This is the first (of what I hope will be many) collaborations between myself and a fan of an NHL team other than the Toronto Maple Leafs. I’ve always been fascinated and intrigued by the reputation that the Leafs have outside of their market. These Fan vs. Fan columns will provide a unique perspective on Toronto from a fan supporting a different team.
I’m venturing into extremely hostile territory on this first article by focusing on the Battle of Ontario. Ottawa Senators fan Phil Sangster was gracious enough to offer up his thoughts on the two Ontario teams. I asked Phil to provide three reasons why the Ottawa Senators will be a better team than the Toronto Maple Leafs this season. Here is Phil’s (unedited) rationale followed by my three reasons why Toronto will be better than Ottawa:
Why the Sens will be better than the Leafs (again)
After finishing ahead of the Senators by a single point in last season's shortened schedule, and bowing out in the first round of the playoffs, many Maple Leafs fans appear to have the misguided notion that the Leafs may actually finish ahead of the Sens, and go further than them in the playoffs this upcoming season. The last time they did that was the 2003 - 2004 season. There are numerous reasons why, 10 years later, the Leafs are no closer to accomplishing that feat, but here are a quick three:
1) Goaltending: James Reimer had a solid season last year earning a respectable 2.46 GAA and 0.924 save percentage. Jonathan Bernier had a very good 1.87 GAA and 0.922 save percentage while serving as Jonathan Quick's backup in LA. It will be interesting to see who becomes the starting goalie in Toronto and how the starts are shared, but if everything goes to plan, the Leafs should improve on their 18th ranked 133 goals against from last season.
Last season Craig Anderson had an incredible 1.69 GAA and 0.941 save percentage and certainly would have been in the running for the Vezina trophy had his season not been hampered by injury. His backup, Robin Lehner, had an impressive 2.20 GAA and 0.936 save percentage in the NHL, while posting a similar 2.12 GAA and 0.938 save percentage in the AHL. The Sens allowed only 104 goals last season, 2nd only to the Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks, and with one of the best goalie tandems in the league, there is reason to expect more of the same quality backstopping for the Sens this season.
Although the Leafs' goaltending should improve this season, it likely won't improve enough to catch up to that of the Ottawa Senators.
2) Coaching and style of play. There is no doubt that Randy Carlyle is an accomplished NHL coach although there are some who believe the effectiveness of his hard-nosed style is on the way out. His propensity to include tough guys such as Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren in the line-up demonstrates his belief in intimidation and physical play over puck possession. Not to go too deep into advanced statistics, but the top 5 teams in the league in terms of puck possession (estimated using 5v5 Corsi For %) were, from 1st to 5th: LA, New Jersey, Boston, Chicago and Ottawa while the bottom 5 teams were, from 26th to 30th: Columbus, Nashville, Buffalo, Edmonton, and Toronto. The top 5 teams in puck possession collected a total of 302 points last season while the bottom 5 teams collected a total of 246. This is no coincidence. Since these types of advanced statistics began to be collected during the 2007 - 2008 season, a strong correlation between puck possession and both regular season and playoff success has been established.
Under Carlyle, the Leafs rank last in puck possession and do not necessarily look poised to improve with the buyout of quality “puck-possesser” Grabovski and the long term signing of weak “puck-possesser” Bozak. Serving as an assistant coach under the great Mike Babcock for 8 seasons, the reigning Jack Adams Award winning coach, Paul Maclean, has his Senators playing a similar puck possession style to Babcock's which has proven to be successful and bodes well for the success of the Senators this season.
Corsi = Shot Attempts = Shots + Missed Shots + Blocked Shots
Corsi For% = Corsi For / (Corsi For + Corsi Against)
3) Injuries. Last season the Ottawa Senators had the 2nd highest number of Man Games Lost to Injury with many of the injuries coming to their stars. One season removed from winning the Norris Trophy, Erik Karlsson played only 17 regular season games, while starting goaltender Craig Anderson played 24, top line winger Milan Michalek played 23, and top line centreman Jason Spezza played 5. The Leafs only major injury last season was to top line winger Joffrey Lupul, who managed to play in only 16 regular season games. Looking at their rosters, it is clear that the Senators were not operating at full potential for much of last season while the Leafs were operating quite close to theirs. With no major injuries heading into the season, the Senators look poised to improve on what was already a fairly successful season last year with an undermanned staff.
