The Toronto Maple Leafs open a four-game home stand, as they take on the Buffalo Sabres at Air Canada Center on Tuesday.
The two franchises have been linked since the Sabres entry into the league in 1970, not just because they are a 90-minute drive from each other or because former Leaf icons Punch Imlach and Tim Horton continued their careers in Buffalo, but because their fan bases in Southern Ontario and Western New York live next to each other.
Except for a meeting in the 1999 Eastern Conference Final, the two clubs have never competed for anything more than bragging rights, and most of the time that battle has been won by the Sabres.
Buffalo and Toronto are traveling down the same path of rebuilding, but in spite of getting started later than their QEW counterparts, early returns are showing that the Leafs are ahead in the race to return back to respectability.
Each club has followed a similar blueprint. The Sabres drafted top pairing defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen in 2013 and used consecutive 30th place finishes in 2014 and 2015 to acquire franchise cornerstones in Sam Reinhart and Jack Eichel.
The Leafs selected Morgan Rielly fifth overall in 2012 and finished 27th and 30th the last two seasons to snag Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews.
Both have drafted a Nylander (20-year-old William selected eighth overall in 2014, 18-year-old Alex selected eighth overall in 2016) and have hired Stanley Cup winning head coaches in Mike Babcock and Dan Bylsma.
It appeared that the Sabres were ahead of Toronto at the start of this season, with Eichel and Reinhart having successful 20+ goal rookie campaigns and the addition of All-Star winger Kyle Okposo via free agency, but things have fallen into place for Toronto and have decidedly not done so for Buffalo.
The Leafs believe they have found goaltending stability with Frederik Andersen, acquired from Anaheim for a first and second round pick last June, while Robin Lehner’s injury problems since being acquired from Ottawa have the Sabres wondering whether they have their #1 or not.
Both clubs have effective top pairings in Ristolainen/Jake McCabe and Rielly/Nikita Zaitsev, but are in need of upgrades on the blueline.
Buffalo expended significant resources to improve their defense; signing former Leaf Cody Franson to a two-year, $6.65 Million contract, trading with Montreal for veteran Josh Gorges, swapping youngster Mark Pysyk for Dmitri Kulikov and acquiring Zach Bogosian in the big deal with the Winnipeg Jets.
The Leafs added Zaitsev as a free agent from the KHL, re-signed defenseman Roman Polak and added youngster Connor Carrick.
For nearly $17 Million in payroll, Buffalo has just one goal and 13 assists from the four defensemen, while Zaitsev at $925,000 has outscored them all with one goal and 15 assists in 41 games.
Buffalo GM Tim Murray has not been shy about making big moves in the trade market and spending big money re-signing his own free agents or going outside of the organization; signing Okposo away from the NY Islanders, re-signing Matt Moulson (after trading him to Minnesota) and Tyler Ennis, stealing Ryan O’Reilly away from Colorado and acquiring Bogosian and Evander Kane from the Jets for Tyler Myers and Drew Stafford.
O’Reilly and Okposo have produced, but Moulson had a career-low eight goals last season and just nine this year, Ennis and Bogosian have been injured more than they’ve been in the lineup and Kane has been involved in two embarrassing off-the-ice incidents.
Toronto has not added high-priced free agent in the Brendan Shanahan era, opting instead to promote from within and adding Nikita Soshnikov, Polak and Matt Martin via free agency as role players.
Unlike the Sabres, who are burdened by the contracts of Ennis, Moulson and veteran Brian Gionta, the Leafs went to the bare wood and cleared out the big money deals of Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf and used their financial wherewithal to alleviate the financial burden made by previous regimes, such as dealing David Clarkson for Nathan Horton and making Joffrey Lupul and Stephane Robidas fall off the radar.
This salary cap management/financial advantage will serve the Leafs well in the near future, as Lamoriello can acquire players in free agency or make trades with teams with expansion draft/budget constraints.
Buffalo has been slowed by key injuries this season and only with the return of Eichel have begun to play up to expectations. Unless they make a second-half charge, Murray will likely trade his expiring contracts for futures and concentrate on getting Eichel and Reinhart signed to extensions next summer.