Leafs have leg up on Senators

Jason Spezza takes a slap shot during training camp practice at Scotiabank Place Monday, September...

Jason Spezza takes a slap shot during training camp practice at Scotiabank Place Monday, September 19, 2011. (DARREN BROWN/QMI Agency)

TERRY KOSHAN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:55 PM ET

Jason Spezza glanced around the Ottawa Senators dressing room on Tuesday morning and acknowledged that yes, the faces certainly have changed in the past several years.

“It kind of happens naturally through progression in time,” the 28-year-old Mississauga native said. “It has been a while (nine years) since I have been here and a lot of bodies have changed. It puts an onus on (the veterans) and it’s good to share your experiences with the other guys.”

There was a time when the Battle of Ontario meant a fight for a spot high in the Eastern Conference standings, or, even better, an advancement in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Recently, any time the Maple Leafs and Senators have met, it has been more about bragging rights than anything else.

Though Spezza, captain Daniel Alfredsson, forward Chris Neil and defenceman Chris Phillips remain from the glory days of the rivalry between Ontario’s two National Hockey League clubs, there’s no one in the Leafs dressing room who could share similar memories.

General manager Brian Burke wiped out all links to the past to the extent that fourth-line centre Darryl Boyce, who played in one game for the Leafs in the 2007-08 regular season, is the longest-serving current Leaf. And Boyce is not guaranteed of being in the lineup for the opener on Oct. 6, though his physical side should give him an edge over Philippe Dupuis.

Both the Leafs and Senators figure they’re building toward something tangible. Although the Senators have had some playoff success since 2004 (the most recent time the clubs met in the post-season) and the Leafs have had none, it’s Toronto fans who should be more positive about their team’s future in the short-term.

Where Burke has spent nearly to the $64.3-million US salary cap, coming up just a couple of million dollars short, Senators GM Bryan Murray doesn’t have the same luxury, spending just below $52 million in player salaries. Partly as a result of the tighter purse strings, there’s not a lot of depth in the nation’s capital, especially among the forwards.

Observers wonder who is going to score goals for the Senators. After Spezza, the 38-year-old Alfredsson and the enigmatic Nikita Filatov, the Senators could be trying to draw water from stone on many nights, with centre Zenon Konopka the only noteworthy addition during the summer.

The club has high hopes for 2011 first-rounder Mika Zibanejad and Stephane Da Costa, but neither should be counted on to make a significant impact in 2011-12.

Bobby Butler demonstrated last year he can be a good player, scoring 10 goals and adding 11 assists in 36 games, but the 24-year-old has to prove he can be a consistent performer in a full 82-game NHL schedule. Nick Foligno and Milan Michalek wouldn’t be asked to do as much on other teams.

The Leafs’ top line of Mikhail Grabovski between Clarke MacArthur and Nikolai Kulemin is sound defensively and hence usually is a threat to score. There are the makings of a solid second unit with Tim Connolly centring Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul, but little has happened for the three through training camp. We should know a month into the regular season whether coach Ron Wilson will have to start juggling his lines.

Where Zibanejad and Da Costa are expected to be large parts of the future for the Sens, the same goes for Nazem Kadri and Matt Frattin of the Leafs. But none have superstar potential.

Ottawa has a stud in all-star defenceman Erik Karlsson, and has Jared Cowen and David Rundblad in the pipe line. With four defencemen either 30 years old or older, however, there will be some long nights.

Goaltender Craig Anderson is going to have to do what’s physically impossible — stand on his head — in order for the Senators to win a lot of games.

The Leafs will be in a difficult scrap to get themselves back among the top eight in the Eastern Conference. Yet the signs point to a stronger back end, moreso if goalie James Reimer demonstrates his cup of coffee isn’t almost empty. Dion Phaneuf often makes lists of the more overrated players in the NHL, but he has settled into his role as captain. The defence corps has potential, with Luke Schenn, Cody Franson, Keith Aulie and Carl Gunnarsson all under the age of 25. Jake Gardiner appears to be ready for a regular role. John-Michael Liles, at 30, is the grizzled vet of the group.

We wouldn’t expect there to be a lot of sizzle in the Battle of Ontario this season, as the games between the clubs won’t determine high seedings in the East. In the bigger picture, though, the light in the tunnel appears to be brighter for the Leafs.

LEAFS VS. SENS

A glance at the records of the Maple Leafs and Senators since 2004, the most recent season the two clubs hooked up for a playoff-style Battle of Ontario:

MAPLE LEAFS

Year W L OL Pts Playoffs

2005-06 41-33-8 90 Missed playoffs

2006-07 40-31-11 91 Missed playoffs

2007-08 36-35-11 83 Missed playoffs

2008-09 34-35-13 81 Missed playoffs

2009-10 30-38-14 74 Missed playoffs

2010-11 37-34-11 85 Missed playoffs

SENATORS

Year W L OL Pts Playoffs

2005-06 52-21-9 113 Lost Conf. SF

2006-07 48-25-9 105 Lost Final

2007-08 43-31-8 94 Lost Conf. QF

2008-09 36-35-11 83 Missed playoffs

2009-10 44-32-6 94 Lost Conf. QF

2010-11 32-40-10 74 Missed playoffs

terry.koshan@sunmedia.ca

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