Some of the greatest rivalries in the NHL feature the Montreal Canadiens. In Canada it’s generally accepted that their history with the Toronto Maple Leafs is at the top of the list. Scoping out to the sports world in general, the heated battles between the Habs and Boston Bruins are regarded as some of the most intense competitions available.
Those historic Original Six matchups will continue to be features in the league and red-letter days on the teams’ season schedules, but they’re not the only ones that get the adrenaline of both players and fans flowing. In a few years’ time, they may even get supplanted by another intra-divisional battle.
The matchup between the Canadiens and the Ottawa Senators has gone slightly in favour of the supercentenarian, with a record of 75-53-18. The Senators weren’t a good team when they joined the NHL as an expansion franchise for the 1992-93 season, winning a total of 51 games in their first four years, allowing Montreal to get out to an early advantage.
Things began to turn for Ottawa as their draft picks took a foothold in the league under the tutelage of Jacques Martin. The shift was aided by the franchise’s first ever selection, Alexei Yashin, and really went into overdrive when they plucked Daniel Alfredsson from the field in the sixth round in 1994. As the Canadiens entered a downward spiral in the mid-90s, the Senators rose to prominence with a very good team, going to the Stanley Cup Final in 2007.
As Alfredsson’s career wound down and many of the support players were traded or signed elsewhere, Montreal once again began to dominate the matchup. After only coming out on top four times in 13 season series from 1996-97 to 2009-10, the Habs have only been bested once since Carey Price earned the permanent starting role.
A very different picture was painted in the 2013 NHL Playoffs. With two star rookies and a strong supporting staff, the Canadiens went into the post-season with perhaps the best roster the organization had iced since the 1993 Stanley Cup championship. Yet despite claiming the Northeast Division title and looking poised for a deep run, they were manhandled — both figuratively and literally — by the Senators in five games in the opening round. It was a defeat that forced Montreal’s general manager to make sweeping changes to the structure of the team to respond to the challenge the division opponent was presenting.
In the end, neither team’s approach proved to be a winning one. The knee-jerk changes Marc Bergevin made as a result of that upset were quickly dialled back after the new focus on size (with little regard for complementary skill) didn’t yield the ultimate prize. Ottawa went on to lose the next round in 2013 in five games, and were then handled by the Habs in their next post-season berth two years later. Each club got as far as the Eastern Conference Final one time after that 2013 series, but have since decided to rebuild their rosters in an attempt to become proper contenders.
Montreal has tried to stay somewhat competitive during their “reset,” maintaining several of the their top players, trading ones deemed expendable, and putting a major emphasis on the draft. Ottawa has made a full commitment to their restructuring, shipping out any veteran player of value for picks and prospects. Now, both teams are on the verge of reaping the benefits of those calculated approaches.
The Canadiens have put together a strong pool of young talent, aided by the addition of Jesperi Kotkaniemi with the third overall pick in the 2018 Draft, the major addition of Nick Suzuki when the team traded captain Max Pacioretty for hopes of a brighter future, the surprising fall of Cole Caufield into their lap at 15th overall in 2019. and underlooked selections of Cayden Primeau and Alexander Romanov in recent drafts that have turned into proper steals.
Ottawa meanwhile has players like Brady Tkachuk and Thomas Chabot already in the lineup. Then there are Erik Brannstrom and Josh Norris — two quality prospects added by trading franchise stars away — joined by Alex Formenton, Lassi Thomson, Logan Brown, and Drake Batherson still developing into NHL players.
In October the Senators are set to add two more potential stars to the mix when they pick third and fifth in the 2020 Draft, while Montreal could have a one-in-eight chance of winning the top selection, or pick ninth if they lose their qualifier. In one of the deepest classes in several years, both franchises will be adding another top-quality player (or two) this year.
The main contenders in the Atlantic Division are at or near their peaks now. The Tampa Bay Lightning and Bruins have been among the top teams in the league for several seasons, but salary cap concerns and aging rosters will begin to close their championship windows. Those same cap concerns may also stall the promising rise of the Maple Leafs, a team with over a third of what will be a flat cap committed to just three forwards for the next three years.
Ottawa and Montreal have the benefit of designing their salary structure around the new financial realities of the league, and bringing up a group of quality players at the same time to develop as the core. If either team was hoping their strategy of loading up on prospects would get them to the top of the mountain in the Atlantic Division, they will be disappointed to see another club making the ascent right alongside them. It’s shaping up to be a race to the top between the two clubs, giving the matchup the parity and marquee status it has rarely seen in its 27-year history.