• By: Dave Gross

Battle? What battle?

What we have here is a national crisis.

When one of our country’s most established, venerated, respected institutions tumbles into near obscurity, what else would you call it?

Yep, crisis pretty well sums it up.

The Battle of Ontario?


Nerf Ball war is more like it.

Ottawa and Toronto don’t generally have a whole heck of a lot in common as far as hockey franchises go. Disturbing beginnings is certainly one though, this year.

Wednesday night’s game in Toronto won’t be so much the Battle of Ontario as the Battle to See Whose Coach Gets Gassed First. D.J. or Sheldon? Take your best shot. Take your best pick. Step right up.

After Monday night’s first period where the Leafs were ripped apart 4-1 by Tampa I got on the phone with a former NHL scout and executive now in LA (two minutes for name-dropping).

“Is it me or has Sheldon Keefe lost the team?”

“Yep,” came the response. “How long do you think he’ll last?”

Abrupt and to the point.

It sure looked like a team lost. Keefe’s charges, after a supposedly heated rah-rah meeting by the entire team during the weekend (this following L’Affaire Marchand), were completely tuned out and disinterested.

Thanks to Auston Matthews – again, this season – the Buds pulled up their socks and managed a 6-5 comeback overtime win. Mind you, it was Tampa, and Tampa’s going through an equally rough start (get better soon there Vassy).

Is Keefe in trouble?

Maybe not immediately. But extension or no extension . . .

As they say, you can’t fire 23 players. And Toronto sure isn’t firing new GM Brad Treliving anytime soon. The guy just got here. You know, the fellow who saddled Keefe with arguably one of the worst defensive crews in the league. Exiting GM Kyle Dubas gets a big assist on this one too as he left Treliving with a financial disaster of a roster.

The team simply looks disjointed. Outside of the Core 4, or 5 if you include the always terrific Morgan Rielly, the Leafs are a mess.

If things continue as things are, Keefe takes the blame. Eventually. Maybe not if his team loses to the team that’s teetering even more than his, on Wednesday night. But at some point.

And now onto the other half, for you Nerf enthusiasts. Your Ottawa Senators.

If I’m filling in a PROLINE on the matter, D.J. Smith is my write-in bet (Triggering to some. Clears throat. Mutters apology). Now into his fifth campaign as bench boss, and with a supposedly heftier and more talented lineup than ever before, Smith has struggled (again) to find any kind of stride out of the gate.

Is Ottawa gutted with injury? Absolutely.

Is Ottawa playing with any better notions on how to play TEAM DEFENCE? Not a chance.

The Senators’ defensive zone is like one of those pinball games from the 1980s: Bounce, bumper, flipper, bumper, gutter. If there’s something being taught on how to defend and how to position yourself in said defensive zone, the players are wearing ear plugs.

The afore-mentioned Tampa Bay Lightning tore holes through Ottawa’s d-zone at will Saturday night. Guys open in the slot? You betcha. I could lay the blame on injuries, but this movie’s been ticking along for years, including at the start of this season with the much-improved roster healthy.

As much as Toronto’s dealing with its own continual mental malfunctioning, that is – lack of compete, defence, etc., Ottawa’s in its own familiar place as well. This slow start was not going to happen, one more time. Right? Some writers, including one near and dear to your hearts, insisted it wasn’t happening in 2023-24. Team’s just too damn good, correct?

Well, one of the two involved in this Battle of Ontario is bound to pop-and-fizz Wednesday night.

I’m pretty sure you’ll be observing too.

I mean, who doesn’t slow down to eyeball a car wreck?

THOUGHT, SEEN AND HEARD: Got a chuckle when Brady Tkachuk turned around and challenged the Tampa bench Saturday. Note to Brady: Tampa ain’t Detroit or Buffalo . . . Loads were unpacked after Tkachuk laid into the ticket-buyers after Saturday’s game. Judging by the chat room response (I know, ALWAYS a reliable source), fans were 50-50 on it. Followers in dissent will quickly move on. Tkachuk is maybe the only guy in the organization who gets a free pass in Ottawa; rightfully or not . . . Of all Ottawa’s injuries the one perhaps most disheartening is Ridley Greig’s. The 21 year old was making great strides . . . A dusting of chat board chatter surrounds Josh Norris and a perceived slow start. While he’s not been as visible as in years past, the guy really hasn’t played competitive hockey for months. And months. It is noticeable though . . . Toronto’s test case of signing Tyler Bertuzzi and slotting him in with all-world talents Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner looks to be over. Bertuzzi couldn’t match the pace or skill of his projected season-long linemates . . . Bertuzzi’s sub, and we’re hoping it stays this way, was sophomore Matthew Knies Monday night against Tampa. This reminded me of the time when Ottawa’s 67’s slipped Matt Foy alongside Corey Locke for the first time. Automatic click; natural fit . . . Who doesn’t just love an OHL analogy? . . . If it’s even up for debate anymore it shouldn’t be – Joseph Woll is Toronto’s starter . . . Rick Tocchet and the fabulous job he’s done early running Vancouver to this point, is here Thursday night. The Canucks are rolling and Tocchet’s a good enough reason as to why.

WHAT, THERE’S MORE!?: In case you missed it, Alexei Yashin turned 50 this past week. Fifty. 5-0 . . . Did you know – D.J. Smith was one helluva junior player. Recognized as the toughest guy in the OHL (seasons of 201, 260 and 190 PIMs), Smith also just under a point per game in his final two seasons (1996, 1997) in Windsor . . . Visiting players used to get the Windsor Flu during that era. Not only were the Spits terrifying, the raucous fans and rink – complete with chicken wire along the top of the glass – were too. “Can’t go coach. Feel a flu comin’ on.”. . . Two incidents stood out there. One, the Jeff Kugel game where he jumped off the bench to fight 3-4 Owen Sound Plater skaters in the late ’90s, and two, Sean Avery standing up on the Owen Sound team bus (not the same game) to announce he’d fight D.J. Smith if no one else did . . . Say what you want about Sean, but he was the absolute best quote during my lengthy stay covering the Ontario Hockey League . . . Second best? Zenon Konopka . . . And finally, buy a poppy.



Wednesday, Nov. 9: Ottawa at Toronto (7 pm)

Thursday, Nov. 10: Vancouver at Ottawa (7 pm)

Saturday, Nov. 12: Calgary at Ottawa (7 pm)



Photo: CourtesyCTV.ca