Down Goes Brown: What will 2018–19 Battle of Ontario look like?

NHL insider Renaud Lavoie makes a strong case for the Maple Leafs to target big, tough defenceman Erik Gudbranson from the Canucks at the deadline.

It’s a relatively light Saturday night in the NHL, with only nine games of the schedule. Vancouver, Winnipeg and Calgary all go Friday/Sunday instead, but that still leaves us with four Canadian teams in action tonight.

Two of those Canadian teams are facing each other, so let’s start there while we all fight the nagging feeling that there was something the NHL was supposed to be doing right now…

HNIC Game of the Night: Senators at Maple Leafs

This is the third time this season that the Leafs and Senators have met on a Saturday night. The first time around, we looked at the Battle of Ontario and acknowledged that it isn’t what it once was. Last time, we focused on the fallout of the Dion Phaneuf trade. Those were worthwhile topics, but focused on the past. Let’s try something different today.

Unfortunately, “the present” doesn’t really work for these two teams. The Senators are a mess right now, and their fans are already well into trade-deadline mode, if not looking ahead to the draft lottery. And the Maple Leafs are in the fairly unique situation of basically knowing where they’re going to finish in the standings, even though there are still another nine weeks left to play.

So instead of the present, let’s focus on the future. This is the last meeting between the Leafs and Senators on this season’s schedule, and since we definitely won’t be getting a playoff matchup, that means we won’t see these two teams on the same ice again until sometime next season.

So what does that matchup look like? It’s going to be kind of fascinating to find out.

The big question, of course, is whether Erik Karlsson will be involved. The idea of the Senators trading Karlsson at some point between now and next season has gone from unthinkable to at least vaguely plausible over the course of the year, with occasional short-term gusts to “downright inevitable.” And if he does go, how many of the (presumably many) assets the Senators would get back would be in the lineup by next season, as opposed to years down the line?

Once you get through that process, you have to start wondering whether any other big-name Senators will also be elsewhere by the next time the team faces Toronto. Phaneuf? Mike Hoffman? Derick Brassard? Will Craig Anderson still be the undisputed starter? Mark Stone will almost certainly still be around, but how much will he be making on his new deal? Will Guy Boucher still be behind the bench?

And since that list of questions is getting kind of depressing from an Ottawa perspective, let’s end with one to perk up downcast Sens fans: The next time they face the Leafs, will they have No. 1–overall pick Rasmus Dahlin in the lineup?

From Toronto’s perspective, things feel a little more stable. But only somewhat so – by the next time they see Ottawa, the Leafs will need to have figured out what to do with James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak and Leo Komarov. William Nylander will have a new contract, and Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner may or may not have signed extensions. Will there be a new big name anchoring the blue line? And will the team be coming off the sort of multi-round playoff run that has everyone excited about the future, or a first-round exit at the hands of the Bruins or Lightning that leaves the fan base feeling like the team is spinning its wheels?

That’s a lot of questions to ponder, and tonight’s game won’t provide many answers. But given that the final result on the scoreboard isn’t likely to matter all that much, it will be impossible for a hockey fan’s mind not to wander off into the future. Tonight will mark the 116th regular-season meeting in the modern Battle of Ontario; by the time we’re getting to work on writing the preview for the 117th, a lot of key pieces on both sides are going to be looking very different.

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Key subplot: The trade deadline

Hockey fans know the drill by now – with two weeks to go, everything has to be about the trade deadline, whether it should be or not. We’re in that perfect sweet spot, when the deadline is close enough that it feels like the dam could burst at any moment, but still just far enough away that the real action hasn’t started yet.

So you spend the day sorting through various reports and rumours. As game time approaches, you wait for the apparently mandatory tweeted lists of opposing scouts and front-office types who are in town to watch. Then you settle in for the night’s action and try to read between the lines on just about everything that happens, picking out small details and hyperventilating them into What This All Means.

