Can Leafs compete with Senators?

The Leafs-Sens rivalry might be becoming the biggest rivalry in the NHL these days and I found it interesting that during a call-in show on Team 1200 this afternoon that revolved around the Hossa-Heatley trade a large portion of Senator fans analyzed the deal with the Leafs in mind, either comparing the new Sens to past Leaf teams or whether this trade would help the Sens beat the Leafs in the playoffs or the more than occassional jab at the Leafs and how they won’t even make the playoffs so it won’t even matter. So the question really arises, can the Leafs compete with the new look Sens. Let’s look into that question a little deeper.

Are the Senators better than the team that lost to the Leafs in 2003-04? No, definitely not. Here are the players of significance that have left the Senators from that team.

Marian Hossa
Radek Bonk
Todd White
Greg De Vries
Peter Bondra
Curtis Leschyshyn
Patrick Lalime

Incoming players include:
Dominik Hasek
Dany Heatley

Kind of scary when you look at it that way isn’t it. That’s a lot of depth to lose. Heatley can replace Hossa and Hasek can replace Lalime but the rest will come from within.

Now for the Leafs. Players gone include:
Brian Leetch
Gary Roberts
Joe Nieuwendyk
Alexander Mogilny
Ron Francis
Robert Reichel
Tom Fitzgerald
Mikael Renberg
Owen Nolan
Bryan Marchment

Newcomers include:
Jeff O’Neill
Jason Allison
Eric Lindros
Alexander Khavanov

Again, significant depth but for the Leafs it was almost eclusively aging depth. O’Neill should be able to replace Roberts. Both are similar players sand although O’Neill doesn’t have the reputation of Roberts he is more than capable of matching or even surpassing Robert’s 28 goals and 48 points. Eric Lindros should be able to replace Joe Nieuwendyk as well so long as he can stay healthy. That is a big ‘if’ but a full year away from hockey might be enough time for Lindros to recover. Oh, and Nieuwendyk wasn’t a beacon of health himself playing only 64 games. The only other player to score more than 12 goals for the Leafs in 2003-04 was Owen Nolan but a healthy Jason Allison will be immensely better than Nolan. Mikael Renberg scored 12 goals for the Leafs but was nothing spectacular and
not irreplacable. Robert Reichel was next with 11 goals. Mogilny only had 8 goals in the regular season due to injuries and only 2 in the playoffs. Not too difficult to replace. Again his offense was nothing noteworthy but I think his penalty killing role was undervalued and not something a youngster can easily replace. Marchment? I’d rather have Pilar or Berg or Coliacovo. Leetch and Francis only played a handful of games for the Leafs so didn’t have a significant impact on the Leafs regular season record. Fitzgerald is easily replaceable.

Looking at the above, one could easily argue that the Senators have lost more than the Leafs since the Leafs last bounced the Senators out of the playoffs. Lets compare the teams position by position.

In goal:
Belfour vs Hasek. You have to give the edge to Belfour since Hasek has only played 14 mostly unspectacular games since 2001-02 and will turn 41 years old at the midpoint of the upcoming season. Hasek is a huge question mark for the Senators. Belfour isn’t without questions either as he is just as old as Hasek and has had back problems in the past. But unlike Hasek he has had a couple successful seasons since Hasek last played a full year. I also like the Leafs backups better. Yes, long-term Ray Emery probably has more upside but both Tellqvist and recently signed Jean Sebasien Aubin have NHL experience and both had decent years in St. John’s last year.

Conventional wisdom would say that the Senators easily have the better defense but when you look at it closely now that DeVries is gone, the Sens have serious question marks on the blue line. The Sens defense pairings currently look like this:

Pothier-Mezszaros or Schubert

Chara-Redden-Phillips are all solid defensemen but the other 4 guys have combined for less than 180 games of NHL experience and that isn’t a good position to be in if you want to contend for the Cup. Just imagine how bad that defense corp would look like if Chara or Redden got injured.

