“Just because they’ve lost a couple of guys doesn’t mean that it’s going to be an easy night.”
It’s a quote you’d expect from an opposition captain when facing a team down a few good men to injury.
But heading into Saturday’s matchup between the Ottawa Senators and Toronto Maple Leafs, you can’t really be too sure which dressing room it came from.
No, the Battle of Ontario is looking a lot like the Battle of the Baby Sens and Baby Leafs, with an incredible 17 players who played in the American Hockey League during the lockout now split between two NHL teams.
That means that up to 45 per cent of the players on the Air Canada Centre ice for Hockey Night in Canada’s marquee game were recently plucked from the minor leagues.
Early in this shortened season, the injury bug has bitten both clubs badly, with the Senators getting it worse than perhaps any other team with superstars Jason Spezza (back surgery) and Erik Karlsson (Achilles tendon) likely out for the season.
Add the absences of Peter Regin and Jared Cowen, and Ottawa has been left reaching out to their already depleted farm team more than ever.
On Friday, they recalled three bodies in David Dziurzynski, Derek Grant and Eric Gryba to the collective cry of “who?” from many fans around the league.
“They’ve had a very successful team in Binghamton,” Leafs defenceman Mark Fraser said, referencing the fact the Baby Sens are tied for second in the AHL. “A lot of those guys are good role players. They’ve been able to fill spots [in the NHL], very similar to what we’ve done here.”
“There’s still going to be a lot of talent out there,” teammate Nazem Kadri added. “It’s still going to be a really solid game.”
The Leafs don’t exactly have their top lineup on hand, either. Missing are a No. 1 goaltender (James Reimer), a top-line winger (Joffrey Lupul), a red-hot young goal scorer (Matt Frattin), a top-pair defenceman (Carl Gunnarsson) and another top-four blueliner from last season (Jake Gardiner) who is recovering from a concussion in the minors.
After a strong 8-5-0 start to the season, those injuries appeared to catch up to Toronto on Thursday night, as the Leafs put in perhaps their worst effort of the season in a 3-1 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes.
The game featured a member of the AHL Marlies on each defensive pairing and starting in goal, although Leafs coach Randy Carlyle wasn’t using his personnel as an excuse.
“What we tried to do is say, ‘whoa, whoa, we didn’t play anywhere near what we’re capable of,’” Carlyle explained as his message after the loss. “Accept the responsibility for that. Flush that down by the wayside but recognize that we’re held accountable for those performances.
“In the end, we know that we’ve played to a higher level [than that] in a lot more games than not.”
If there’s a caveat to the fact that both teams will have such AHLer-filled rosters, it’s that the Senators and Leafs are hardly alone on that front.
Many players from the farm have come up and excelled at the NHL level this season because they had 31/2 months of playing time that the more seasoned veterans missed out on.
According to players like Fraser, who have struggled to make NHL rosters in the past, that allowed them to make an impact at a high level right away.
“Especially with this year, it was a very good league,” Fraser said of the AHL. “Every team had more than a few prospects who are capable of making the jump seamlessly.
“You can’t take anyone lightly. The fact they’re getting called up means they’re probably a pretty good player.”
STRAIGHT FROM THE MINORS
Forwards: Jakob Silfverberg; Mika Zibanejad; Stéphane Da Costa; David Dziurzynski; Derek Grant
Defencemen: André Benoit; Patrick Wiercioch; Eric Gryba
Goaltender: Ben Bishop
Toronto Maple Leafs
Forwards:Nazem Kadri; Leo Komarov; Frazer McLaren
Defencemen: Mike Kostka; Korbinian Holzer; Mark Fraser
Goaltenders: Ben Scrivens; Jussi Rynnas