Wednesday, March 5, 2014
A busy day for the Senators that started wobbly with Cory Conacher getting picked up on waivers by the Buffalo Sabres, but things brightened up (for some) with the announcement of a new Chris Phillips contract and a trade for Alex Hemsky from the Oilers. It’s been a busy day for me as well, so let’s get right into it, move by move.
Cory Conacher Claimed On Waivers
There were a lot of upset people on Twitter yesterday with news of Conacher being on waivers, and even more anger when he was picked up by former Sens assistant-GM Tim Murray in Buffalo today at noon. The screaming is understandable from a lot of angles, especially in light of Ben Bishop dominating in Tampa Bay, but I think it’s all a little overblown.
First, does the thought of Conacher in a Sabres uniform really put a scare into Sens fans? I don’t think so. I like Conacher’s feistiness in front of the net and his courage on the ice, but the Senators aren’t losing a key player here.
If it wasn’t for the fact he was moved for Bishop, Conacher would have been out of the lineup or waived a lot faster than he was. It just didn’t work out for him here. At least GM Bryan Murray has essentially admitted his mistake and isn’t going to force the organization to pay over and over again by forcing a player who doesn’t fit on the team just because the GM’s pride is on the line. Murray blew that trade and he knows it. Now it’s time to move on. As some pointed out on Twitter today, Murray robbed Phoenix out of Kyle Turris – you win some, you lose some. The point is not to let the ones you lose distract you from going forward.
Second, there seems to be a recurring complaint that the Senators could have gotten at least a late draft pick for Conacher instead of losing him for nothing. I’d share that complaint if it was realistic. If somebody was willing to part with a pick, Murray would have gotten it. To think that Murray didn’t try to move Conacher before waiving him is nonsensical. Of course he did. Waivers are always a last-resort. The trouble is, teams like their draft picks and they also like free players. A lot of guys make it to waivers because nobody wants to part with an asset for them.
But if they’re free? Sure, a lot of teams will take a chance on a free player. That’s what Tim Murray did on Conacher and wasn’t about to part with a pick in a rebuilding situation. If Conacher was as valuable as a lot of Sens fans think he was, Murray would have had no trouble moving him.
Third, Conacher is a pending RFA next season. With his game being so up and down, mostly down, how do you determine what kind of contract he gets? His short career has been so uneven that it makes for a headache just trying to figure it out. That’s one less contract negotiation for Murray and opens the door further to players like Mark Stone, Mike Hoffman, Shane Prince, Matt Puempel and Jean-Gabriel Pageau among others. All of the above are better prospects, in my mind at least, than Cory Conacher is.
Fans feel like all young players are precious cargo and flinch when one is cast off, especially in the manner that Conacher was. Truth is, a lot of them just don’t work out. When you have so many in the system, as Ottawa does, you have to make judgements quicker in order not to stall the progress of others. When one doesn’t work out, you part ways and give their spot to the next guy. That’s what Ottawa did here with Conacher and I think it was the right move, despite how bad it looks with Bishop.
Ales Hemsky Trade
Great move when you consider how little Bryan Murray had to give up to get the slick winger from the Oilers. A 5th round pick in this year’s (weak) draft and a 3rd rounder in 2015, while the Oilers also pick up half of what Hemsky is owed for the remainder of this season.
For that modest sum, the Senators get a highly-skilled winger to play with Jason Spezza for at least the stretch-run as they desperately try to get back into the playoffs. Even if things don’t work out in that regard, they get a good look at what Hemsky can do, see if there’s chemistry with #19 and have first crack at contract negotiations with him before Hemsky becomes an unrestricted free agent in July.
If Ottawa likes Hemsky and can get him signed (and they’ll have the cap room and possibly the budget to do it), that allows them to avoid the summer UFA season looking to fix the same old vacancy next to Spezza. The Senators have had rental players before, but Hemsky is a little different due to his age (30) and game-breaking talent. This isn’t Matt Cullen, Mike Comrie or Peter Bondra. They can now work him with Spezza for 20 games and I’m betting Hemsky will grow to like that very quickly.
You can also think of a possible Hemsky deal as a hedge against Bobby Ryan or Clarke MacArthur possibly leaving as UFA’s in 2015. With deals for Spezza, Ryan, MacArthur, Craig Anderson and Marc Methot expiring in the summer of ‘15, there’s going to be change on the way no matter how optimistic you are. Signing Hemsky might mitigate some of that upheaval. He would also be an instant replacement for fellow Czech Milan Michalek who is expected to leave this summer as a free agent. Of course, Hemsky might have his mind set on picking a sunny locale after living through winters similar to what Norwegians call “the long dark tunnel”. Would you blame him?
On the negative side, if it doesn’t work out and they can’t get Hemsky to sign, they’ve given up very little and might be able to recoup those draft picks in other deals. Bottom line is they grabbed a top-6 forward looking for a fresh start and didn’t give up a single prospect in their system. They even got a discounted salary. Eugene Melnyk will be happy with that, as Hemsky not only gives this team a much better chance to realize some playoff revenues this season, but he’s dirt cheap during his audition.
Hemsky has been locked away in the basement of Edmonton for so long that Ottawa will seem like a new lease on life for him. That could go a long way to making him want to stay and Murray would look pretty good getting Hemsky’s signature on a contract.
Chris Phillips Re-Signs For Two Years
This was a deal that just had to get done for a number of reasons. Phillips took a little less money overall to get that 2nd year on the deal ($2.5 million per, down from his current $3m salary) but the compromise from both sides of the table will help this team in the short and long-term.
Phillips is, along with Methot, this team’s most dependable defensive D-man and is usually paired with young defensemen new to the league, whether it’s Jared Cowen, Eric Gryba or, currently, Cody Ceci. The Senators have to love what they’re seeing from Ceci so far this season, like his courage to make plays far up the ice which we saw on one of his goals in Vancouver last weekend. A lot of that confidence comes from playing with a steady figure like Phillips.
The struggles of Cowen and Patrick Wiercioch probably forced Murray’s hand with Phillips, but there’s also something telling me that Murray wanted no part of losing another community icon like “Big Rig” after what happened with Daniel Alfredsson this past summer. You can tell how popular and beloved Phillips is in that dressing room as well. Trading a guy like that would have been tough for everybody. In the end, the Senators get Phillips for a bargain compared to what he would have gotten as a free agent.
And when Phillips surpasses Alfredsson for the all-time games played as a Senator next season, the organization will have a feel-good story that will go a long way in erasing some past mistakes that may or may not have anything to do with old #11.
In a minor move, Joe Corvo, who cleared waivers today, was loaned to the Chicago Wolves of the AHL for the remainder of the season. That clears a bit of a jam on defense and now the Senators have just 7 defenseman on the roster which is a bit more comfortable for everyone. It’s tough to see two scratches every night on D, and Corvo has been the forgotten man back there. I thought Corvo was fine in his sporadic starts and could have played more, but coach Paul MacLean didn’t trust him and that’s good explanation enough for me. Corvo might have deserved a better fate, as did Conacher, but whoever said the NHL was fair?
Friday, February 28, 2014
You can’t have it both ways. You just can’t.
Fans gush over prospects and young players the way teenage girls used to scream about The Beatles in 1964. They’re just so new and exciting. Then they play a year or two, and suddenly the new guys aren’t so fresh anymore, and a little too human for our liking.
Bring on the new batch of kids, most of whom have benefitted from the NHL Entry Draft hype machine and haven’t had the chance to disappoint anybody yet.
Too often, fans embrace the fresh face but don’t have the patience to watch them grow into veteran hockey players. And in order to become vets, they have to make mistakes and figure out how to play against players that rarely do. Sometimes that takes years. In the case of defenseman, it almost always takes four or five years, unless you’re a phenom like Erik Karlsson, and even he went through some nights where fans were calling for his pretty little head.
Now you see it every night on Twitter (that institution of sober second thought) with Jared Cowen. Fans are prepared to throw a 23-year old 1st round pick defenseman with under 150 games NHL experience on the garbage heap. On to the next guy.
Not that I want to turn this into an argument about Jared Cowen. I want to talk about young players in general.
If you like your hockey team young and exciting, that’s often what you’re going to get, although you might not fully understand the term “exciting”. That can cut both ways. Exciting sometimes means watching a rookie dash up the ice with unexpected speed, only to lose the puck at the blueline with a blind drop-pass and watch the other team go back the other way at 100 mph and pop the water bottle.
“Exciting” has never implied a certainty of outcome. What’s exciting about that?
If you want youth, you have to learn to live with their sometimes moronic, unintelligible blunders. There’s no way around it.
My son once dumped his entire cup of milk onto his plate of food that I’d spent an hour making, and just looked at me innocently for a moment and then said "Dad, can I get more milk?". (Naturally, I went right to Twitter and put him on blast.)
It’s a brutal fact that young, inexperienced hockey players are going to make mistakes at crucial times. Over 100 years of hockey should have taught us that. Forget hockey history ... common sense tells you that.
