NHL's preseason schedule kicks off with Battle of Ontario Staff

9/19/2011 3:08:40 PM

For those that have endured a long summer, the wait is finally over.

Hockey is back.

The NHL's preseason schedule kicks off today with a four-game slate that includes the resumption of the Battle of Ontario.

In addition to the Toronto Maple Leafs hosting the Ottawa Senators, tonight's action includes the Buffalo Sabres hosting the Carolina Hurricanes and an ultra-rare doubleheader between the Nashville Predators and Florida Panthers.

While preseason games, especially the preseason openers, will have little impact on who ultimately lifts the Stanley Cup in nine months time, they are crucial opportunities for players to make a name for themselves in the fight for roster spots.

Both the Leafs and the Senators have a combination of young prospects trying to land their first NHL jobs and veteran role players fighting for an everyday shift in the league.

For the Leafs, tonight's action will provide an early look at the progress of prospects Nazem Kadri, Joe Colborne and Matt Frattin, who are all fighting for a spot on Toronto's third line.

Also expected for tonight's game is rookie camp standout and former Ducks first-rounder, Jake Gardiner, who is trying to force his way into consideration for a job on the Leafs' already-crowded blue-line.

The Senators also have a glut of young talent to be evaluated and, unlike the Leafs, have a handful of roster spots to offer their young guns. The battle between recent high draft picks and last season's AHL stand-outs is expected to be heated and that battle kicks off tonight in Toronto.

Four former first-rounders will begin their fight to stick with the Sens against the Leafs, including forwards Nikita Filatov and Mika Zibanejad and defenders Jared Cowen and David Rundblad.

With the exodus of veteran bodies at last season's trade deadlines, this year's Sens training camp boasts the possibility of offering not just jobs to these prospects, but top-tier minutes as well.

Tonight's games kick off a busy week for the Canadian NHL clubs, with each team playing at least three games in the next seven days.

Vancouver, Edmonton, Montreal and Toronto will be the busiest of the Canadian teams over that stretch, playing five games each. Ottawa, Winnipeg and Calgary will each play three games before the end of the week.

For a team like Edmonton, the busy schedule offers an opportunity to get a good look at how developing players stack up against their pro counterparts. Edmonton will likely get a good look at all their prospects on Tuesday, as the team plays two games in one evening against Chicago and Minnesota.

Toronto, as well, has invited a lot of players to camp - 70 in total. The five games they play this week will allow them to quickly decide where to assign all of those bodies.

While no one has ever won or lost the Stanley Cup in September, these games do provide a crucial opportunity for players to make a name for themselves.

And, who knows? The next Cup-winning goal scorer could earn his job on the strength of one great game this week.