If the Blackhawks lose to the Wild tonight, does that knock them out of the wild-card running and make them sellers? If the Kings score a few early in Tampa, does that mean the Lightning definitely need to go out and get Ryan McDonagh? Is Kasperi Kapanen‘s increased role in Toronto a sign that he’s earning a spot on the team, or that he’s being showcased for an impending trade? Erik Karlsson just smiled — what does he know that we don’t? Wait, did a player just leave in the middle of a period and head back to the room? That can only mean one thing: We have a trade to announce!

Hold on — he’s back. It was just an equipment issue. Cancel the red alert.

None of it makes much sense, and we all know it. But we can’t help it. This time of year is too much fun, even if we have to sometimes stretch the limits of credibility to make it feel that way. (And watching the NBA go through a crazy deadline of its own this week only adds to the fire.)

So yeah, buckle in for the ride, because the trade deadline is going to hang over everything for the next two weeks. And that’s especially true in the league’s craziest markets. Like, say, Montreal…

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Marquee matchup: P.K. Subban vs. Marc Bergevin

Technically, this isn’t a head-to-head matchup. They won’t be on the ice together, after all. And it’s not even like the two have been taking runs at each other through the media over the last few years. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think that Subban and the Predators arriving in Montreal to face the Canadiens tonight was just another game.

But Habs fans know what’s up.

No GM in the league is facing more heat right now than Bergevin. His team is all but out of the playoff race, his top stars are old and expensive, and his young core is facing questions about how good they can be. There’s a growing appetite in Montreal to just hit the reset button on the whole thing and start over. And in the middle of it all, there’s a captain who everyone assumes is about to be traded.

These are the sort of dark days when, as a fan, the only thing that can give you any hope is an unshakable faith in your GM to do the right thing. And then, just on time, his biggest mistake shows up for a Saturday-night showcase game.

We won’t re-litigate the Subban/Shea Weber trade here. That’s been done, both in the immediate aftermath of the deal and in the months beyond. And it’s not like Weber has been bad in Montreal, at least when he’s been healthy. But given the ages of the players involved and their contracts, the Canadiens needed to win the deal early if they were going to break even (or better) in the long run. They haven’t.

As a GM, you can’t win them all, and maybe you at least give Bergevin credit for being willing to pull the trigger on risky moves, unlike many of his colleagues. But that’s not much comfort to Canadiens fans who are waiting to see what he can do with Max Pacioretty and who knows who else. His recent track record isn’t great, and there’s a Norris candidate in town tonight to remind everyone of that.

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Hot-seat watch

We haven’t used this section much this year, and the last time we broke it out was specifically to complain about not getting to use it much. That was in December. Six weeks later, the league is well into the second half and still hasn’t had a single coach fired.

To be clear, that’s a good thing – nobody is rooting for anyone to lose their job. Coaches getting fired, often over problems that are outside of their control, is an unpleasant part of the hockey business. But until this year, it was also a regular feature of an NHL season. We’re already into uncharted territory, at least as far as the post-expansion era in concerned. Even mentioning it feels wrong, like we’re talking about a no-hitter in progress and everyone will blame us for jinxing it.

But now that the all-star break has come and gone and we can start downgrading teams from “long shot” to “dead in the water,” it’s probably worth another look around the league to see if we can spot the situation that will break the streak.

The most volatile situation remains the one in Edmonton, where just about everyone seems to agree that Todd McLellan doesn’t deserve to be fired but are half-expecting it to happen anyway. The whole Paul Coffey thing was weird, and despite what the team told us, it sure didn’t feel like something McLellan would have been thrilled with. It seems pretty clear that something is going to happen in Edmonton between now and the meat of the off-season. But when, and to who, are still open questions. Meanwhile, McLellan gets to visit his old team in San Jose tonight, and you could forgive him if he takes a moment to think back to happier times.

Things may be heating up again in Calgary, where Glen Gulutzan seemed to have removed himself from contention after guiding his team to a seven-game win streak. But then six consecutive losses basically undid all that progress, and the Flames are back in the thick of a tough Western race. So maybe Gulutzan gets back in the mix.