Look at last night’s game against Detroit. The Senators are controlling the play early in the first period until 20-year old rookie Cody Ceci makes a bad pass in his own zone that’s picked off by Riley Sheahan and rifled past a stunned Robin Lehner. The Wings never looked back and put a further five pucks past the rattled 22-year old netminder.
It was a must-win game for Ottawa with all sorts of pressure and the players who made the critical early errors for the Sens were all young guys with little NHL experience in this sort of situation.
Cowen was -3 on the night, continuing his horrid play that dates back to the Sens last game before the Olympic break against Boston, a veteran-laden team. Eric Gryba, who’s 25 but has only played 68 NHL games was also -3 as Cowen’s partner. We saw what happened to Lehner and Ceci.
Mike Hoffman, with 7 career games going into last night, was probably Ottawa’s best player because of his energy and skating, but he’s already failed to crack this lineup on multiple occasions. A handful of rookies and prospects have failed to make a dent this year, including Stephane Da Costa, Mark Stone, Derek Grant and Mark Borowiecki. All had their good moments but all were sent down just the same. For most of those guys, it’s going to take a lot more time. And for the guys already here, like Ceci, Gryba and Mika Zibanejad, there have been many times where Coach Paul MacLean has limited their ice time to protect them and the team itself in certain situations.
The Senators currently have 11 players (not including call-up Andrew Hammond) that are 25 or younger on their roster. Is it really a surprise that this team occasionally falters in meaningful games and are life and death to make the playoffs?
It’s a process that takes years and the failure rate is unbelievably high, especially for young defensemen. It’s hard to watch as a fan when Cowen or Ceci cough up pucks or Lehner gives up 4 goals in less than 8 minutes, but if you fall in love with these players at their first training-camp, you have to be prepared to tolerate their growing pains, even when it causes your team to lose important hockey games. Somewhere down the road, these same guys are going to win you the big games. At least that’s the plan.
It doesn’t mean you have to be happy about it. You just have to be tolerant and understanding.
Tuesday, February 25, 2014
One thing we can say for sure about this Ottawa Senators team is that they have the God-given ability to confound and frustrate even the most hardcore hockey watchers this side of Toronto. Gentle souls have been lobotomized as far back as November, and they now walk around town like Clint Eastwood in The Unforgiven … scarred, angry, hopelessly darkened.
The hardier minds toughed it out past Christmas (with the help of alcohol) and they were rewarded with a sunny January, when the team suddenly looked like a playoff contender again, showing speed, grit, goaltending and finding a little bit of luck where they once found disaster.
Yet look where they sit now. 23 games to go, surrounded by teams playing as good, if not better. Stuck in a division with a top three that’s basically been decided already, with only a wild-card spot in reach. The pundits say they’ll need 93 or 94 points to make it, which means they can only lose 6 or 7 games the rest of the season, depending on how the wind blows. Wonderful.
It’s going to go down to the last rotten week in April when a lot of horrific nightmares can come true. The Senators face the Leafs the last weekend of the regular season. That could be the game that decides their season, and, as fate would have it, probably the season of the Red Wings and Daniel Alfredsson as well.
As I talked about before on this blog, it seems like the door to the playoffs is going to be guarded by Alfie, a situation nobody wants to think about right now, especially in the middle of the day with no recourse to tranquilizers at hand.
They can take one step to avoiding that horrible fate by beating the Red Wings on Thursday in the first game after the break, and hope that Henrik Zetterberg (now out for the season after back surgery) was the one guy the Wings couldn’t afford to lose. Then there’s the specter of the Leafs on that last Saturday, who may even be eye-to-eye at that point with the Senators (at least that’s what the advanced stats gurus predict). It’s all speeding towards a bloody conclusion.
Do the Senators have what it takes to survive the gauntlet they now have to run?.
We’ll start at the top.
Paul MacLean has pissed off more fans this year than Cory Clouston did in his “Little Napolean” prime, but the stubborn coach has slowly gotten his way after a near-disastrous start. Fans seem to think that only the top two lines should play and scream bloody murder on Twitter when Chris Neil gets a second more ice-time than anybody else, but MacLean comes from a Red Wings franchise that once used Sergei Fedorov as a defenseman and always ran four lines to win Stanley Cups. That’s the type of team MacLean is trying to mould here in Ottawa, and eventually it’s going to pay off. If it takes humbling one of his star players, he won’t hesitate for a second.
A lot of early anger seemed to stem from the fact that he’s been trying to make Mika Zibanejad earn his role rather than handing it to him as many fans expected. He’s had a leash on the kid and sometimes he’s pulling back on it, despite Zibanejad showing he should have more ice-time. He won’t waver down the stretch so expect a few more decisions that will send Twitter into a panic spiral. When you see him smirking under that moustache, you know that somewhere deep down inside he enjoys tormenting people who think they know more about hockey than he does – namely bloggers, reporters, Twitter.
You can even imagine him giving the same speech to his team that Coach Lou Brown does in 1989’s Major League: “The local press seems to think that we'd save everyone the time and trouble if we just went out and shot ourselves. Me, I'm for wasting sportswriters' time. So I figured we ought to hang around for a while and see if we can give 'em all a nice big shitburger to eat!”
Jason Spezza seems to be putting it back together at the right time after a strange few months. If this team is going to make it, he’s going to be the most important guy other than Craig Anderson. He went 15 games, from December 10 to January 21st , where he didn’t record any mult-point games. That’s just unlike Spezza. In the 9 games since then, he’s recorded multiple points in 5 of those and had a 3-pointer against the St. Louis Blues in a huge win for the Senators. To me, he’s far from washed up and will be scoring 75-90 points a year for this team if they make the smart move to resign him. Give him a real winger (Bobby Ryan) and watch the points pile up. He looks determined not to miss the playoffs in his first year as team captain.
Erik Karlsson is the best hockey player to ever wear a Senators uniform and will likely one day be captain of this team. There’s nobody else like him in the NHL and the Olympics just proved that to those who don’t watch him on a regular basis. But you can tell he’s still a kid. From breaking sticks in frustration, to his “silver medal on Ebay” joke, Karlsson doesn’t always project coolness under pressure. There’s that thought in the back of my head that says he wouldn’t be showing these public frustrations if he still had Alfie in town as a mentor. That departure was probably as hard on Karlsson as it was on the fans. Look for MacLean to lean on Karlsson even more down the stretch. He’s too young to get tired, so you might as well keep him running the treadmill.
I have no lingering doubts about Craig Anderson. Do you? You shouldn’t. If you’re a stats guy, his numbers have normalized after a terrible November, but beyond that you can see he’s just more confident now. He’s never going to be fully embraced by the swaths of young fans in this city, not when the rockstar Robin Lehner is behind him, but for this team right now, Anderson is the guy. Even if you don’t agree, try convincing MacLean. He’ll eat you alive on that question.
Bobby Ryan remains a little mysterious. Well, maybe that’s not the right word. There’s nothing mysterious about what he brings. He scores lots of goals (though not lately – only 4 in his last 19 games) and he’s a prototype big winger that’s so valuable in today’s NHL (when have they not been?). Yet there’s a strange unease hovering around his status on this team.
He seems sullen on the ice, yet off it he’s shown to have a good sense of humour and says he genuinely likes playing in a hockey town. Still, there’s that UFA status coming in two summers and nobody seems to know if he truly wants to stay here. Many think it’s inevitable he ends up in Philly with the Flyers near his hometown of Cherry Hill but that just may be self-defeatist Ottawa coming out of the shadows. It’s not as strong a myth as it is in Edmonton, but there’s still a feeling around here that a guy used to playing in sunny California might not want to spend the next decade shovelling snow in a small Canadian market. That’s a self-perpetuated mentality of this city but some of it is based in fact. Not many big ticket UFA’s sign with small-market Canadian teams in the prime of their career. The guys that do sign tend to have been drafted by the team, like Spezza.
Ryan is hard to read. He says the right things, but he doesn’t always look happy either. Maybe that’s just his style, or maybe it’s not. If MacLean can get him going again, and maybe give him a change of scenery with either Spezza or Zibanejad, that may pay off not just for this season, but down the road when he’s deciding where to play hockey. This team needs Ryan more than he needs Ottawa. They have to do everything they can to get him to stay, and making the playoffs is probably the most important thing they can do right now in that regard.
Kyle Turris is as consistent as any player on this team, as is Clarke MacArthur. You always know what you’re getting from Zack Smith and Chris Neil, and I expect them to be paired with Colin Greening a lot down the stretch. That line together is just too strong and plays a playoff brand of hockey at all times. When Greening is with Spezza, he seems to forget just how big and powerful he can be.
The defense has been much better since Cody Ceci was called up. Not that it’s all his doing, but his ability to play an offensive role has eased the pressure on the other guys and allowed everyone to play normal situations. He’s basically filled the role of Sergei Gonchar from last year, although I’m betting GM Bryan Murray was convinced it was going to be Patrick Wiercioch doing it instead. Ceci’s emergence has basically made Wiercioch expendable and I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s used as a piece to get a winger from another team. Eric Gryba has turned around his game playing with Marc Methot, making Ottawa’s defense both offensively dangerous and physically mean.