TOR > OTT
1) Ottawa cannot match Toronto’s firepower. Ottawa was ranked near the bottom of the league last season in goals-per-game averaging just 2.33 (27th) while Toronto was positioned near the top with 3.02 (6th). It should come as no surprise then that in the lockout-shortened 48-game season, the Senators had just 3 players who scored 10 or more goals: Kyle Turris (12), Daniel Alfredsson (10) and Jakob Silfverberg (10). Of course the big offseason news for Sens fans was the departure of longtime captain Alfredsson who joined the Detroit Red Wings. Silfverberg is also no longer a Sen and will be suiting up this year for Anaheim. The addition of Bobby Ryan (11 goals last year) certainly helps Ottawa but even with Ryan, there’s no indication that the Sens will be able to improve on their paltry scoring average from last year.
Toronto on the other hand had 5 players crack the 10-goal mark last year, all of which are still with the club for this season: Phil Kessel (20), Nazem Kadri (18), James van Riemsdyk (18), Tyler Bozak (12) and Joffrey Lupul (11). The Leafs also added highly sought-after free agent David Clarkson who scored 15 goals last season. With a healthy Lupul, a surging Kadri and the ever dangerous Kessel, Toronto will be amoung the highest scoring teams in the league again this season.
2) The loss of leadership will have an impact. Daniel Alfredsson may be nearing the end of his career but there’s no denying the impact he’s had on the Senators franchise. Alfredsson has played a pivotal role in the rebuilding phase the Sens have undergone in recent years and lead them to a surprising playoff berth last year. There’s no way to quantify the impact his departure will have on the team but it will certainly leave a leadership void, one which I do not believe Jason Spezza has the shoes to fill.
The Leafs are no stranger to dealing with the difficulties a team faces after losing a long-standing captain. Last season was Toronto’s first playoff appearance since Mats Sundin parted ways with the team. Similarly, the Detroit Red Wings narrowly avoided missing the playoffs last season after Niklas Lidstrom called it a career. Dion Phaneuf doesn’t deserve any “captain of the year” awards but the team has turned the corner since he began his captaincy. Without Alfredsson’s unique combination of skill, grit and leadership, I think the Senators will struggle.
3) Goaltending. One of the biggest reasons for Ottawa’s impressive regular season record last year was the play of goaltender Craig Anderson. Anderson finished his injury-shortened season by posting some absolutely ridiculous numbers: 1.69 GAA and .941 SV%. This was a full 1.02 less goals allowed per game than his career stats and his save percentage was considerably higher than his career .915 SV%. Craig Anderson is human and there’s no way he’s going to be able to post these sort of numbers over a full season. In his last full season with Ottawa in 2011-12, he had a GAA of 2.84 to go along with a .914 SV%. Do you want to know how unlikely it is that Anderson will match his numbers from last season? The last time a goalie recorded a goals-against-average better than 1.70 in back-to-back seasons (appearing in 25 games or more) was from 1927-1929. While playing with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1927-28 and New York Americans in 1928-29, Toronto native (5’3”, 134 lbs) Roy Worters posted a GAA of 1.61 followed by 1.16.
While Anderson’s 2013 numbers were clearly an outlier, James Reimer and Jonathan Bernier improved on their career averages but not by such an outlandish margin. Bernier’s 1.88 GAA and .922 SV% were much closer to his career averages of 2.36 GAA and .912 SV%. Comparatively, Reimer’s 2.46 GAA and .924 SV% were improvements on his career 2.71 GAA and .915 SV%. There’s no reason to believe Toronto will not get similar goaltending from their tenders and with an improved offence, on paper, the Maple Leafs should score more goals per game while allowing less. Conversely, Ottawa should be projected to score less goals per game while allowing more in.
What do you think? Weigh in with your thoughts on whether Toronto or Ottawa will finish higher in the standings this season by leaving a comment in the section below.
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