The 2009-10 regular season left Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators fans with two very different outlooks for the 20010-11 season. For Maple Leaf fans, the 2010-11 season represents a time for change and hope, while Sens fans looked at the 2010-11 season as a chance at redemption and, with a little luck, a long playoff.
In the offseason the Toronto Maple Leafs made a number of acquisitions designed to both increase offense and, as is always the case with Brian Burke’s team, solidify the Leafs in the truculence department.
Kris Versteeg was brought in to solidify the first line and, thus far, has proven to be a tremendous acquisition for Burke, enhancing the first line and giving the Leafs more of a locker room presence.
Rugged winger Colby Armstrong was signed via free agency, a move that was designed to give the Maple Leafs more depth and help the team out defensively, while adding an element of offense.
The Leafs also added Clarke MacArthur, a move that quickly paid dividends in the pre-season and looks to be headed in the right direction (MacArthur scored the Leafs game winning goal against the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday night).
In an effort to supply the Maple Leafs with a little depth at forward Burke also added the likes of Michael Zigomanis, Tim Brent (who scored the Maple Leafs first goal of the 2010-11 season) and Mike Brown (who has ben money when it comes to shutting down the opposition and is a beast in the physical department), all three of whom are capable of supplying solid minutes in just about any role for the Leafs.
On the backend the Leafs added Matt Lashoff in a trade with the Tampa Bay Lightning and Brett Lebda via free agency (played with Detroit last season) to an already deep defense, two additions that may make it possible for Burke to entertain offers for one of his high-priced defensemen later in the season and add an element of comfort to the Leafs should the backend suffer from injuries.
Added to late season acquisitions Dion Phaneuf (now captain) and Fredrik Sjostrom (a defensive specialist) from Calgary, along with Stanley Cup winner J.S. Giguere from the Anaheim Ducks and you can see that Burke has taken a horrific roster (2009-10) and turned it into a very competitive, hard working team, that, with a little luck, may make a run at the playoffs.
The Leafs finished the 2009-10 season with one of the worst offenses, defenses, penalty kills and power plays in recent memory—no "easy" feat!
With that in mind, expectations for the 2010-11 season are a lot higher, but really, the only way to go was up anyways.
As is the case with everything in life, the Leafs have to prove that they can be a better squad, something they did successfully in the pre-season, improving on their special teams and demonstrating a much better overall compete level than last season.
Toronto’s first line of Phil Kessel, Tyler Bozak and Versteeg has been on fire since the first day of training camp, with Kessel emerging as one of the hottest scorers and points leaders in the entire preseason.
If Bozak, Kessel and Versteeg can keep up the pace (Kessel scored in Toronto’s first game, Versteeg had a spirited game And Bozak earned an assist) then there is no reason to doubt that the Maple Leafs can compete with the Ottawa Senators (who lost their first tilt of the 2010-11 season, 2-1 to the Buffalo Sabres).
Veteran goaltender J.S. Giguere stood on his head for portions of the game against the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday night, earning himself first-star honors, which, in turn, helped solidify his reputation as a go-to NHL goalie.
On the back end the Leafs looked a little shaky, but the overall effort was there, despite a little nervousness and hurried play.
Overall it was the Leafs team effort that got them the win in game one, something that will have to continue if they intend on beating the hated Senators.
Ottawa made a few changes of their own in the offseason, most notably saying goodbye to defenseman Anton Volchenkov and bringing in Power play specialist, Sergei Gonchar from the Pittsburgh Penguins via free agency.
Youngsters Erik Karlsson and Brain Lee should benefit from playing and practicing with Gonchar. It’s already very noticeable that Lee is carrying the puck a lot more than in the past, as is Karlsson—who should emerge as the Sens power play specialist in the not so ditant future.
Between the pipes the Senators will return with Pascal Leclaire and Brian Elliot, two respectable, yet streaky goaltenders which have some "experts" second guessing the Sens playoff chances.
Up front, veterans Daniel Alfredsson, the enigmatic Alex Kovalev and Sens fans whipping boy Jason Spezza are expected to fuel the Senators offense, with Milan Michalek, Mike Fisher and Jesse Winchester expected to supply secondary offense for the team.
The Sens look to have a fairly balanced offense, but with questions about Alfredsson’s age, Kovalev’s heart and and compete level and Spezza’s ability to shine without the departed Dany Heatley (who was traded to San Jose last season), there are as many doubters as there are those willing to endorse the Senators chances.
The Sens backend is fast, demonstrates good puck moving and can be very dangerous on the power play, which makes their top four a very dangerous group.
Looking at the two rosters it appears as if the battle of Ontario will come down to goaltending, which gives the Maple Leafs a slight edge—especially in light of how well Giguere played on Thursday night.
The Leafs finished off the 2009-10 season with four wins against the Senators by scores of 3-2 (January 14), 5-0 (February 6), 2-1 (March 6) and 4-1 (March 16). Backup goaltender Jonas Gustavsson played in two of those games, but given how strong Giguere was in his game against the Habs and how imperative it is for the Leafs to win early on in the 2010-11 season, I suspect Giguere will play Saturday night versus the Sens.
The last time the Sens beat the Leafs was November 17, 2009, by a score of 3-2, in Ottawa. For what it’s worth, Pascal Leclaire started that game.
The Senators goaltending picture is still a little blurry, but I suspect them to go with Pascal Leclaire, who was solid in his first game of the season against the Buffalo Sabres, making 34 saves on 36 shots on the night.
Look for the Maple Leafs to try to impose their physical players on the Sens forwards and for the Sens to counter with a regular dose of Jarkko Ruutu— who can irritate opposing players with the best of them.
If the Leafs can stay out of the box and get decent goaltending from Giguere they should be able to outscore the Sens. That said, I suspect this game will be very close, with overtime being a real possibility.
Prediction: Maple Leafs take it, 3-2 in overtime, Kris Versteeg nets the big goal…
Until next time,