With Matt Murray on LTIR, Ilya Samsonov will start his second consecutive as the Maple Leafs open the 2022-23 Battle of Ontario season series at Scotiabank Arena (7:00 p.m. EST, Sportsnet). 

Never a dull moment in Leafs land, but not something we can act particularly surprised by either given Murray’s injury history.

Tonight’s opponent, the Senators, have been a popular pick as an upstart playoff team in the Eastern Conference this season thanks to their additions of Claude Giroux (via free agency) and Alex Debrincat (via trade) up front, the graduation of highly-touted defense prospect Jake Sanderson, as well as the continued maturation of their young nucleus in Thomas Chabot, Brady Tkachuk, Tim Stutzle, Drake Batherson, and Josh Norris. MLHS’ Alex Drain summed up the mix of promise and uncertainty that surrounds the Senators’ rebuild in his recent Atlantic Division season preview:

A lot of people will focus on the huge moves that the Senators made, inking the second-most discussed free agent contract and executing the second-most discussed trade in Claude Giroux and Alex DeBrincat, respectively. I get that. Those are the shiny new toys, but GM Pierre Dorion also dropped the dough for the toys they already had, locking up the existing core.

Over the course of the last year, Dorion gave 7x$8.2 M to Brady Tkachuk, 8x$7.95 M to Josh Norris, 8x$8.35 M to Tim Stützle, and 6x$4.98 M to Drake Batherson. That’s nearly $30 M doled out to four forwards! If you want to toss in Thomas Chabot’s 8x$8 M deal signed a few years back, you have close to half the cap given to five players, all of whom are signed for at least the next five seasons.

I’m not against the strategy of allotting a lot of the cap to only a few guys on principle. You need elite players to win the Cup! If those guys are Stamkos/Hedman/Kucherov/ Vasilevskiy or Makar/MacKinnon/Rantanen/Landeskog, I can get behind it. Those guys are all top 50-100 players in the league, including several of the top Hart contenders in a given year. But none of those Senators players right now are anywhere close to that level.

I like several of those players, to be clear. But are Norris and Tkachuk and Stützle in the same conversation as any of those forwards? No. Is Chabot in the same sentence as Hedman or Makar? No. Chabot’s deal is fine in the abstract given comparable contracts (Morgan Rielly, Darnell Nurse, etc), but this is a lot of multi-year, high AAV deals given to non-elite players.

Pierre Dorion made a bet that this core will grow into one that contains at least one or two elite players. We need to see signs of that from at least a few guys this year and that question is tied pretty closely to whether this squad makes the playoffs.

With two Leafs vs. Senators games tabbed for late March/early April in Ottawa (where there is always a great split-crowd atmosphere), playoff implications on the line would certainly make for a fun reanimation of the Battle of Ontario, but there are some big question marks for the Senators to answer in order to make that a reality.

With a weak defense on paper entering the season (Travis Hamonic is currently on the second pairing, and rumours swirled all offseason about their interest in Jakob Chychrun in order to address the need), how quickly can Sanderson adjust to the league and provide them with a stud to anchor the second pairing behind Thomas Chabot? Are there third-year steps forward forthcoming from Stutzle and Norris down the middle, where the Senators are also hoping 21-year-old Shane Pinto is ready for prime time? How much does the soon-to-be 35-year-old Giroux have left in the tank (23 points in 18 games for Florida, plus eight in 10 in the playoffs, augurs well)? Can Anton Forsberg follow up a promising breakout season at age 29 (46 games, .917 save percentage) and form a formidable 1A/1B tandem with their new veteran goaltending addition, Cam Talbot?

The Senators opened their season in Buffalo on Thursday with a 4-1 loss in which they were unable to solve former long-time Ottawa goaltender Craig Anderson more than once despite 36 shots on goal, three breakaways for Stutzle, and four power plays in the opening 40 minutes. After Brady Tkachuk opened the scoring halfway through the first, the Senators conceded twice inside three minutes in the second period due to missed assignments in front of their net, and two Sabres empty netters in the final minute rounded out the scoring.

100 miles north, the Maple Leafs kept the wolves at bay with a bounce-back win over Washington in their home-opener that included contributions from their top power-play unit, their top line, and their new third line of Engvall – Kerfoot – Jarnkrok. Goaltender Ilya Samsonov, after a shaky first period, settled in and shut the door the rest of the way.

