Dion Phaneuf says it still matters – even if, in recent years, the Battle of Ontario has been about as riveting as televised poker.
“It’s a rivalry whether the games are in training camp or the regular season, or if you go into the playoffs,” the former captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs and current assistant captain of the Ottawa Senators said on the eve of the teams’ first encounter of the 2016-17 season.
“Right now obviously, we’ve missed the playoffs last year. [But] so did they. Both teams have got lots to prove this year.”
They have indeed. The Leafs, coming off a strategic tanking that helped them land Auston Matthews, the No. 1 pick in the June entry draft, ended last year dead last in the standings, 30th over all, with a mere 69 points. The Senators, while higher in the standings, could hardly have been lower when it came to special teams, the 29th-worst team killing penalties, the 26th-worst on the power play.
The Maple Leafs last won the Stanley Cup in 1967; the Senators last won the Stanley Cup in 1927.
But Canada is Next Year Country in both farming and hockey – especially after not a single one of Canada’s seven NHL teams managed to make the playoffs last spring – and optimism abounds in both Ontario cities despite the recent records.
Ottawa has a new coach in Guy Boucher, a micro-manager of the highest order who recently returned from the Swiss league.
Toronto has a still-new coach in Mike Babcock, recently returned from the World Cup where his dedication to detail – not to mention wealth of stars – led Canada to easy victory.
Some might say Battle of the Control Freaks would be a more accurate tag for Wednesday evening’s season-opener at Canadian Tire Centre.
Ottawa also has a new general manager in Pierre Dorion, who has vowed all summer long that the Senators will return to the playoffs and – as he added Tuesday – “surprise people” once they get there. Expectations are also soaring in Toronto, as is the Thanksgiving tradition.
In Ottawa, however, the expectations are far less on the prospects than they are on Boucher, who last coached in the NHL in 2013 and left under a black cloud of having rendered defensive hockey to a point where his tactics could only politely be described as absurd.
All that has apparently changed – we shall see, we shall see – as the Senators’ dressing room has been freshly repainted to scream “SPEED” a dozen times over the players’ lockers.
“I think we’ve had a very demanding camp, a very difficult camp,” said Dorion. “When you hear some of the veterans tell you how tough it’s been, to me that’s a good sign.”
Boucher has five coaches on the ice to work with 22 players. He once said he would like even more, leaving some to speculate there will soon be coaches for lace-tightening and goal celebrations.
What is far more needed is attention to preventing goals. To that end, far more emphasis has been on the defensive side of the game. Boucher appears to have as many “systems” as an NFL coach has plays – will hockey players soon be checking their wrists for instructions on what to do?
“We’ve got to be better defensively,” he said.
How the players react to all this will be interesting to track. So far, it appears they have embraced Boucher’s style.
“The sloppiness is gone,” says team captain Erik Karlsson, who arrived late to training camp after representing Sweden in the World Cup.
Karlsson, who is a bit of a frozen-riverboat gambler in his style of play, will be the test for Boucher. The coach has suggested that once the defensive problems have been addressed, he will want an attack-oriented team.
Karlsson, who is all about attack hockey, isn’t likely to warm to drastic change in his own style of play. “I feel I shouldn’t have to change my game too much to be successful,” he said Tuesday.
As for Phaneuf, who was traded to Ottawa from Toronto last February in a nine-player deal, he says being part of the team from training camp is a much better situation for him.
“When you come in partway through a season, you’re moving homes, you’re moving cities, there’s a lot of stuff that’s not quite familiar to you,” he told reporters. “I’m settled here. I feel very comfortable.”
He was not comfortable, however, in being asked if he had any advice for young Matthews, who will inherit the fishbowl that Phaneuf skated in during his nearly seven seasons in Toronto.
“I’m an Ottawa Senator now,” he said. “So it’s not for me to say.”
What he would say is how much he has looked forward to the start of the season, a date made even more attractive, in his opinion, by matching his old Leafs against his new Senators – a distaste for each other that dates from four nasty playoff meetings earlier this century, all won by the Leafs.
“It’s a great rivalry,” said Phaneuf. “It’s the Battle of Ontario. Two buildings – whether you’re there or here, there’s lots of energy in them. So it’s fun. That’s what you want as a player. You want to play in games that have energy. You want to play meaningful games.
“As players, I don’t think there’s any better way to start the season.”
“It’s time,” added Boucher. “It really is.”Report Typo/Error