With the games meaning more and likely to get increasingly physical in preparation for the playoffs, Ottawa is in a good spot here. They always seem to play better when the games get a little nasty. They’re not the Boston Bruins or Los Angeles Kings, but the Senators are well suited to that style.
When this team tries to dangle and finesse the other team, they don’t come off so well. They have some of the personnel to do that, but not enough. They can ice a great first power-play unit but they can’t really dictate games offensively 5-on-5. Playing a physical style seems to even out some of the weaknesses on this team and just fits their spirit better. That’s what characterized the “Pesky Sens” and that’s what characterizes a lot of today’s elite NHL teams. The St. Louis Blues are a good representation of that.
If you want me to make a prediction right now, I’m going to say they make it.
I’ll predict they beat the Leafs or Penguins in the last weekend of the season and move past the Red Wings for that final wild-card spot. There’s a lot of heart on this team and they still have a flair for the dramatic. It’s just that there’s been too many nights (and many, many afternoons) where they come out flat and uninspired. I still think they need some kind of jolt in that dressing room (which has been described by some as “quiet”), and maybe a big trade could do that.
Maybe all they need is to come out Thursday and kick the crap out of the injury depleted Red Wings to send them on their way. Inspiration and momentum come in strange ways, but whatever form they take, the Senators could sure use both of those intangibles right about now.
They’re gonna need ‘em. Just like you're going to need Xanax.
Friday, January 31, 2014
Another Saturday night. Another Leafs vs. Sens matchup.
It doesn’t seem to have the same intensity that it used to, does it?
In fact, there’s a whole generation of new fans who probably don’t truly understand the enmity both teams and fanbases had towards each other during the height of the rivalry. At times, there was real bloodlust there, like when Tie Domi absolutely crushed Martin Havlat with a hit that ended up on repeat in Don Cherry's videos, or when Domi beat up Magnus Arvedson. Clips of Daniel Alfredsson destroying Darcy Tucker against the boards are now played alongside sentimental music during tributes to the former captain, but many forget the ugly incidents that led up to or followed that.
Like Darcy Tucker irrationally diving with fists swinging into the Senators bench, trying to fight the whole team, only to later claim that a Senators player spat on him. Or Leaf coach Pat Quinn accusing Marian Hossa of intentionally swinging his stick into Bryan Berard’s eye. Or Curtis Joseph exploding into a rage after a Sens goal and tackling plump referee Mick McGeough in the corner, later claiming to have “slipped”.
The last major controversy was probably Mark Bell crushing Alfredsson with a blind-side hit just before the 2008 playoffs. Even that seems like ancient history.
Now we mostly get Nazem Kadri and Cory Conacher yapping at each other in scrums. Luckily for Conacher, Kadri always has Lupes to “hold him back”.
Expect all this politeness to change. Very soon.
But before we get into the reasons for that, let’s take a quick look back at some of the playoff carnage:
1999-00: Leafs beat Sens in 6 games in the first round of the playoffs. Ottawa scores only twice in 3 games against Curtis Joseph at the new Air Canada Centre.
2000-01: Leafs sweep Sens in first round, despite losing all 5 games to Ottawa in the regular season. Ottawa scores 3 goals in the entire series, getting shutout by Joseph in the first two games at home. Games 1 and 3 ended in overtime on goals by Mats Sundin and defenseman Cory Cross respectively. Ottawa’s best player, Alexei Yashin, gets one assist in the series and promptly gets traded to Long Island.
2001-02: Ottawa loses again to Toronto, this time in a close 7-game, second-round series. This is made all the more painful because the Senators held a 3-2 series lead going home for Game 6. They raced out to a 2-0 lead early in the first on goals by Hossa and Alfredsson, only to watch defenseman Ricard Persson take a 5-minute boarding call and game misconduct for checking Domi from behind into the boards. Many felt Domi went down a little too easy, but the Leafs tied the game with two goals on the ensuing power-play and went on to win by a goal, tying the series. The Sens didn’t recover in Game 7, getting shutout by Joseph again in Toronto.
2003-04: After marching to the conference final the year before, the Senators and their fans were confident going into a first-round match against the now hated Leafs. It would be Jacques Martin’s last as coach in Ottawa. Somehow, the Senators get shutout 3 times in the series but still manage to push it to a seventh game in Toronto. Before the game, new Sens owner Eugene Melnyk was quoted as saying “We’re gonna kill ‘em!” Famously, Ottawa goalie Patrick Lalime implodes in the first period on two long shots by Joe Nieuwendyk and his career in Ottawa ends along with Martin’s. Domi says after the game, “A big inspiration was Eugene Melnyk's comments.”
At the time I was working at Hy’s Steakhouse and one of the cooks came in the next day with a broken hand from smashing it into his coffee table after the second Nieuwendyk goal. He had to work the salad station for a month.
Tensions were extremely high during that series. I remember watching the last game with my younger brother and his girlfriend. When Toronto scored one of those goals against Lalime, his girlfriend (now his wife) let out this huge roar of frustration, ran out of the room and up the stairs where we heard a bedroom door slam so hard that we thought the hinges had snapped off the frame. She stayed up there the rest of the night with all the lights off. And she didn’t even like hockey.
That’s the kind of mass anguish we’re talking about here.
The Senators and Leafs haven’t played a series against each other since. That could change very soon for a couple of reasons.
One, the new NHL alignment calls for divisional playoff-matchups, although that’s mitigated by the “wildcard” slots which will frequently result in cross-divisional matchups. Only the 2nd and 3rd seeds in each division are guaranteed to play each other in the first round, but sooner or later the Leafs and Sens are bound to end up there together.
Secondly, we've hit an era where both teams are likely to be perennial playoff contenders. That hasn't been the case since 2004. After crushing the hearts of Senators fans that year, the Leafs went on a horrific streak after the 2005 lockout, missing the playoffs seven straight times. When they finally made it back to the dance last season, their usual partner was locked in a nasty affair with the Montreal Canadiens. This just further diverted local Ottawa fans from their old enemies across the province.
Thus, the rivalry has died off, kept on life-support by the press needing angles and older fans who still can’t quite use their hand the way they used to in 2004.
Now that Ottawa actually has a temporary hold on a wildcard spot, and with the Leafs looking like a lock for the post-season, we may actually get another series out of these two in the near future.
When it does happen, it’s going to be wild. Remember, in the heyday of the Battle Of Ontario, there was no such thing as Twitter. Fans used to diss each other on forums or by writing letters to the Hockey News, putting it in an envelope, licking a stamp and walking down the block to the red box. Two months later when the new issue hit the stands… BURN.
Until that next series, we’ll have to make do with some minor hacks and whacks, unless the two truculent coaches, Randy Carlyle and Paul MacLean decide to get into it in the hallways. I think it could look something like this. Or we can hope.
Tuesday, January 28, 2014
Suddenly Black Aces has turned into a rumours blog that’s putting Eklund to shame, but at this time of year, even I get sucked in.
So here’s an unsolicited one of my own.
GM Bryan Murray should look closely at bringing Erik Cole in from Dallas to play with Jason Spezza.
The reasons? In the Matt Moulson article below I talked at length about Spezza needing a winger. Everybody’s talking about that. Even Brian 5or6’s Granny is talking about that. So as a fan, you go through the usual suspects like Moulson, Thomas Vanek and Ales Hemsky, but chances are, if something does get done, it will be a name that catches everyone by surprise. Like Oleg “Freakin” Saprykin.
Let me throw Erik Cole into the mill. Remember him? The guy who used to victimize Ottawa with speed and goal-scoring in his prime years?
I’ve always liked Cole over the years, but lately he’s been out of sight, out of mind. Playing over in Dallas, I don’t get to see him much anymore and his stats aren’t exactly forcing us early-to-bed Easterner’s to take much notice.
Then his named popped up in Elliotte Friedman’s 30 Thoughts article today – not in connection to Ottawa – but as a player who may be unhappy in Texas. As Friedman noted, Cole’s agent strongly denied that rumour and there was no more elaboration on the subject.
Chances are it really is case closed. Cole has a no-trade clause according to Cap Geek, and with one year left on his deal at $4.5 million (but just $4 million in actual salary), he’s not exactly a deadline rental.
Yet Dallas is a long-shot to make the playoffs in the brutal Western Conference. GM Jim Nill is in his first year at the helm and has barely started to rebuild the team that suffered some tough years under Joe Nieuwendyk. A guy like Erik Cole is not in the long-term plans and a Stanley Cup is not in the short-term plans. Cole has been around a long time and I’m sure he can see what’s happening.
From a purely hockey standpoint, it would tough to see him objecting to a trade. Family and lifestyle issues may stand in the way, but if you dangled the prospect of playing with Jason Spezza in front of Cole, wouldn’t he be at least a little interested in paying more taxes?
