on Murray’s performance. The former Senators goalie did not have a great time with his previous team. Clearly, the mindset in the Leaf’s camp is that he can get back to his Stanley Cup-winning performances if they can back him up and deal with his injuries. I’m of the belief that he can definitely get back to form, but I don’t think he could have done it with the Senators. There’s a distinct level of trust with the new organization and a distinct gameplan. If, and it’s a massive if, he can get to his previous highs, he’ll have a major year.
For the Senators, there’s just one familiar face in the crease this year. After the departure of Murray and Filip Gustavsson, Forsberg is now in prime position to fight for a starter role. His performance in net thus far has been relatively solid, but there’s always room for improvement. Forsberg’s season stats last year ranked quite well — ninth in the league for save percentage (.917) and 28th for goals-against average (2.82). The discrepancy in those stats highlights the defensive liabilities for the Senators, which have only really marginally improved. Against the lethal offense of the Maple Leafs, it’ll be a tall ask for Forsberg to improve. While he’s certainly not going to get any shutouts, I think Forsberg will emerge the better goalie this year. Murray can get back to form, but I don’t believe he can go all the way.
The Battle of Ontario is back in a big way. Their first regular-season matchup this year is the Senators’ second regular-season game, and it’s a prime-time Saturday showcase. There are vast improvements for the Sens this year, but the Maple Leafs have such a solid lineup that it’s going to be tough. We can expect each of their four games to be run-and-gun games with nary a care paid to defense. Toronto will likely end up taking the season series, but I’d count on every game being a battle.
Devin resides in Ontario, covering the Ottawa Senators for The Hockey Writers. He’s interested in where the eye test intersects with advanced stats and is on a quest to make a formula to determine who really is the best overall defenseman.