In this Battle of Ontario, Ottawa emerged as the big winner.
After all, it was quite a week for Erik Karlsson, wasn't it? First, the Senators backliner signed a gigantic new seven-year, $45.5 million contract, and then he walked away with the Norris Trophy on Wednesday night as the NHL's best defenceman.
We can quibble a little on that one - there's not a GM in hockey who wouldn't take Shea Weber or Zdeno Chara over Karlsson - but the fact is the slender Swede was adjudged to be the best of the best by the Professional Hockey Writers Association and so he gets his name on the trophy. Congrats. No easy win for a player from a small market.
The Maple Leafs, provincial rivals of the Sens, traditionally don't get anywhere near this kind of hardware, and they certainly don't have a blueliner with the offensive explosiveness of Karlsson. But on awards night, a night on which Will Arnett's spoofs of Brendan Shanahan were the first, second and third most entertaining parts of the program, the Leaf blueline got a small slice of recognition when Jake Gardiner was named to the NHL all-rookie team.
For a defenceman nobody was really figuring into Toronto's plans prior to training camp this season, it's a heck of an achievement for Gardiner to be placed alongside prized freshmen like Calder Trophy winner Gabriel Landeskog, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Adam Henrique and Justin Faulk. For Leaf management, it's an example of a very good trade made in recent years, one that doesn't get the attention of the Phil Kessel deal but delivered huge results.
Gardiner is one year younger than Karlsson, but has played two fewer NHL seasons, so they're not at the same points in their careers. Still, they are destined to lock horns over the coming seasons in future Battles of Ontario, and if Gardiner can even approach the 78-point season delivered by Karlsson this year, the Leafs would be thrilled. In a league becoming more and more defensive, these are two young rearguards who love to wheel with the puck, show off their terrific skating skills and make plays.
Ottawa has locked down Karlsson, and while the Leafs contractually have two more years before they need to worry about Gardiner, they also need to make sure he stays a Leaf, as opposed to be parcelled off in some flight of fancy for a veteran goalie or an established scorer.
In fact, Gardiner's college defence partner, Justin Schultz, is an unsigned Anaheim draft pick who will be unrestricted in a matter of days, and the Leafs will be among a horde of teams in their pitching hard. It's a good example of the overall approach the Leafs need to take. Rather than focussing on figuring out how to get this young team into the post-season, they need to find ways to add more young players to the stock of youngsters they already own. In other words, worry about the process of building a really good team rather than the result of getting into the post-season.
That approach will provide more satisfying results over a longer period.