Many of you will scoff and say Cole is injury-prone, old (he’s 35) and not even close to the same player he was when he won a Stanley Cup with Carolina in 2006. He can’t be worth a $4.5 million cap hit. But how much would he be worth if he was riding shotgun with Spezza? How do you calculate that?
Cole scored 35 goals just two seasons ago with Montreal. He has 14 this season on a fairly bad Dallas team and he’s reached the 20 goal plateau 5 times since 2006.
He’s also left-handed shot, which is what Dany Heatley was (as is Moulson, another reason I thought he could work with Spezza - I'm obsessed with this apparently), and Cole is big (6’2, 212 lbs.) and fast. Coach Paul MacLean could have Spezza flanked by both Cole and Colin Greening, which would be a hulking but skilled line.
Of course, in this imaginary world, the Senators would be on the hook for Cole’s contract next year, but it would essentially replace Milan Michalek’s cap number, who will be leaving this summer as a UFA.
Both players have been injury prone (Cole once broke his back) but have played almost a full slate of games so far this season. If anything, swapping Cole’s deal for Michalek’s next year would work. It feels like the exact same argument I made for Moulson, although at least the Senators know Cole’s cap hit for next season. Moulson’s would have to be negotiated, and could top $5 million. I also get the feeling someone could get Cole for less than what Moulson would fetch. I don’t know that for sure, but it seems logical with what we've been hearing so far.
Cole may not be a perfect fit with Spezza, as he plays the game more like Michalek than he does Heatley, but unless the Senators want to ante up for his Stars teammate Ray Whitney or any other high profile winger, Cole might be a guy who has so far escaped much trade market scrutiny and could interest Murray.
Nill will be looking for younger players and the Senators have a lot of those. Probably too many at this point, particularly on defense and at centre where the Stars aren’t exactly stocked.
Could it work? I’m no Kreskin but it seems to me that letting Spezza waste away without a true scoring winger for the rest of the season is far riskier than what a winger like Cole could possibly bring.
Will it happen? Something will, but a blog about it won’t make anything happen sooner than it should. If it’s Cole, I’ll be stunned, but if it’s no one, I’ll be even more surprised.
Wednesday, January 22, 2014
Jason Spezza needs a winger. This is not breaking news.
If you’ve been watching the Ottawa Senators for the past 3 months, you know it as well as anybody. Coach Paul MacLean has put Spezza on an island, and that’s no place for your team captain and arguably most skilled player to be.
There’s no denying Spezza is having a tough year. Not a terrible year, but he’s not the same guy we’ve seen in the past. The reasons for that are numerous, and a lot of the blame rests with his own play, but he hasn’t exactly been put in the best position to maximize his particular talents. That’s on both MacLean and GM Bryan Murray, although Murray gets an "A" for effort by bringing in Bobby Ryan to play with Spezza, only to have MacLean keep them apart out of what seems like stubbornness at times.
Spezza is a glaring -17, second worst on the team, but that’s not necessarily an indication of a big drop-off in his defensive play. Spezza has always been a risk-taker and a bit iffy on the defensive side, but the difference this year is that his line is not scoring 5-on-5 like it has in the past. If anything, Spezza has improved his commitment to backchecking and playing down low in his own end (as a team captain has to do), but he’s been struck with the double plague of skating in front of bad goaltending early in the season and having a rotisserie of wingers on either side, none of whom are a natural fit.
And you can see it out there almost every night. When Spezza makes something happen, it’s usually because he’s forced the issue on his own, making a brilliant solo play while his wingers just try to go to the net and pull some defenseman along with them. Last night in Washington was a good example. You could tell Spezza was “on”, but he couldn’t really get any offense going 5-on-5. It took a power-play and an awkward looking game of tag with defenseman Patrick Wiercioch (who refused to shoot) for Spezza to just say, “screw this” and power one from the sideboards through Caps goalie Braden Holtby for the insurance goal in the third period.
There’s no doubt in my mind that Spezza is still a 90-point player in this league, but he’s not going to get there playing with 30-point wingers. He needs to play with a sniper to utilize his biggest strength – which is playmaking – but unless MacLean decides to loan either Ryan or Clarke MacArthur to Spezza’s line, this team seems to be wasting the franchise centre’s second-last contract year.
Cue the Matt Moulson rumours.
It makes sense at first glance. Moulson’s a natural goal scorer, a left-handed shooter like Dany Heatley was with a very manageable pro-rated $3.9 million salary (3.1 cap hit) the rest of this season until he becomes a UFA. Basically, it’s a rental player scenario that’s easy on the payroll and doesn’t carry a burden past this season, unless both sides want it to.
The other reason this makes sense is that Bryan Murray will be dealing with his nephew and ex-employee Tim Murray in Buffalo if this deal were to go down, and that’s surely what’s given this rumour some legs. TSN mentioned it, as did the Ottawa Sun, so this isn’t just one of those HF Boards doozies that occasionally seeps into the mainstream, causing seasoned reporters to panic thinking they missed a major lead. It all sounds fairly reasonable, even inevitable.
But so did Mike Sillinger, Peter Bondra, Martin Lapointe, and Mike Comrie. These things don’t always work out like they should.
If you’re wondering about Moulson’s credentials as a goal-scorer, Tim Wharnsby had a piece back in late-December pointing out that Moulson has scored the 12th most goals in the NHL since the 2009-10 season, putting him just behind the likes of Patrick Kane, John Tavares, Sidney Crosby, Jeff Carter and Bobby Ryan.
Some say that Moulson put up inflated numbers playing shotgun with Tavares, but why is that a criticism? Behind almost every goal-scoring winger is a number one centre. It just shows that Moulson can work with good players and be effective. If he’s coming to Ottawa, he’s coming to play with Spezza. The concerns seem overstated.
But this isn’t a slam-dunk, even though it looked like I was trying to lead you there.
Firstly, Tim Murray is a cagey bastard and knows the Senators prospect pool better than anyone in the league. He’s got a few chips he can play at the deadline, Moulson being one of them along with Ryan Miller and Steve Ott. Murray has to make an impact with his first moves as GM in Buffalo. If he’s going to make a deal with Ottawa, he’s going to go after his previous pet prospects in the Senators system and it’s going to be an attempted raid we haven’t seen the likes of since Lee Marvin in The Dirty Dozen.
Of course, we don’t know exactly what Buffalo would want out of Ottawa, but you can probably take a pretty good guess. We know Tim Murray loves Mark Stone, because we’ve heard him gush about Stone on local radio for a few years. Moulson would be an upgrade on Stone this year and probably next, but in the long run, that could be a move that backfires badly on Ottawa.
Moulson also isn’t exactly a “physical” player. Both Bryan and Tim Murray like big, strong teams and in that respect, Moulson may not be a fit for either GM. For the chance at a goal-scorer, sometimes you overlook their size or aggressiveness, as in the case of Kyle Turris (who’s proven to be tougher and feistier than his look suggests), but how many of those players can you take on board before it changes the style of your team?
Moulson isn’t small at six feet, but he doesn’t strike me as a Bryan Murray type player. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m not sure Bryan would give up a potential power-forward for a rental like Moulson.
Another way you can look at it is Moulson being a salary replacement for Milan Michalek next season.
Ottawa doesn’t want to add a ton of salary but they can’t go backwards either. The cap and floor are going to go up next season (allegedly) and it doesn’t look to me like Michalek will be re-signed, at least not at his current $6 million salary (4.3 cap hit). I like Michalek as a player, but he’s not scoring anymore. It’s hard to justify that money for his reduced role on the third line this season.
Yet the Senators can’t just have rookies fill that spot. Rookies don’t make enough money. To hit the floor, you have to have certain guys making over $3 million, even if they don’t seem completely worth it. That’s just the reality. That’s why Colin Greening got such a sweet deal and that’s why Jared Cowen did as well.
Moulson will definitely be getting a raise on his $3.9 million salary. Someone will give him $4-4.5 in the NHL. Why not the Senators? Maybe they can float above the cap floor and get a real scoring winger with a trade-and-sign deal for Moulson.
Maybe they go in another direction entirely.
You have to remember the Free Agent pool seems to get slimmer every summer. Spezza still has one more year on his contract. The Senators don’t want him trying out new wingers every week for the duration of that. Someone has to be brought in. Do they want to bring Heatley back this summer? That’s outright laughable considering the bad blood between him and Eugene Melnyk. Do you ante up for Thomas Vanek or Mike Cammalleri? Ales Hemsky?
Suddenly Matt Moulson looks a little more reasonable if they can get it done.
Then again, it all depends on Tim Murray being reasonable.
We know he won’t be cheery and charitable. So don’t go ordering that Moulson nameplate to paste over your #26 Ryan Shannon jersey.
All 3 of you.
Friday, January 17, 2014
The game last night between the Senators and the Canadiens had some kind of magic to it, a strange forgotten appeal that somehow found its way here from the 80’s when the game was wide open and a little more dangerous. The rink in Kanata was charged, the two teams getting away from their coaching systems enough that it resembled something long gone, something unpredictable and addicting.
