A long, busy and at times painful offseason has come to an end as the revamped Toronto Maple Leafs open their regular season account against the Ottawa Senators tonight at Scotiabank Arena (7 p.m. ET, Sportsnet).
The time has arrived. With Mitch Marner signed long term, a top-four right-handed defenseman added to the roster (some might try to argue two, but we’ll have to wait and see on that), and revamped depth at both forward and defense, the 2019-20 Toronto Maple Leafs are ready to roll. To cap it off, they’ll even name a captain before puck drop tonight.
While the team’s outlook is in a good place right now, the goal is to take the next step after back-to-back 100 point seasons. Fans are on a high after some dominant preseason performances, but four games in six days to start the regular season — with some relatively tough competition coming up after tonight — should be a real test of how ready the Leafs‘ new roster is to hit the ground running.
On paper, there aren’t many holes in the Leafs lineup. The start of the season will be about undergoing a (hopefully painless) transition for the new additions — of which there are six in the’ lineup tonight — while getting off to the start the team needs in the standings inside a very tough Atlantic Division. The Leafs — expecting even more from their high-end young core of players this year with all of them now playing on big-ticket contracts — are hoping to progress from a high-scoring team with okay possession and defensive results to a team that scores a lot, defends just about as well, and dominates the possession game.
The inevitable bottom-of-the-lineup debates that Leafs Nation is famous for haven’t taken long to crop up with Jason Spezza announced as a healthy scratch this morning. The Leafs will play the Senators four more times and they’ll play in Toronto 40 more times this year, but it has to sting a little for Spezza not to be a part of the opener after making the decision to sign and come home to play in Toronto. Spezza, to his credit, took it well, while Babcock was clear about the process in place for rotating in Shore and Spezza.
Babcock is in part trying to figure out if Spezza’s impact on the power play is as useful as Shore’s contributions on the penalty kill, but there is no doubt Spezza slotting in on Babcock’s fourth line — knowing he’s lost a step, isn’t a banger, probably isn’t a full-time center anymore, and isn’t reputed for his penalty killing or defensive game — always had the makings of a somewhat-awkward fit. Ultimately, we’re losing the forest for the trees here a little bit. There will be a rotation among these players, and it’s probably not a shocking development that an aging Spezza isn’t going to be a lock every night on Babcock’s fourth line unless the coach feels Spezza can give him something on the PK.
This is the second season in a row in which the Leafs and the Senators enter the year with a gulf between them in terms of expectations. The Leafs are in deep-playoff-run-or-bust territory, while the Sens are similar to the 2015-16 Leafs — just trying to build up a team and a program in which young players take big steps forward as the future leaders of a more competitive tomorrow.
While you could definitely argue Colin White has legitimate 2C upside, you could make the case the Senators are currently rolling four 3Cs over the boards down the middle and have Leafs’ fourth-line right winger from last year (Connor Brown) on their top line. There is no doubt they’re hoping for big steps forward from youngsters Brady Tkachuk, Drake Batherson, and Filip Chlapik up front, though. Thomas Chabot — who recently signed in Ottawa until 2028 — and Erik Brannstrom give the Senators plenty of reason for hope on the blue line. A young team under a new head coach in former Leafs assistant DJ Smith, they’ll certainly be a hungry group that is eager to embrace the underdog role this season, starting tonight in Toronto.
Season openers — and October hockey in general — are always hard to get a handle on. They’re usually not the cleanest of games, with sloppy execution and usually plenty of special teams time. The Leafs should be able to run over this Senators team, but it won’t take long for someone to mention the Leafs’ 1-3 record against the Sens last year; the Senators seem to get up for these games and were able to get good goaltending in the season series last year, while the Leafs appeared to take them a little lightly at times.
Whatever happens tonight, it’s a joy to have NHL hockey back.
Head-to-Head Stats – 2018-19 Season
Game Day Quotes
Mike Babcock on the rookies in tonight’s lineup:
The home opener is always an interesting game. There’s stuff going on; I think the home team’s always a little ansy. I’d like to start on the road, but we’re starting at home tonight and I’d like to play good. You have your opportunity. You might be a little bit nervous. Take a deep breath, get out there, and get playing.