Game Day Quotes

DJ Smith on the Battle of Ontario, the Maple Leafs‘ strengths as a team, and the two rivals bringing out the best in one another:

In the Atlantic or in the Eastern Conference, I would say they’re the favourites at this point. They play the right way. They check. They play with lots of structure. They can score. They are ready to win right now. If you are going to beat them, you are going to have to be at your best. That is absolutely what we need.

When you go into Toronto and there are so many guys from Ontario or Canada and it’s Hockey Night In Canada, it is something special. You always get the best game when it is Hockey Night In Canada.

For us, right now, we are chasing them. Let’s be honest: They are ahead of where we are in the development. They are on the cusp of trying to win right now, and we want to be that guy.

We know what kind of players they have with Matthews, Marner, Nylander, and Tavares. We have some good young players ourselves. We’ll be ready when we play them. We have to be ready to check because they can flat-out score. If you are going to beat them, you are going to have to defend.

One thing I think they don’t get enough credit for is how they defend. I don’t know if that was to be said a few years ago, but they don’t give you much. We are going to have to be willing to play that exact same way. If you are willing to check and play that 2-1 mentality, I think we will have a chance.

Sheldon Keefe on the matchup against the Senators and the strides Ottawa is looking to take this season:

I was just looking at their forward group today. With the way both teams stack up, they have two lines that can really score and two lines that can check and play real hard. The way that sets up makes a lot of sense there.

They have gone through their rebuilding and development stage. Now they are in the hunt to make the playoffs. They believe in the moves that they have made. Clearly, they have added depth to their forward group.

There are some similarities there for sure. Any time we play Ottawa, we know we are in a game. This season, with the expectations and excitement around their team and what we have to go with that, they should make for spirited games.

Alex Kerfoot on the challenge presented by the Senators:

They brought in some guys this summer and the roster looks improved, but they play us hard whenever we’ve played them in the last couple of years. They have given us good games. They have beaten us at key moments in the season. We know we are going to get their best coming in here. We’re ready for it.

Kerfoot on Keefe labeling his line a “hybrid” unit that can be defensively responsible and chip in offensively:

That is probably pretty accurate given the deployment of the other three lines. That is kind of what we’re going to need to do. Matty and John’s lines are both going to produce a lot offensively. Kampfer historically has done a really good job of soaking up a lot of the d-zone starts. I think we can kind of fit somewhere in between.

We want to chip in offensively, but we also want to be very responsible and reliable defensively, make it hard on other teams, and try to play in the offensive zone as much as possible.

Kerfoot on Ilya Samsonov’s debut game on Thursday vs. Washington:

He played really well, I thought. A couple went in on him early in the game, but he just settled right in. He has a lot of confidence in himself. No panic whatsoever. That resonated throughout our group. He gave us a chance to come back in the game and made some big saves down the stretch.

Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines

#58 Michael Bunting – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#88 William Nylander – #91 John Tavares – #62 Denis Malgin
#47 Pierre Engvall – #15 Alex Kerfoot – #19 Calle Järnkrok
#12 Zach Aston-Reese – #64 David Kampf – #96 Nicolas Aubé-Kubel

#44 Morgan Rielly – #78 TJ Brodie
#8 Jake Muzzin – #3 Justin Holl
#55 Mark Giordano – #38 Rasmus Sandin

Starter: #35 Ilya Samsonov
#50 Erik Källgren

Injured: Matt Murray, Timothy Liljegren

Ottawa Senators Projected Lines

#7 Brady Tkachuk – #18 Tim Stutzle – #19 Drake Batherson
#12 Alex Debrincat – #9 Josh Norris – #28 Claude Giroux
#14 Tyler Motte – #57 Shane Pinto – #21 Mathieu Joseph
#45 Parker Kelly – #47 Mark Kastelic – #16 Austin Watson

#72 Thomas Chabot – #2 Artem Zub
#85 Jake Sanderson – #23 Travis Hamonic
#26 Erik Brannstrom – #22 Nikita Zaitsev

Starter: #31 Anton Forsberg
Magnus Hellberg

Scratched: Nick Holden
Cam Talbot