We saw a winger, Bobby Ryan, skate over the blue line and beat Carey Price clean. That doesn’t really happen anymore except for the very few elite players with an overpowering shot. Even for them, it’s rare. We saw tragic bounces (Jared Cowen), wild rushing defensemen (Erik Karlsson), actual athletic goaltending that was at times astonishing (Price), 9 goals, lead-changes and even a wild overtime celebration from P.K. Subban who until that time was playing in the shadow of a determined Karlsson all night long. I think his histrionics had as much to do with beating Karlsson as it did with beating the Senators.
It was a hell of a game … so good in fact that it dawned on me how few of these we actually get outside of the playoffs. The consequences of the outcome didn’t seem to matter once you got caught up in it all. You just wanted to see what happened next, and you got a little nervous thinking about it. I never found myself wandering over to Twitter out of boredom. I didn’t want to see how sarcastic or angry everyone was over somebody's ice-time. I was just watching a hockey game, unable to break away.
And it reminded me of Lonny and my Old Man.
My Dad’s best friend was a guy named Lonny. We called him “Uncle Lonny” but there was no relation there. It just seemed natural to call him that and I think he liked it. They drank beers together on Saturday nights – Molson Ex in stub bottles only - and showed me my first hockey games just a couple of years after I was born ‘76. I don’t remember those early nights, of course, but eventually it kind of comes together in the early 80’s when Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier caught my attention.
Lonny had red hair and always wore a bright orange Calgary Flames jersey that was a little too tight. My old man wore a red Chicago Blackhawks sweater, and later on a white Washington Capitals. They used to order them from the ads in the back of The Hockey News and it was a big deal to them.
They’d get stinko drunk but never get a drop of anything on those sweaters. When the game was over the jerseys would go back on a hanger in the closet. Sometimes my old man would take out the Blackhawks jersey and just stare at it for a while and put it back, wordlessly. These were the most valuable things in our house, or at least it seemed that way to me. Transmissions would fall out of our cars and lamps would wobble over and smash on the floor, all replaceable. But those sweaters were handled with perfect care, sober or not.
When I was real young my Dad told me he’d once played for the Blackhawks and knew Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita. He was lying but it was a pretty good lie. When I was in Grade 3 my Mom told me he was full of it but my Dad never admitted to anything. He’d just smile when I asked him if it was really true.
“Where do you think I got the sweater? They don’t just give them to anybody. You have to be a player. You shoulda seen me out there. I cut down Marcel Dionne one night with a stick right to the back of his leg. Wap! Down he went. They didn’t mess with me after that.”
So I’d ask, “Did Uncle Lonny play for the Flames too Dad?”
“Are you kidding? He’s a shrimp”.
It was a jumble of confusing lies but I was in awe. Seeing Lonny and my Dad in those bright sweaters every Saturday night held some kind of power for me. It became a ritual – the one bottle of pop allowed during the week (in a glass bottle, kept ice cold) - the bowl of potato chips or caramel popcorn. You died all week at school thinking about Saturday night.
They’d watch the game and explain to me what was going on, things like “Now, Dale Hunter, he’s the scariest guy in hockey. Look at his eyes when he’s playing.” And I’d watch Dale Hunter’s eyes, cold and flat, his mouth a straight line across his square face. And Hunter would inevitably grab a Montreal Canadien and bury him at centre ice, causing an all-out brawl between the Nordiques and the Habs.
One of the games I remember most from that time was the one they now call the “Good Friday Massacre”. It was absolutely insane. April 20th, 1984, second round of the playoffs on CBC and all hell broke loose. A bench clearing brawl ended the 2nd period. Then when they came out for the 3rd, before the refs were even on the ice, another one broke out and they couldn’t stop it. There was blood everywhere, like you’d see on those old Saturday afternoon wrestling shows I’d watch with Abdullah The Butcher and Greg “The Hammer” Valentine. It was sort of scary but you couldn’t look away either.
Lonny would say, “Watch Gretzky. Watch where he passes the puck. Looks like nobody’s there, right? But he knows exactly where Kurri is going every time. “ And Gretzky would cross the blueline, pull up, spin and saucer a puck to open ice just in time for Kurri to arrive and whip it past Mike Vernon. I’d just stare, trying to understand it all.
Lonny would lose his mind every time Calgary lost to Edmonton. But he had this laugh exactly like Barney Rubble from The Flinstones, a kind of “hyu, hyu, hyu” laugh that I can still hear after I’d ask him “When can I play in the NHL?”
We watched it all together in those years, in front of a brand new RCA with the channel dials at our house in Dunrobin, just down the road from the Younghusbands corner store (one of the greatest store names I can even think of) where you could buy The Hockey News in the big broadsheet size. That was truly The Bible Of Hockey before it turned into a grandstand that just whines about everything they hate about the game. Not that they’re alone in that regard, but that magazine helped me love the game growing up and now I can’t even read it anymore without getting depressed. Times have changed.
I sat there and watched Wayne Gretzky lift the Stanley Cup for the first time after beating the Islanders in ’84. I remember that Mark Messier goal against Billy Smith early in the series that changed the tide. I probably got my love of Messier from Lonny always saying “That goddamned Messier!” every time he ran over Joel Otto of the Flames.
There was a hockey tournament that my team played, I can’t remember which town now, but it was a bit of a long drive, so Lonny decided to come along with me and my Dad. They wore the Flames and Blackhawks jersey and acted like two kids on their own for the first time, taking me to the arena canteen and filling me with chuckwagons and ice cream while they drank about 30 coffees out of Styrofoam cups and cheered me on from the stands.
Before our last game of the weekend, this older guy came in our dressing room wearing a Detroit Red Wings team jacket. I can’t remember his name, but he was some kind of NHL scout for the Red Wings and our coach said he wanted to say a few things to us.
This old guy got in the middle of the room with that amazing red leather jacket that had the Wings logo over his heart and proceeded to talk about how he knew Steve Yzerman when Steve was just a young kid from Nepean playing minor hockey. He said all this stuff about working hard and chasing your dreams, but all we could think about was this guy knew Steve Yzerman. This guy, standing in front of us, was once in the same room as Yzerman, NHL star. We were now in the same room as this guy. For some reason, that fact blew all our minds. We went out and trounced the other team and won the tournament. Just a hint of the NHL, just a thread of an association was enough to send us into complete reverie.
Strangely enough, it was Lonny who pointed me in a direction away from hockey on the way home from that trip.
With Lonny riding shotgun, my Dad driving and me in the middle, we stopped in Arnprior to eat and my Dad let me buy a heavy metal magazine like he always did. I was starting to get into music and really liked Kiss and Quiet Riot and all that early 80’s metal that was big at the time. I think the mag was a Hit Parader, but it definitely had Dee Snider from Twisted Sister in all his neon pink and billowing hair glory. Lonny happened to look over and see the cover of this as I started flipping through it in the truck on the way home.
Now Lonny was as nice a man as you can find, and to this day I still keep in touch when I can, even though my Dad died in 2003. But back then was the time of the PMRC – The Parents Musical Resource Centre led by Tipper Gore (Al Gore’s wife), and they were the ones calling for bans on a lot of metal music and ended up ushering in the Explicit Lyrics stickers you still see on CD’s today. Paranoia was rampant that metal was causing kids to commit suicide. Ozzy Osbourne and Judas Priest ended up in trials over it but acquitted because the charges were so ridiculous.
Lonny didn’t like the look of it. He asked my Dad why I was allowed to read that kind of filth. My old man just shrugged. He knew it wasn’t doing me any harm. But Lonny told him to pull over and took the magazine from my hands. He got out of the truck, turned his back on me, threw it on the gravel, unzipped his pants and pissed on it.
Right on Dee Snider’s face.
I can still hear the piss hitting the glossy paper in full stream as me and father sat there silently. Then he got back in the truck and we rolled on home, nobody saying a word about it. But in my head, I was suddenly a complete and utterly devoted convert to heavy metal.
Something that could cause that kind of reaction from a nice guy like Lonny surely deserved my full attention, and from then on, hockey sort of went away until many years later when I rediscovered my love of the game just as Ottawa came back to the NHL in 1992.
Now when I listen to call-in shows or go on Twitter, and I see and hear all that snide anger and smarminess, I can kind of hear my Uncle Lonny pissing on that magazine. I know that’s ridiculous, but it demonstrated an important point to me in my life.
If that many people have a problem with it – including the fights, the hits, the traditions – then it gives me a kind of satisfaction to say I still love all of it, even when it gets ugly from time to time. The more people complain about different aspects of the game, the more I embrace those same aspects. It may be a little out of spite, but it’s also a weight off your shoulders to just accept the game for what it is, not what it could be.
I’ve always wanted to go back to that headspace where you like something without any reservations. Where you believe the myth and buy in completely. I know that’s impossible once you’re older, but staying away from Twitter during games and just watching closely has moved me back enough that I can at least remember what it was like. The feeling will pass in a day or two, but I at least wanted to try and capture it while it lasted. Next week I’ll be ripping the team for something completely unimportant, just like everyone else.
