SUN Hockey Pool

Sens vs. Leafs: Battle for Ontario

When the Senators and Maple Leafs do battle next season, they could be headed in very different...

When the Senators and Maple Leafs do battle next season, they could be headed in very different directions. (QMI Agency)

Bruce Garrioch, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:21 PM ET

What was once a Battle of Ontario has turned into more of a Battle for the Basement.

 

Hoping for a return to the glory days, the Senators and Maple Leafs are trying to put the pieces together -- and taking different paths to get there.

The Senators are trying to rebuild after hitting rock-bottom last season, while the Leafs are under huge pressure to make the playoffs.

While Ottawa GM Bryan Murray isn't getting much heat, Toronto GM Brian Burke got criticized for a trip to Afghanistan on July 1 as the rest of the league went on a $300-million spending spree.

Roles reversed

It's like the roles have reversed with the start of training camp more than two months away. Usually, the Senators are the ones with the expectations. Next season, it's the Maple Leafs who have to push for a playoff spot.

Senaotrs owner Eugene Melnyk, at the urging of Murray, decided to officially start the rebuild at last season's trade deadline in February.

Burke, who took over the Leafs in 2008, needs to start delivering playoff dates to the people at MLSE.

"I'm not sure either of those teams are going to make the playoffs," said a league executive. "The Northeast Division is strong, the Sabres are being aggressive and you'd have to expect that they're going to be better as well.

"The Senators are going to have a tough time scoring.

"And nobody is sure if the Leafs have made the proper changes to get back to the playoffs. The Leafs are going to be the more interesting team to watch. Mainly that's because of (Burke)."

Here's a sneak peek at the best battles to watch in the Battle of Ontario next season:

Burke vs. Murray

GM Bryan Murray accelerated the Senators' rebuild when he dealt Mike Fisher to Nashville in February in exchange for draft picks.

After sitting back and watching the free-agency insanity on July 1, Murray says the Senators are going to be a lot closer to the $48.3-million salary cap floor than the $64.3-million ceiling. The club's biggest signing was role player Zenon Konopka.

The pressure is on Leafs GM Brian Burke to succeed in 2011-2012.

He failed in his bid to land Brad Richards, the marquee centre in this year's free-agent class. Richards went to the Rangers and Burke turned to Buffalo C Tim Connolly, who signed a two-year, $9.5-million deal.

Burke also acquired C Matthew Lombardi and D Cody Franson in a trade with Nashville.

Wilson vs. MacLean

Coach Paul MacLean will debut behind the Ottawa bench. As an assistant coach in Detroit, he got a pretty good taste of rivalries -- with the Avalanche.

This one is different. MacLean likes tough hockey players. He won't mind having Chris Neil, Zack Smith, Matt Carkner and Zenon Konopka for the nights when these games get a little ugly.

It's going to be tough for the Leafs' Ron Wilson. The belief in NHL circles is Wilson, in the final year of his contract, had better have Toronto in a playoff position at the 20-game mark.

Otherwise, he may not finish the season.

In a move that caught everybody off-guard, GM Brian Burke forced Wilson to fire assistant coaches Keith Acton and Tim Hunter well into the off-season. They were replaced by Scott Gordon and Greg Cronin.

Spezza vs. Connolly

Jason Spezza transformed his game -- becoming more of a two-way player for Ottawa last season. He showed leadership capabilities when the Senators decided to go with a younger lineup.

The trade rumours are gone.

He should be on a line with Milan Michalek and a healthy Daniel Alfredsson next season.

As for Tim Connolly, he was cast aside by the Sabres because of his concussion history and a desire to go in a different direction.

"I don't know about Connolly. He just doesn't seem like Toronto's type of player," said a league executive.

You can bet Connolly will feel the pressure.

Liles vs. Gonchar

After being signed as a UFA last summer, D Sergei Gonchar couldn't have been much worse. His disastrous season ended with a concussion.

The Senators need a healthy Gonchar back.

One of coach Paul MacLean's biggest challenges will be to get Gonchar to produce.

The Leafs added John-Michael Liles to play a top-four role for the Leafs and replace Tomas Kaberle.

Liles can produce offensively and he's going to have to do that if the Leafs are going to have any chance of making the playoffs.

He had success as the power-play quarterbck with Colorado.

That trend has to continue in Toronto.

Reimer vs. Anderson

Acquiring Craig Anderson from the Avs for G Brian Elliott was the most shrewd move Senators GM Bryan Murray has made in the rebuild.

Anderson's play helped the Senators to a strong finish.

Anderson made his Ottawa debut in the Battle of Ontario and shut out the Leafs with 47 stops on Feb. 19 at the Air Canada Centre.

As for James Reimer, he took over the Leafs' No. 1 job last season and will shoulder the load.

Signed to a three-year deal that pays him $1.8 million a season, Reimer, 23, has to pick up where he left off in his rookie season. He took the job because of Jonas Gustavsson's injury issues. There could still be a battle for the No. 1 job.

bruce.garrioch@sunmedia.ca 


Videos

Photos