Outside of Alberta, Bill Peters has an inconsistent team and, more importantly, a new owner, albeit one that seems to want to keep things positive right now. Teams that are already out of it, like Ottawa and Detroit, seem more likely to wait until the off-season, but you never know when an organization might want to get a look at an interim option. And as the Blackhawks fade out of contention, you wonder if that long-rumoured tension between Joel Quenneville and Stan Bowman finally hits a breaking point.

Then there’s the coach we singled out way back in October: New York’s Alain Vigneault. His Rangers started off slow, but then rebounded as the year went on. But now the front office has thrown in the towel, and this sure didn’t sound like a vote of confidence. So Vigneault is back in the spotlight, and once again feels like the odds-on favourite to be the first to go.

Or maybe nobody makes a mid-season change, and we really do make it through an entire season without a single firing. That seemed unthinkable at the start of the year, and maybe even a month ago. It still feels like a hell of a long shot. But if an expansion team can take a run at the Presidents’ Trophy, anything is possible.

(And if someone breaks up the no-hitter tomorrow, go ahead and blame me for mentioning it.)

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From the archives

It’s been a rough year for the Sabres, both in this section and in the real world. Maybe slightly rougher in the real world, if we’re being honest. But since we can’t help much with that side of the equation, let’s at least use tonight’s matchup against the Bruins to remind Sabres fans what happiness feels like.

By the 1992–93 season, the Sabres were on the verge of going a full decade without a playoff-series win. They hadn’t won a round of any kind since 1983, and hadn’t won a best-of-seven since 1980. And that track record was clearly wearing on them, as they’d made a mid-season trade with the Maple Leafs that saw them acquire future Hall of Fame goaltender Grant Fuhr. This was back when Fuhr was still considered just about the best big-game goalie in the world, so adding him to the roster sent a clear message about what was expected in the post-season. But it was an expensive move, one that cost them a 50-goal scorer in Dave Andreychuk, plus their current starter (Darren Puppa) and a first-round pick.

Despite the trade, the Sabres finished fourth in the Adams with a pedestrian 86 points, drawing a first-round matchup against a Bruins team that had finished second overall. The Sabres were serious underdogs. But they stole the first game on former-Bruin Bob Sweeney’s overtime winner, and Fuhr paid off with a 34-save shutout in Game 2. After another overtime win in Game 3, the Sabres found themselves one win away from finally returning to round two. Game 4 got off to a shaky start, with the Bruins leading 5–2 early in the second. But the Sabres clawed back to force yet another overtime, and five minutes in Brad May scored the most famous goal of his career.

A few thoughts:

• This is of course the famous Rick Jeanneret “May Day” call of the goal. If you want to hear what it sounded like to viewers who were watching on TV, you can find that here. But this is one of those plays where everyone remembers the radio call, even if they only heard it later. It’s the “Touch ’em all, Joe” of hockey calls.

• How good is that falling Pat LaFontaine pass? This was the season that he had 148 points, the fifth-most ever recorded by anyone other than Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux, but I can’t imagine any of them were nicer than that one.

• I love Ray Bourque, but man did he have a habit of starring in other people’s highlight reels. At least May didn’t put it in his skates:

• It’s always a bit jarring when May finishes his fantastic rink-wide celebration and winds up being greeted by Dominik Hasek. He’d come into this game after Fuhr got hurt in the first period. At the time, Sabres fans held their breath that Fuhr would make it back for the next round (he did). One season later, Hasek would have his first Vezina and Fuhr would be his backup. Hockey’s a weird game sometimes.

May’s goal was basically the end of the positivity for the ’93 Sabres; they were swept in round two by the Canadiens, with all four games ending by an identical 4–3 final. They wouldn’t win another round until 1997, the first of three straight years they’d advance. We’d mention how that stretch ended, but we said we’d try to keep it positive.

Oddly specific prediction

The Sabres summon some of that May Day magic with an overtime upset over the Bruins.

Oddly specific prediction record: 1-for-16

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