Somehow this all went through my head during the game last night. Maybe it won’t make much sense to you, but I have to thank Lonny all these years later for teaching me how to love the game, and also for pissing on Dee Snider’s face on the side of the road outside Arnprior.
Believe it or not, it all connects for me.
Tuesday, January 14, 2014
With General Manager Bryan Murray riding the high of a newly announced four-year contract (two as GM, two as an “advisor”) and the team on a sudden upswing in the standings, you can’t blame Senators owner Eugene Melnyk and Murray effectively ringing the dinner bell here in town, relaying the message to fans that the Senators are “open for business”.
After months of nothing but bad news, it was time for a few smiles.
Already enduring the perception (fairly or unfairly) of being the local Scrooge, Melnyk seemed to dance around the subject of increasing the team’s player budget. On the conference call to announce the Murray deal, both parties hinted that room could be made to bring in a player or two who can help them this year, leading most observers to think that the hard ceiling of the Senators internal budget may be softening. Some speculated that Murray may have even demanded more budget room if he was going to stay on, but that’s just conjecture at this point.
Regardless, the effect was a good one for the Senators on the public relations front. It gave the impression of a stable management team working for an owner still committed to winning, even if it meant doling out a few extra bones with those alligator arms that couldn’t quite reach the wallet during the Daniel Alfredsson negotiations this past summer.
They even talked about the Stanley Cup coming to town in the next two years. It was quite the show.
However, if you listened to Melnyk’s interview on TSN 1200 Monday afternoon with Ian Mendes and Lee Versage, a few hours after the initial feel-good announcement, a bit of the veneer had already washed away.
Melnyk bristled at one of Mendes’ questions about a possible raising of the internal budget and avoided a direct answer, instead going into his now familiar routine of “any idiot can go spend money” but he wasn’t going to be one of those fools.
Specifically he said “There are so many idiots out there that spend to the cap every year. Take a look where they are. It all comes down to cost per point. That’s the only stat I care about. Cost per point.”
That’s a bit of a tonal shift from the Melnyk we heard in the Murray conference-call and doesn’t exactly give the average fan goosebumps of anticipation. Instead, it sounds like the philosophy has only hardened, not softened.
It seems that any deal is likely to be a money-in, money-out proposition or possibly a minor add-on cost that could be absorbed by cutting elsewhere. With the Canadian dollar trending down and a Stanley Cup out of reach this season (they aren’t even in a playoff spot right now), don’t expect a spending frenzy any time soon.
To put even more of a downer on the point, Melnyk actually mentioned the dreaded “relocation” scenario and brought up Rod Bryden’s bankruptcy.
“It’s not a philanthropic thing... you have to go into a season and say, ‘You know what? We need to support this team.' Otherwise, you know what happens? Exactly. Everybody keeps forgetting what happened 11 years ago. The team goes bankrupt and it moves. Period. Full stop. And it was going to move until I came in. So unfortunately I take heat for it. I don’t mind taking the bullet…”
It was a bit of deserved grandstanding on Melnyk’s part, reminding the city that he jumped in to save the franchise (which he undoubtedly did), but he also went on to make a very reasonable statement that maintaining the team’s financial viability was the top concern. Hard to argue with that. Nobody wants to see the franchise endangered because Melnyk decided that it was Stanley Cup or bust this season or next.
Yet, as always with Melnyk, it’s the sometimes crude, often awkward way he says these things (usually on Toronto radio) that makes the fans wince. Bryan Murray always finds a way to make bad news seem … not so bad. Melnyk has a way of making everyone panic, even when he thinks he’s delivering good news.
Fans don’t like to hear financial ultimatums. As smart as they are, fans also don’t want to accept financial reality when it comes to their passion. They can live with it, but they don’t like to be reminded every time their owner gets in front of a microphone that they can’t compete with “the big boys”. A little illusion goes a long way for fans, even when they know it’s a farce. They don’t want to be lied to, but they also don’t want to know the bald truth.
And all this was just supposed to be a short intro to what I initially wanted to write about - who the potential trade bait on this Senators team would be - but of course the lure of writing about Melnyk was too much once the coffee kicked in.
I find him a fascinating character, one who steps in it every chance he gets, but who also has the qualities of a true fan in him somewhere. I can’t think of another NHL owner, other than Ted Leonsis in Washington, who can wear a team sweater in public and not look totally uncomfortable. Jeremy Jacobs and Ed Snider seem like smiling vipers, while other owners are just corporate figureheads, made mysterious by their public absence.
Melnyk is like a throwback to the old pre-Bettman days, when everyone knew who the owner of a team was. Some of them got thrown in jail, but most of them had very public personalities. Melnyk isn’t exactly Conn Smythe or Jack Kent Cooke, but he’s still a presence. There’s something wonderfully unpolished about him, but that always looks better on an owner with a lot of money to spend, not on a guy trying to keep costs modest.
You can’t raise expectations and talk about the Stanley Cup without putting real money behind it. That’s the reality, not the illusion.
I’m not sure what Melnyk’s legacy will be in this town when it’s all over, but it will be a hell of a story regardless.
Wednesday, January 8, 2014
As of this writing, the departure of Assistant General Manager Tim Murray from Ottawa to become the new Buffalo Sabres GM hasn’t been officially confirmed, but when Bob McKenzie says it’s going to happen, you can probably go ahead and turn out the lights.
The first thing I saw stirring in fans was anxiety at the pending announcement, and that’s understandable. Tim Murray has recently been acclaimed as the “genius behind the curtain”, the ideal successor to his Uncle Bryan, and the man who invented hockey scouting.
Yet here’s why Tim Murray’s departure will initially hurt, but ultimately prove to be a survivable change for the Senators organization.
Firstly, it was never a sure thing that Tim was the heir apparent to Bryan Murray in Ottawa. That decision would have ultimately come down to Eugene Melnyk, although I’m sure Bryan would have highly recommended his nephew. Tim’s hockey acumen would make him appear to be the candidate, but that’s not always the only qualification to be a manager in this league.
It is for a scout, maybe a director of hockey operations, but not for a job that requires you to step in front of a microphone and calmly explain why your group of players just tanked for a month straight but fans should still rush out to buy tickets for a Sunday afternoon game against the Florida Panthers.
Tim Murray, although noticeably improved in recent years, is not exactly a crowd pleaser. Luckily, the Buffalo Sabres don’t need their GM to be one right now. They’re just understandably desperate for a hockey guy to come in there and fix their system, not be the public face of their franchise. The svelte Pat Lafontaine is doing a good enough job of that right now. Instead, the Sabres are going back to the meat and potatoes. They resurrected Ted Nolan and now look like they’re trading in the suave dinner-and-a-handshake style of Darcy Regier for the melt-your-face-off stare of Tim Murray.
Tim is gruff to the point of satire. When he announces picks at the NHL Entry Draft, it’s like he’s in the midst of an audit from Revenue Canada. A public smile is rare. He smoked well into his time with the Ottawa Senators, although that may be a habit he’s already quit. This guy can’t spell “polished”. This is not to disparage Tim Murray as a person. I quite like his no-nonsense style and I’m sure he’s a little gentler away from the hockey rink, but his public persona doesn’t seem to be a put-on.
Of course, being the grandfatherly, friendly face of the franchise was a job that fell to his Uncle Bryan, so Tim had no need to plaster on a fake grin and reassure fluttering hearts across the city. He just had to get hockey decisions right. And with the help of a great hockey operations department around him, especially with Pierre Dorion as Director of Player Personnel, Tim Murray helped build this Senators team to the point where they can trade a first-round pick and say with a straight face that they don’t mind because it’s a poor draft year in 2014. That’s a luxury most teams don’t have.
In short, he’s a great fit in Buffalo, because of their different needs, but not necessarily a smooth successor in Ottawa where some finesse is needed on the public relations front.
Pierre Dorion, almost ten years younger than Tim, also comes from a scouting background, had a huge hand in the building of this team, and has a public style much more similar to Bryan Murray. For one, he’s actually smiling in his media guide photo. Tim’s photo comes across like a mugshot from the Apalachin Conference in 1957. Secondly, Dorion regularly makes appearances on local sports radio and comes across as both smart and a guy you’d like to have a beer with.
You might be sitting there thinking I’m making too big of a deal over appearances, and you’re probably right. But there’s no disputing Dorion’s track record in this organization, and the fact that he’s media friendly (and young) is an extra layer to a guy now likely destined to be second in-command in Ottawa.
The Vancouver Canucks have a GM, Mike Gillis, who’s very similar to Tim Murray in style, and probably less personable if that’s possible. It’s worked out well so far, but the two-headed negativity they now have with John Tortorella joining him may prove to be a little sickening after a while.