Now the Leafs currently looks like this:

with Coliacovo, potentially working his way into the mix and White, Hedin, and Bell not all that far behind. I could certainly argue that the Leafs will get more offense for their blue line than the Sens will and definitely the Leafs have more depth. These two factors might be enough to convince me that the Leafs actually have a better defense corp than the Sens.

There is no dispute here. The Senators have the better wingers. The biggest hole in the Leafs team is its wingers as Tucker and O’Neill are the only true proven scoring wingers on the team and the Leafs will depend on them to combine for at least 60 goals between them. That’s not impossible but it would mean approaching career highs for both players. But, both players should get a ton of ice time so career highs are quite achievable. Other wingers the Leafs will depend on will probably be natural centers with two of Linros, Stajan and Antropov likely moving to the wing and the Leafs need Antropov and Stajan to improve their games. The Sens on the other hand have more pure offensive talent in Heatley, Alfredsson, and Havlat and guys like Varada, Schaeffer and others can put the puck in the net as well. Big advantage for the Sens on wing.

Centermen: The Senators hopes at center reside on the progress Jason Spezza and his development into a true #1 center. He’s pretty much being handed the #1 centerman role because Bonk and White have been traded and Smolinski and Fisher are definitely not first line guys. That’s a big role to hand to a guy who has only 111 NHL games experience. I do think Spezza is capable of being a #1 centerman, the big question is, is he ready for that role this year. For the Leafs, center ice is their strong suit with Sundin, Allison, Lindros, Antropov, Stajan and others all natual centers. I expect Sundin-Allison to be the top 2 guys and if Allison can return to form that gives the Leafs one of the best center ice duo’s in the league and clearly superior to the Senators Spezza-Smolinski duo. Advantage Toronto at center ice.

The biggest question for the Leafs is can Lindros and Allison stay healthy and can Allison return to pre-injury form. If those things happen I see no reason why the Leafs can’t compete with the Senators.

This article has 3 Comments

  1. A quick note: The Sens rarely went with Chara-Redden last year, pairing one with Phillips and the other with other guys (Devries, mostly). The key on D for them is that Chara-redden-Phillips is the best top 3 in the league by a lot, and although they lack depth behind them, they should probably have the top D-core in the league. The Leafs, although Kaberle-McCabe can produce, just don’t have the top notch talent of Ottawa.

    But, Toronto always tends to play very well against Ottawa, for whatever reason. Ottawa has usually had the better team on paper the last few years, but Toronto always pulls it out. So this year I think Ottawa again has the better team on paper, but nobody knows how the games will play out.

  2. I wasn’t trying to imply that Chara-Redden would play a lot together but that they are the top 2 defensemen on the Sens. I expect the Sens to play Chara and Redden each with one of the younger defensemen.

    But I am not sure Chara-Redden-Phillps is the best top 3 in the league by a lot. Chara is a force and Redden is a very good defenseman but Phillips is nothing more than a good, solid stay at home guy. He’s younger, but not dramatically better, than Klee. Vancouver’s Jovanovski-Ohlund-Salo is probably as good as Ottawa 3. The Oilers also look pretty good with Pronger-Staios-Smith. But yes, the Sens top 3 defensemen are pretty good, but last time I checked you need at least 6, and usually 7 or 8 when you account for injuries, to be good. The Sens defense will quickly go from being good to being suspect should either Chara or Redden get injured.

  3. But the same can be said about any team. If Kaberle or McCabe falls to injury, Toronto’s defence becomes the pitts, as would Vancouver’s or Edmonton’s. The only team that could probably claim to have both a good top few and a good bottom few is Calgary.

    Ottawa does lack some depth there, and it does take a full unit to do well. However I think people over-emphasize the bottom few defencemen, especially on a team you’re not familiar with. I remember before the playoffs last year I thought that Tampa had a weak defence, since there were only a couple people who I was aware of. But after watching them play, I know that even the bottom few played well, even if they weren’t big names.

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