Following a sloppy season-opening extra-time victory over Montreal, the Toronto Maple Leafs are looking for a more even performance as they seek to spoil Senators’ season opener tonight in Ottawa (7 p.m., TSN).
Pierre Dorion’s offseason was busier than any other GM in the North Division. The Senators drafted a boatload of prospects into the organization, including prized addition Tim Stutzle, made a big change between the pipes with the addition of Matt Murray, and set about adding veteran insulation to a young roster that finished 30th in the NHL last season: Evgenii Dadonov, Derek Stepan, Braydon Coburn, Cedric Pacquette, Austin Watson, Alex Galchenyuk, and Erik Gudbranson all join returning players Connor Brown, Chris Tierney, Colin White, and Artem Anisimov to comprise a more experienced 2020-21 Sens roster led by Brady Tkachuk and Thomas Chabot.
In addition to the leadership of Tkachuk and Chabot in their third and fourth NHL seasons, respectively, the strides Josh Norris (31 goals, 30 assists in 56 games), Drake Batherson, and Stutzle are able to take this year will largely determine whether the Senators are credible this season offensively. Stutzle certainly appeared set to hit the ground running based on his performances as Team Germany’s star during the World Juniors, where he played over 25 minutes on multiple occasions and lived up to the hype with five goals and five assists in five games. Sens brass has put him in a good position to succeed to start the season next to veterans Stepan and Dadonov.
The potential for their forward group to punch above its weight is certainly there, but the Ottawa defense core has a critical shortage of quality top-four defensemen outside of Thomas Chabot — particularly on the right side, where they have Nikita Zaitsev, Erik Gudbranson, and Josh Brown lined up. That is an area the Leafs‘ top six scorers should be primed to exploit this weekend.
It also means a lot will be asked and expected of Matt Murray in goal. If the Senators have any designs on following a 2016-17 Leafs-like trajectory this year, Murray will need to provide a similar stabilizing presence as Frederik Andersen did after the Leafs first acquired him from Anaheim. The 26-year-old Murray has a unique CV, following up two Stanley Cup rings and a save percentage in the mid .920s in his first two NHL seasons with three years marked by injuries and inconsistencies. Any hope of a surprise season in Ottawa begins and ends here.
Ottawa’s scratch list contains a surprise or two — Alex Galchenyuk will be joined in the press box by centerman Colin White, who is in the second year of his six-year, $28.5 million contract. Mike Reilly, a strong puck-carrying defenseman, will sit as well in favour of veteran Braydon Coburn.
D.J Smith and his staff have prioritized defensive commitment, grit, and toughness over skill at the bottom of their lineup. Just as we saw the additions of Josh Anderson and Wayne Simmonds spice up the Leafs vs. Habs rivalry on Wednesday, there is plenty of potential for the hatred to simmer with the likes of Simmonds, Gudbranson, Coburn, Bogosian, and Watson, and Tkachuk all now sharing an ice surface in this divisional matchup.
Toronto won’t make any changes to their lineup tonight, although one would assume tomorrow’s rematch is a natural opportunity to give one of Rasmus Sandin or Mikko Lehtonen their first opportunity on the blue line in addition to Jack Campbell’s first start of the season (the latter has been confirmed).
Game Day Quotes
Sheldon Keefe on Justin Holl:
The biggest growth for him has just been the fact that he’s committed to being a defenseman that plays against the other team’s good players and uses his size, reach, and skating to defend. He’s really kind of embraced that role.
Not even just now — I look at the Marlies Cup run and how he really came into his own as a defender. I think he was a little bit in between as a young player with the way he skated and carried the puck — being involved in the offence was really what he was focused on. When he learned to use those skills as a defender and prioritized that, that’s when his game really rounded out. The opportunity that was given to him last year, he took it and his confidence has grown from there.
Keefe on Mikheyev-Kerfoot-Hyman line:
I thought it took them a little while to really get going and find their place. I thought, especially in the first period, we had some penalties and that really broke up the momentum of that line and of our whole bench, for that matter. Then we had some powerplays ourselves in the second, so we didn’t use them as a line all that much. But in the third period especially, I really thought that line really took hold. Right after Montreal made it 4-3, that line had a really good shift in the offensive zone that really got us moving. They had some really good shifts right after that through the third period.
Keefe on the effort and structure against Montreal:
I like how we worked, I liked how we competed and I liked how we skated. I thought we had some really good structure leaving the offensive zone. We allowed one shot to get behind us too many times — a couple times at even-strength and a couple times on the PK. We can’t give up those type of good looks at our net for sure. I thought, aside from that, the odd-man rushes have been a focus for us to reduce or eliminate against. I thought we did a tremendous job of that last game, and it’s something we’re going to need to continue.
D.J Smith on how he’ll approach playing rookies like Tim Stutzle and Josh Norris:
I think less is more — less instruction. You’ve got to go out there and play. Those kids are going to play a long time in the NHL, so they’re going to remember starting on opening night for a long time. I think sometimes you have to feel it out and let them play a little bit.
Smith on matching up against Toronto:
Their power play is certainly as good as anyone in the league — they have some high, high-end players over there. In saying that, if you give them time and space, they’re going to burn you. We have to be physical, we have to protect the front of the net ,and we also have to get to their net. We’re going to have to play off the forecheck and hang onto some pucks in their zone so that they can’t have it the whole game.
Pierre Dorion on the Sens’ mantra:
Aggressive, structure, competitive and if you take liberties we’ve got the people to punch you back.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#97 Joe Thornton – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#26 Jimmy Vesey – #91 John Tavares – #88 William Nylander
#65 Ilya Mikheyev – #15 Alex Kerfoot – #11 Zach Hyman
#94 Alexander Barabanov – #19 Jason Spezza – #24 Wayne Simmonds
#44 Morgan Rielly – #76 T.J Brodie
#8 Jake Muzzin – #3 Justin Holl
#23 Travis Dermott – #22 Zach Bogosian
#31 Frederik Andersen (starter)
#36 Jack Campbell
Marner – Thornton – Matthews
Tavares – Kerfoot – Nylander
Extras: Rasmus Sandin, Mikko Lehtonen, Travis Boyd, Nick Robertson, Adam Brooks, Aaron Dell
Ottawa Senators Projected Lines
#7 Brady Tkachuk – #9 Josh Norris – #19 Drake Batherson
#18 Tim Stutzle – #15 Derek Stepan – #63 Evgenii Dadonov
#13 Nick Paul – #71 Chris Tierney – #28 Connor Brown
#23 Cedric Paquette – #51 Artem Anisimov – #16 Austin Watson
#72 Thomas Chabot – #44 Erik Gudbranson
#86 Christian Wolanin – #22 Nikita Zaitsev
#55 Braydon Coburn – #3 Josh Brown
#30 Matt Murray (starter)
#1 Marcus Hogberg
Scratches: Alex Galchenyuk, Mike Reilly, Colin White