Compare Gillis to Bryan Murray for a moment. When Gillis talks, you feel strangely depressed, like he’s being forced to impart the minimum of information just to keep from being fined. When Bryan talks you always know exactly where his head his, where the team is going, what the positives and negatives are. You walk away feeling that this is still just a game, and not everything is life and death. There’s perspective there. Bryan doesn’t BS anybody, but he also knows when to say the right thing to keep this already nervous city away from the bridges and cliffs. There’s an art to it all, something that has nothing to do with knowing the 100 best under-18 players in US College hockey.
The eventual switchover to Tim from Bryan in Ottawa may not have been as clear a path as some imagined. Say what you want about the intelligence of local hockey fans, but they also need their news sugar coated from time to time, and I’m not sure Tim is capable of such a thing. At least he’s shown no signs of being that kind of communicator.
Yet I can definitely see Dorion stepping into that role and maintaining the same narrative that Murray has preached since he took over in the summer of 2007. Bryan Murray has survived in his job because he was able to communicate a hopeful message, both to the fans and his owner, during a stretch where he fired 3 coaches in what felt like two months. A lot of general managers would have been cut loose for presiding over such chaos, but Bryan made it through and has never been stronger in his role.
Dorion seems to be more like Bryan than Tim is, despite not being related. I think that’s a positive.
The Senators are going to lose a hell of a hockey mind in Tim Murray, but the organization has enough smart people behind him to survive and prosper. From Dorion, to Randy Lee to Vaclav Burda over in Europe.
And what makes you think Bryan is going anywhere soon?
What would he do with himself anyways if he wasn’t sitting in his box swearing under his breath and trying not to twitch uncontrollably every time a goal goes in against his team?
If Keith Richards can get up onstage in 2014 and play Jumping Jack Flash as good as he could in 1969, there’s no reason Murray can’t stick around to see the guys he drafted with Tim bring this team on a long playoff run.
You can’t get these kinds of guys to quit anyways. I’m sure Tim was aware of that too and maybe opened his eyes to leaving.
Good luck to Tim in Buffalo. He deserves the opportunity.
Friday, January 3, 2014
If the Ottawa Senators are going to make the playoffs, they’re going to have to crawl over Daniel Alfredsson and the Detroit Red Wings to do so.
Only the hockey gods could have such a sick and deranged sense of humour.
As of Friday morning, the Senators are 3 measly points behind the Red Wings for that last, coveted Wild Card spot with no teams in between. But the only ones smiling about it are the reporters.
Surely Alfredsson isn't happy about the situation.
He thought he’d signed on with the Detroit franchise that’s made the playoffs every year since 1991 and are always a threat to play into June. Instead he’s playing on a team in obvious decline that’s already been through both a 7 and 6 game winless streak over the course of three months. They've lost 3 of their last 4 and 10 of their last 14, all the while managing to let a whole slew of Eastern Conference teams to get within reach, including New Jersey, the Rangers, Columbus and Carolina.
But it’s Ottawa who must give the Wings more sleepless nights than the others. Winners of their last 3 and suddenly getting real goaltending from Craig Anderson, the Senators undoubtedly have the most talent of the teams currently out of the two wildcard spots. Ottawa has played well-below what they’re capable of and that’s got to be a concern for Detroit with their number one goalie Jimmy Howard having lost 11 of his last 12. Anderson looks like he may be turning things around. Howard, not so much.
It gets even more complicated for the Wings as they now embark on a 5-game road trip that brings them way out West to meet powerhouses like Los Angeles, Anaheim and San Jose, bookended by trips to Dallas and New York – neither “gimme games” in any sense.
The good news for the Wings is that they’re actually better on the road than they are at home, sporting a 12-4-3 record away from Joe Louis arena where they’re 4 games under .500. If you’re a Sens fan looking at those numbers, you might be thinking you can’t catch a break, but the Wings have already faced the Sharks and Ducks and lost both times. They haven’t played a lot of the really good teams on the road yet with the exception of Boston at the start of the season. So there’s a real chance for Ottawa to make up some ground here if the Wings falter. And their recent record indicates there’s a better than good chance of that happening.
Despite Ottawa’s recent run of good hockey, they can’t be smiling about the situation either.
On top of being a lousy team for most of October and November, they now have to catch and overcome the one organization that could do them the most public relations damage. Let’s be serious here. Having the Wings be the one team to keep Ottawa from making the playoffs would be heartbreaking for the entire Sens organization.
It would once again remind everyone of the lousy summer that had fans openly mocking their owner for perceived cheapness in the Alfie negotiations, only now Eugene Melnyk would also be losing playoff profits at the end of the fairy tale.
It would be one thing for the Sens to miss and see Detroit finish in the top 3 like most had them pegged. It would be another to miss out because the Wings out-survived you for the final Wild Card spot.
Let’s face reality here. The Leafs have shown no signs of really falling off the map despite a few bad stretches along the way. I’m not saying they’re a lock for the playoffs but I can see them pulling away from Detroit and Ottawa more than I can see them falling back.
In fact, let’s just ignore every other possibility. What the hell.
We all know it’s coming down to Detroit and Ottawa because the one thing you can expect as a fan is constant pain and torment, and this could provide the richest slice of it since the Battle Of Ontario days between Jacques Martin and Pat Quinn. We’re talking psyche altering suffering here if Alfredsson denies the Senators the post-season in 2014. But we could also be talking about Ottawa proving Alfredsson wrong by denying him the chance to win that Stanley Cup he so genuinely wants.
It really is a bizarre showdown but one that seems inevitable. Imagine for a moment the Senators having to beat Toronto on the last day of the schedule and waiting one more day to see if Detroit will beat the St. Louis Blues.
Then imagine a city in meltdown mode.
You just know it’s coming, right? “Serenity now… insanity later.”
Monday, December 30, 2013
Fans who have been (impatiently) waiting for Robin Lehner to supplant Craig Anderson as this team’s number one goalie are likely to be waiting a little longer than they thought.
It’s not happening just yet.
Anderson still has the confidence of Coach Paul MacLean and the goalie’s recent efforts have rewarded the sometimes stubborn-to-the-brink-of-death coach.
Most of the damage to Anderson this season has been done by the Western Conference. Against the much superior West, Anderson is 1-6-2 with a 4.48 goals against average and a brutal .867 save percentage. Those games have been among the worst of Anderson’s career, giving up 6 goals to Chicago, 5 to San Jose and 4 to Los Angeles, Minnesota, Vancouver and Phoenix respectively. That means out of 11 games against a Western Conference opponent, Anderson has given up 4 or more goals in 6 of them. That would have been enough to make Hardy Astrom retch all over his beautiful Colorado Rockies jersey.
But when Anderson faces Eastern teams, his numbers are actually quite good. In 15 games he’s 10-3-2 with a 2.56 GAA and a .921 SV%. He’s won 7 out of his last 10 against Eastern teams and that includes Boston (twice), Pittsburgh and Washington among others. His biggest pain in the East has been the Philadelphia Flyers who racked up 9 goals on Anderson in only 2 games. Yet Anderson still came out on top in one of those via the shootout.
The good news is Anderson is getting better as the team improves defensively in front of him. The bad news is Ottawa faces Western teams in 4 out of their next 6 games. Yet none of those are the elites. They see Winnipeg on Thursday and go out on a 3 game swing into Denver, Nashville and Minnesota. Keep in mind all of those teams have more points than Ottawa with the exception of the Preds who sit with 38 points to Ottawa’s 39 (as of Monday morning).
So what does MacLean do? Don’t expect him to deviate from starting Anderson throughout most of this stretch unless things really go to hell (and that’s always a possibility with this team). Sure, Lehner has better numbers against the West but only one win to show for it (at home against St. Louis). He’s done a lot of cleanup work for Anderson in Western Conference games and may have to step in again, but I think that’s less likely to happen now.
As good as Lehner has been, the one result that matters – wins – have been elusive for Lehner. He has one win in his last 9 appearances, not long after becoming the go-to fan favourite for his 3-game winning streak in November. Many even point to MacLean going back to Anderson right after Lehner’s streak as the reason the season rolled into the ditch just as the snow started falling in the Capital.
Forgetting the math, what this probably comes down to is MacLean’s personality. It’s not carved out of marshmallows like Dustin Byfuglien’s physique. It’s weather-beaten rock, creased and chipped from many hard years in this league. People laugh at things like a “code” in today’s NHL, mostly because everyone is hyper-cynical and irrationally non-traditionalist, but coaches have a “code” as well as the players. A lot of that code has to do with loyalty and MacLean follows it religiously. And 9 out of 10 coaches would have done the same thing with Anderson and Lehner, especially when Anderson helped win you a Jack Adams one year and made you a finalist the other. There’s a belief there that a hockey player is more than just a month’s worth of stats. His whole career and what he’s capable of factor into the decision.
Losing games can change that in a hurry, but is there any coach with more security right now than Paul MacLean? Maybe only Mike Babcock in Detroit or Joel Quenneville in Chicago. Sometimes you have a little house money to play with and MacLean is spending some of it on Anderson in the belief that long-term it's the best decision for the team.
