By Jeremy Milks
Let’s call it an “involuntary compulsion”.
Hockey fans in Ottawa always seem to have one squinty eye on the blue and white team down the 401, a glittering city that’s four and a half hours away by car but just a quick step or two away via memory lane.
The history between the Maple Leafs and the Senators is ugly and traumatic. Ottawa was always on the wrong end of multiple playoff battles, but skirmishes have been won by both sides along the way. Just a cursory glance uncovers a seamy underbelly of drama and irrational behavior that would seem almost barbaric if it were to happen in today’s NHL of concussion spotters and civilized discourse.
Yet some things never really change.
The Toronto Maple Leafs are everywhere. They’re the crown jewel of Canada’s flagship sports enterprise Hockey Night In Canada and so culturally dominant that even Montreal, the proud winners of 24 Stanley Cups, feel maligned and overshadowed.
If Habs watchers feel this way, imagine how it feels to fans cheering for a team out of suburban Kanata.
Former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau once said living next to the United States was like “sleeping with an elephant”. In hockey terms, Ottawa has tried everything from sleeping masks to sleeping pills to separate beds. When the sun rises in the East, the Senators still need to be peeled off the mattress.
In a plot twist that could only be conceived by the most deviant fiction writer, the Senators acquired a quartet of Leafs this past summer and sent one local whipping boy the other way in Cody Ceci. They even hired their new Head Coach D.J. Smith from Toronto’s staff. The rarity of that kind of mass personnel swap is notable, but even more so between sworn rivals.
The Senators seemed to have a few specific qualities in mind when they did their Toronto shopping and looking at the results just one month into the season, it seems obvious that Ottawa plucked the precious few hard-nosed players the Leafs had remaining on their roster.
Ron Hainsey is a short-term stopgap for the Sens defense but has already become the leader on the vastly improved penalty-kill. Ottawa’s penalty-kill now sits in the upper half of the league while Toronto’s has dropped into the bottom ten.
Heartily criticized on his former team, Nikita Zaitsev has been a revelation on the Sens blueline, easily replacing Ceci as this team’s shutdown defenseman and plays top minutes with Thomas Chabot as his partner. What surprises most about Zaitsev is the apparent glee he takes in laying the lumber on opponents any chance he gets. His mean streak is kind of startling. Everyone who goes near him gets a whack on the legs or a cross-check in the ribs. This sort of thing used to be mandatory for the position but outside of Mark Borowiecki, this particular skill has been in short supply lately.
Meanwhile in Toronto, the Leafs defense can’t stop other teams from cycling down low and regularly get outworked along the boards. When Montreal’s Jeff Petry steamrolled new Leaf Tyson Barrie in a recent game, assistant Leafs captain Auston Matthews did a fly-by around Petry and purposely avoided introductions. No words, no hack, no eye contact. Petry was ready to drop the gloves but was suddenly all alone while Barrie writhed on the ice in pain.
We already know how a similar situation would play out in Ottawa this year.
When Thomas Chabot was corked in the jaw late in a game against San Jose by Barclay Goodrow, there was an immediate response. Brady Tkachuk took a healthy run at Erik Karlsson and then told the San Jose bench exactly why he did it and how it would happen again if anybody looked twice at Chabot. Local folk hero Scott Sabourin was ejected out of the game by the refs as a precautionary reason because it looked like he was about to go nuclear after Chabot was hit.
If you want to talk about camaraderie and team building, the Leafs suddenly have a lot to learn from the much less-talented Senators.
Connor Brown was well liked in Toronto but got stuck behind a stacked group of skilled wingers all furiously trying to squeeze in under the salary cap. He’s now finds himself the highest scoring Ottawa Senator in October, but he’s more noticeable for the hustle and compete he shows 5-on-5 and on the penalty-kill.
When asked about Brown earlier in the season, Leafs coach Mike Babcock’s face lit up and he became almost sentimental about his ex-player for an awkward moment or two.
“Brown Cow is a guy who we love. You hate to see a guy who is from Toronto, who loves being here, leave, but it’s the finances in the game.”
The only other time the Leafs were this kind to Ottawa was when they took Jared Cowen off their hands a few years ago, although Cowen never managed to acquire a sentimental nickname like “Brown Cow” during his time there. In fact, he was bought out and never mentioned again.
The last, and probably least heralded name to make the Ontario switch is Tyler Ennis, a smallish, speedy winger who was once a top line player in Buffalo before having to hone his game into something more utility-like after some tough injuries and a buyout in Minnesota.
While Ennis has probably been the least effective of the four and a self-admitted “slow starter”, he seems to have the trust of coach D.J. Smith and has been used on all four lines. His most important role is undoubtedly being a veteran body taking up a roster spot, which allows the Senators to keep some green prospects in Belleville for more development. He may not have a future in Ottawa past this season, but he’s coveted because of his speed, low salary and experience. The salary cap world essentially forces the bottom two lines to be filled with players like Ennis or raw rookies. He’s not cheating anybody right now.
Yet the Ottawa Senators are in no position to gloat at the moment, particularly over a team like Toronto. The Sens would trade a thousand Zaitsev’s and Brown’s for the type of mind-blowing skill that the Leafs have in their lineup. You don’t win Stanley Cups without number-one centres and the Leafs lead in that category 2-0. You don’t get to the playoffs just because you stick up for your teammates. You need to score goals along the way too.
The best teams manage to balance the dual concepts of skill and grit. It’s the latter that’s easier to come by and the Senators injected a lot of it directly into their lineup via the Leafs. Now the blue and white team is enduring the consequences of losing that sandpaper, plus the additional losses of Nazem Kadri this year and Leo Komarov a summer prior.
Everybody is dunking on the Leafs while they’re down. The day the Capitals were most recently in Toronto, Alex Ovechkin was quoted as saying the Leafs had to decide if they were playing for themselves or each other, which was condescending bulletin board material if there ever was any. He then went and dropped 4 points against them, including the overtime winner to back it up.
Let’s just say that no one in Ottawa is feeling sorry for the Leafs right now. The Senators have enough problems of their own, but one problem they no longer have is team toughness. And for that they can partially thank their much talked about rivals down the road.