Edition No. 90 of the Battle of Ontario airs Saturday night on Hockey Night In Canada, a quirky little rivalry that has both sides hotly claiming advantage.
The most diehard of Ottawa Senators fans will have to concede the early rounds to the Maple Leafs of Toronto. After all, they beat the Senators four times when it mattered most — in Stanley Cup playoff series between 2000 and 2004.
Overall, the Senators lead the regular season series 48-33-3-5, for whatever that is worth. These days the provincial rivalry, in its reconstruction phase, isn’t really being waged on the ice, but in the team’s war rooms, directed by the respective generals: Brian Burke of the Leafs and counterpart general manager Bryan Murray of the Senators.
For those scoring at home? Murray is kicking Burke’s derrière these days.
Let’s take stock again, same time next year. And the year after that. But for now, the edge goes to Murray, big time.
Supposedly trailing the Leafs rebuilding program — “we’re two years ahead of you,” Burke told Murray earlier this season — the Senators are currently battling the Cup-champion Boston Bruins for the Northeast Division title while Toronto shoulders the embarrassment of yet another post-lockout season without qualifying for the playoffs.
Neither Burke nor Murray, veteran GMs with a combined 55 years of NHL experience, could have foreseen these developments, although Burke knew when he was hired on Nov. 29, 2008 that he was tackling an enormous challenge in Toronto following successful ventures in Vancouver and Anaheim. (Burke’s 2007 Ducks beat the Murray-coached Senators to win the Stanley Cup, ironically leaning on players such as Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, drafted by Murray for Anaheim).
As for Murray’s Ottawa reign, he didn’t realize he was in the rebuilding business until he was forced into it. Taking over as GM when John Muckler was fired in the summer of ’07, Murray inherited a Cup finalist roster he knew as its coach, a group expected to challenge for several more years. Until …
Disappointing results and a 2009 trade demand by winger Dany Heatley helped push the team to a drastic overhaul mid-season 2010-11, directed by Murray even as fans called for his head.
Here’s a brightener for Burke: Little more than a year ago, Murray was feeling more heat than you are today, but a series of transactions suddenly upgraded Murray’s prognosis from a near-certain firing to a three-year contract extension. The only turnaround more startling is Ottawa’s leap from 13th in the Eastern Conference to solid playoff footing today.
Reluctantly, Murray traded away fan favourites Mike Fisher and Chris Kelly, among other veterans, while adding draft picks, promoting from within and signing free agent college prospects. Viewed today, most of the moves have turned out better than Murray could have imagined.
Meanwhile, to the southeast, along Highways 416 south and 401 west, how did things go so wrong for the media star Burke, while Murray worked under the radar to quietly build one of the surprise clubs of the 2011-12 season?
There is pressure to perform in all Canadian markets, but only Montreal can match the fishbowl Burke endures in the Centre of the Universe, which saluted his hire as The Second Coming. That may have been a factor in the trade (since analyzed to death) that has marked Burke’s management of the Leafs to date.
To use baseball parlance, Burke went for the early home run on a risky trade for Phil Kessel that ultimately handed the Boston Bruins centre Tyler Seguin and other goodies. In Ottawa, under slightly less scrutiny, Murray was able to string together run-producing singles, doubles and triples.
A further look at contrasting moves:
LIVE/DIE WITH GOALTENDING: Rule No. 1. Address goaltending. Identifying a goaltender crisis in the late winter of 2011, Murray dealt Brian Elliott for Colorado’s Craig Anderson who almost single-handedly saved Murray’s job by going 18-11-5-1 down the stretch, and was stellar again this season until severing a pinky tendon on Feb. 22. He could return as early as next week. As insurance, Murray scooped hulking 6-7 goalie prospect Ben Bishop from the St. Louis Blues, a move widely praised as one of the steals of this year’s trade deadline. With 20-year-old Robin Lehner in Binghamton, the Senators have solidified a position often termed a “graveyard” in Ottawa.
Some say stubbornly, Burke thought he had his guys with the ‘Monster’ Jonas Gustavsson, whom he signed as a free agent, and the affable James Reimer, drafted pre-Burke. Both have wilted in the Toronto heat while their doubters crow.
PROSPECTS: Burke improved prospect depth by finally landing two first rounders last summer and trading for two former first rounders, forward Joe Colborne and defenceman Jake Gardiner. Toronto’s depth pales, however to an Ottawa organization recently ranked fifth by The Hockey News in a breakdown of drafting performance. The Leafs were 20th.
Among their riches, Senators forward Jakob Silfverberg, 20, recently became the youngest player since Peter Forsberg to win the MVP award in the Swedish Elite League.
STRENGTH AT C: Ignoring repeated fan cries to trade Jason Spezza, Murray was patient, let Spezza develop into one of the league’s top playmakers and the likely successor to Daniel Alfredsson as captain. When No. 2 centre Peter Regin went down with a season-ending shoulder injury, Murray plugged the hole nicely by trading for Kyle Turris of the Phoenix Coyotes.
Burke knows the importance of the centre position. He finagled the draft day deal that enabled Vancouver Canucks left wing Daniel Sedin to receive passes from twin brother-centre Henrik. And yet in Toronto, his top players, Kessel, Joffrey Lupul, are wingers. Mikhail Grabovski, Tyler Bozak and Tim Connolly can hardly be considered a top flight 1-2-3 at centre, nor do they fit Burke’s oft-quoted pledge for “pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence.”
COACHING: Murray has burned through coaches the way Liz Taylor expended husbands. Ultimately, he got it right in Paul MacLean. Burke hopes he now has his man in Randy Carlyle, but many question if this rather meek Leaf group is suited to him.
In short, these are trying times in Toronto, but Leaf fans should take heart. This Battle of Ontario thing has a history of twisting and turning when we least expect it.
TALE OF THE TAPE:
Record of Ontario’s NHL GMs
Style of dress: Casual conservative
Hired as Ottawa GM: June 18, 2007
Regular season record: 191-163-45
Playoff appearances: 2
Biggest trade: Acquired Milan Michalek, Jonathan Cheechoo and a 2010 second round pick from San Jose for Dany Heatley and a 2010 fifth round pick.
First-round draft picks: Mika Zibanejad (6th overall, 2011), Stefan Noesen (21st overall, 2011), Matt Puempel (24th overall, 2011), Jared Cowen (9th overall, 2009), Erik Karlsson (15th overall, 2008), Jim O’Brien (29th overall, 2007).
Head coaches hired: 4 (John Paddock, Craig Hartsburg, Cory Clouston, Paul MacLean)
Head coaches fired: 3 (Paddock, Hartsburg, Clouston)
Style of dress: Overheated stock trader, tie loose, sleeves rolled up
Hired as Toronto GM: Nov. 29, 2008
Regular season record: 125-130-40
Playoff appearances: 0
Playoff record: none
Biggest trade: Acquired Phil Kessel from Boston for 2010 first rounder (Tyler Seguin) and second rounder (Jared Knight) and a first rounder in 2011 (Dougie Hamilton).
First round picks: Tyler Biggs (22nd overall, 2011), Stuart Percy (25th overall, 2011), Nazem Kadri (7th overall, 2009).
Head coaches hired: 1 (Randy Carlyle)
Head coaches fired: 1 (Ron Wilson)
Follow Wayne Scanlan on Twitter. com: @HockeyScanner.