Good goalies have a tendency to work their way out of slumps and Anderson is undoubtedly a good goalie. Yet whatever steps Anderson would take, team defense would send him back a couple. Lehner has been victimized by the same giveaways and soft play that his defenseman and backchecking forwards have been providing all season and his numbers have been hurt too. Think of how good Lehner’s stats would be if he was playing behind even a reasonably better defense?
It’s all conjecture, and so is any prediction of what MacLean will or won’t do with his lineup. But if you wet your finger and put it to the wind, the breeze is still blowing Anderson’s way right now.
Stay tuned for the next disaster when all this could change in a moment.
Wednesday, December 18, 2013
Watching Cody Ceci score his first NHL goal in overtime against the St. Louis Blues on Monday night was something a lot of people around here won't forget. But my memory is possibly marred by the cold ones I've had over the years, so I decided to go back and see how many clips of Senators first goals I could find. Here they are.
Mika Zibanejad - Jan. 30 2013 vs Montreal
Jean-Gabriel Pageau - Apr. 12 2013 @ New Jersey
Erik Karlsson - Dec. 19 2009 vs Minnesota
Nick Foligno - Oct. 18 2007 vs Montreal
Jakob Silfverberg - Jan. 21 2013 vs Florida
Kaspars Daugavins - Oct. 30 2011 vs Toronto
Patrick Wiercioch - Mar. 3 2013 @ Long Island
Jared Cowen - Nov. 1 2011 @ Boston
Eric Gryba - Mar. 23 2013 vs Tampa Bay
Andre Benoit - Feb. 19 2013 vs Long Island
Colin Greening - Mar. 3 2011 @ Atlanta
Here's the skinny on some more notable Senators first goals (if you can find good video of any of these, please send me a link).
Daniel Alfredsson - Oct. 13 1995 @ Florida
Alexei Yashin - Oct. 14 1993 @ Florida
Marian Hossa - Dec. 9 1998 @ Florida
Chris Phillips - Oct. 30 1997 @ Florida
Radek Bonk - Jan. 27 1995 @ Pittsburgh
Alexandre Daigle - Oct. 9 1993 @ St. Louis
Pavol Demitra - Oct. 9 1993 @ St. Louis
Mike Fisher - Oct. 31 1999 @ Atlanta
Chris Neil - Oct. 30 2001 @ Atlanta
Jason Spezza - Oct. 29 2002 @ Philadelphia
Erik Condra - Feb. 26 2011 vs Philadelphia
Wade Redden - Oct. 5 1996 @ Montreal
Zack Smith Jan. 16 2010 @ Montreal
Andreas Dackell - Oct. 5 1996 @ Montreal
Chris Kelly - Oct. 29 2005 @ Toronto
Monday, December 16, 2013
It’s been a tough season for Paul MacLean, hasn’t it?
The Jack Adams award winner for 2012-13 is more often than not standing in front of reporters that want answers after yet another loss, many of them at home, and his words seem more clipped and brief by the day. We’re not talking John Tortorella brief yet, but for MacLean, a guy who likes to kid around with the “ink-stained wretches” occasionally if things are going well, there’s been little time for jokes in a season gone almost irreversibly sour.
And for the first time, fans are slowly turning on a guy who was actually this team’s biggest hero in last April’s first-round series against the rival Montreal Canadiens. Sure, fans are fickle, especially the brand that stalk Twitter looking to complain about everything even mildly associated with the NHL (“with fans like these…”) but MacLean was sort of a folk hero around these parts with that iconic moustache and old-school attitude, turning this Senators team around after some disastrous seasons under the Little Napolean, Cory Clouston.
The seeming domination of Habs coach Michel Therrien in last year’s playoffs – on the ice and off – cemented his status in this town. You’d see the phrase everywhere on Twitter – “Trust the ‘stache”. Team loses Alfie? “Trust the ‘stache”. Team decimated by injuries to Erik Karlsson and Jason Spezza? “Trust the ‘stache”. Twitter accounts were created for his upper lip. A lookalike of Mac became a minor celebrity.
Just having him walk into a room seemed to fix things immediately. But behind it all, MacLean never claimed that status. In fact, he’s said multiple times over his two and a half seasons here that he and his coaching staff are “scared to death” of this team falling off and the possibilities ahead. Finally, those fears have come home in a very real way.
Right from the beginning of this campaign, nothing seemed right. Of course, two of the main reasons for the Senators struggles were out of his control. Losing Daniel Alfredsson and Sergei Gonchar, two future Hall Of Famers, was a blow. Sure, they replaced Alfie with Bobby Ryan, at least stats-wise (intangibles from his presence were not replaced), but the Gonchar loss was never really addressed, forcing other defenseman to play minutes they obviously weren’t ready for.
It’s also not MacLean’s fault that Craig Anderson has come in this season and fallen off a cliff.
Understandably loyal to a goaltender that had a lot to do with him winning the Jack Adams, MacLean has probably now stuck too long with Anderson while Robin Lehner, having played better so far, has been sitting on the bench for important games. The fans complained immediately about Anderson getting starts over Lehner, but you can see why Mac kept going back to him. Simply, Anderson was that good last year. He’s a leader on this team and in the prime of his career. 9 out of 10 coaches would have done the same. It’s almost a “code” for coaches.
But sometimes it just doesn't work. Sometimes that goalie spends a whole year floundering. Tim Thomas once lost his starting job to Tuukka Rask but came back the next year and won a Stanley Cup. Roberto Luongo was once on his way out of Vancouver, now he’s playing incredible again. Goalies can disappear for a while. The trouble is figuring out when they’ll come back. If you get it wrong, a whole season can go down the toilet.
What’s clear now is Anderson needs to give way to Lehner in a hail-Mary attempt to save this season. MacLean spent yesterday “pondering” who was going to start against St. Louis on Monday night, but it’s hard to believe he won’t go with Lehner after Anderson’s two soft goals got him yanked against Los Angeles Saturday afternoon. Mac may be loyal to a fault, but the fault lines are turning into chasms.
The defense. Let’s not talk about the defense…
Now MacLean is raising eyebrows with the sudden decrease in leading scorer Bobby Ryan’s ice-time over the past two games. Ryan played a season-low 11:53 in a win against Buffalo last Thursday, and MacLean liked the effect so much he kept Ryan to 14:38 against Los Angeles, a team Ryan knows intimately from his days with the Ducks and has had a lot of success against. It also bewildered fans because the Senators were behind early in that game but MacLean played Colin Greening and Zack Smith almost two minutes more. Of course, Ryan doesn’t kill penalties and those two minutes of short-handed time make up almost all the extra minutes Smith and Greening played. Still, the notion is out there now that somehow there’s a possible rift between Ryan and MacLean.
Or, more to the point, fans are asking “Has MacLean lost his mind?” Don’t bet on it, but he might have lost a bit of a handle on this season.
More frustrating, from my view, is the fact that he continues to yo-yo wingers around this team’s best centre, Jason Spezza. He refuses to try Ryan there for more than a game or even a few shifts, which means we’ll likely never know if this summertime match made in heaven could even come close to the lethal power of the Spezza-Dany Heatley duo that almost won this team a Stanley Cup in 2007.
Putting Clarke MacArthur with Spezza last week was a strong move and it seemed to work, giving the team two lines that could score. Yet against L.A., MacArthur was moved back with Kyle Turris and Ryan as the mishmash continued. Erik Condra spent time with Spezza again and every time MacLean puts Mika Zibanejad in that spot, Spezza comes alive and the duo have the puck for long stretches.
Who Spezza actually starts with tonight against St. Louis (unknown at the time of writing) will likely not be there by the end of the game and Spezza must be quietly wondering what it all means. He can’t complain, because team captains are supposed to be in lock-step with their coach, even if they don’t agree with everything. Spezza cares more about winning than he does personal stats at this point – he’s said it and I fully believe him – but he must be worried that he can’t help this team win when MacLean doesn’t give him the best tools. I don’t buy that Turris is now this team’s number one centre anymore than I bought Patrick Wiercioch as an immediate replacement for Gonchar.
Spezza needs some stability around him, the same stability that Turris was afforded, but so far MacLean has shown more impatience than a Black Friday shopper looking for a cheap television. Some will say it’s more a story about how Zibanejad has been moved around despite playing some great hockey, but the torch hasn’t been passed yet on Spezza. This is still his team and it will sit on his shoulders just as much as it does MacLean’s.
Somehow, the coach has to get all these mini-controversies ironed out but that’s not going to be easy. I don’t know if he’s “lost his touch”, as many are claiming, but something has gone wrong in that room that we’re not privy to. Even the players probably don’t know what it is. Maybe this is just a mediocre team who overvalued their players, or maybe it was fan expectations that ballooned too quick in what is still a rebuilding effort.
But we’re used to seeing MacLean pull this thing out of the fire. When we don’t see him do it, suddenly he’s more human than we like.
For what it’s worth, I think MacLean will get this thing right again. But as I hear the chorus of panic all around me, it’s getting harder to defend some of his decisions right now.