Babcock on putting Shore in the lineup instead of Spezza:
What we’re doing is we’re just giving Spezza a little bit more time on the penalty kill, because he wants to penalty kill for us and we want him to do that. He’ll be in the next game, but this buys him more time, more reps. He’s been getting lots of reps and extra [work] on it. We’re trying to stay with that the best we can.
I talked to him quite a bit about this and what we’re doing, so we’re on the same page moving ahead. We’re going to have a rotation on a few guys this first little bit until we figure out what we’re doing. We’ve talked about it and that’s what we’re doing.
[Shore] can win faceoffs, he can penalty kill, he stands in the right spots, you know? He’s done it before in the league and he’s won in the league. He’s been a good man and just does his job.
Babcock on new assistant coach Paul MacFarland and now Sens head coach D.J Smith:
I used to bug [Bob Boughner] about this. I said, “We’re going to hire him right out from under you here”. Real smart guy, real good feel for the power play and the offensive side, too. Real good faceoff guy in teaching guys faceoffs. He’s helped us in the past a little bit. I’ve done this a lot over the years — I’m always looking for the next coach, always talking to people about who’s the next guy.
I feel great for [D.J Smith]. Smitty came here, he knew the program, worked hard, and tried to get himself prepared so he could be a head coach in the NHL. He’s done that. Obviously ,he was a serial winner before he got here and those are the kinds of people I’m always looking for. [Mark Hunter] was the guy who told me about him, and when we met I was impressed.
Babcock on uncertainty in the NHL after Tampa Bay’s 62-win season resulted in a first-round sweep:
I don’t worry about that. Today is the most important day for me because it’s the day I’m living, so that’s what I’m going to do. I’ll do that 82 times and ideally we’ll be in that tournament. We have analyzed and analyzed and analyzed what what wins in the league his summer and what we had to improve. We’ve focused on it all training camp, we’re focused on it now. We’re trying to build a program to have success so we can play a long time in the spring. You’ve got to get to the spring first. That starts today.
John Tavares on the captaincy:
I’m sure It’ll be really special for the fanbase. I think our whole group wants to feed off it. Opening night, I think is a great way to show to the city and show to the fans who it’s going to be.
Morgan Rielly on the captaincy:
I think that’s more important just for the fans. It’ll be a lot of fun for those guys. For us, we’re just focused on the game. We’re looking forward to getting the ball rolling and starting off on the right foot.
Auston Matthews on the captaincy:
I’m sure It’ll add quite a bit. I think everybody’s been eager to find out. I’m sure It’ll be great.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#18 Andreas Johnsson – #34 Auston Matthews – #88 William Nylander
#24 Kasperi Kapanen – #91 John Tavares – #16 Mitch Marner
#65 Ilya Mikheyev – #15 Alex Kerfoot – #42 Trevor Moore
#41 Dmytro Timashov – #33 Frederik Gauthier – #26 Nick Shore
#8 Jake Muzzin – #94 Tyson Barrie
#44 Morgan Rielly – #83 Cody Ceci
#38 Rasmus Sandin – #52 Martin Marincin
#31 Frederik Andersen
#30 Michael Hutchinson
Scratched: Jason Spezza, Justin Holl, Timothy Liljegren
Injured: Zach Hyman, Travis Dermott
Marner – Tavares – Matthews
Nylander – Moore – Kerfoot
Ottawa Senators Projected Lines
#7 Brady Tkachuk – #36 Colin White – #28 Connor Brown
#10 Anthony Duclair – #71 Chris Tierney – #9 Bobby Ryan
#63 Tyler Ennis – #51 Artem Anisimov – #19 Drake Batherson
#78 Filip Chlapik – #44 Jean-Gabriel Pageau – #49 Scott Sabourin
#72 Thomas Chabot – #22 Nikita Zaitsev
#26 Erik Brannstrom – #81 Ron Hainsey
#74 Mark Boroweicki – #2 Dylan Demelo
#41 Craig Anderson
#31 Anders Nilsson
Scratched: Cody Goloubef, Mikkel Boedker