Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Hi all,

Just a short note to let you know I haven’t been hauled away by a pack of rabid dogs or been in a Mexican prison. I’ve been hella busy with other things in life and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. That’s why I’m putting a bullet into Black Aces for now, effectively ending the run that’s been going on since 2007 and before that on the original Black Aces in 2004.

The reasons: I have a new child on the way in August and a new position at work that takes up almost all of my time that I previously had for the blog. There’s just no way I can keep it current so I’m going to “walk before they make me run”, as Keith Richards once said.

It doesn’t mean Black Aces is permanently dead. It’s just on hold until I have some real time. I don’t want people coming here looking for new content when a big deal goes down and being disappointed. If something so momentous happens that I can’t help myself but write a few hundred words, I’ll do so. Who knows, maybe in a few months I’ll get the itch again and find the time in the middle of the night with 3 cups of coffee flowing through my sleep deprived brain. If I do pick it up again, I’ll post a notice on Twitter, so go ahead and follow me there if you don’t already.

So that’s it. For now. Thanks to all my readers for sticking with the blog so long. I’ll still be around, but with a couple kids hanging off me screaming to watch Thomas The Tank Engine instead of Ottawa vs. Buffalo on a Tuesday night. That’s life I guess.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Garbage Bag Day Roundup


Winter has struck me one last cruel blow with a head cold that’s burrowed into every last crevice of my large skull, so while I’m at home catching reports on exit interviews by the Senators, I thought I’d try to offer at least a few coherent sentences.

I’ll be updating this post as the day goes on, heavy-head allowing...

Craig Anderson – So far, he’s sounded like the most disappointed Senator, although Jason Spezza was close. He mentioned that players were too often looking for others to step up and make a difference instead of doing it themselves. Sounds about right, especially when you look at how this team performed last year when Spezza, Karlsson and many others were out. Anderson also told reporters he “100%” wanted to stay in Ottawa and later on had lots of praise for rookie defenseman Cody Ceci.

In that same interview he also made a smart distinction between number of shots against compared to bonafide scoring chances against. With the rise in the mainstream of stats like Corsi and Fenwick as barometers of team play, Anderson made it clear that it’s not necessarily the amount that bothers him as a goalie... it’s the quality. Teams keep internal stats on “scoring chances” and that may be why they’ve been notoriously resistant to more general possession stats like Corsi. When it comes to these things, I’m not loyal to either side but I’m more apt to take a goalie’s word on it than anyone else’s.

Jason Spezza – Unsurprisingly, he sounded incredibly depressed about the situation, but he’s sounded like that for at least a few weeks. When teammates were spouting positives about the team coming together to finish strong, Spezza was saying stuff like “too little, too late”. Clearly, he’s taking his first season as captain hard... and he should. A lot of the organization’s hopes rest on his sometimes unstable back but he wasn’t able to deliver this team to the playoffs like his predecessor had for many seasons. Team’s have bad years, and I don’t think you can pin much of the blame on Spezza, but as captain he’s doing the right thing by being accountable, at least to the media. Yet when asked if he wanted to return, his tone of voice took on an even darker tone and he simply retorted “I do”. It was a short answer, and didn’t do much to convince me or anyone else that he’s a happy guy right now.

To me, trading Spezza won’t do this team much good in the short or the long term. Extracting that much skill out of your lineup is never a good thing. Even if they get a first-rounder back in the trade, that player won’t be on this team and contributing regularly for 3 or 4 years. They’re not going to get back a first-line centre either. Spezza is a 220 pound point-scoring machine who’s just 30 years old. The only reason you would part with a guy like that is if he wanted out himself. I’m not sure he’s at that point yet, but it could be close. Nobody gets treated worse by the fans than #19. Alfredsson went through some tough times here with the fans and perservered. I think Spezza can do the same but this is a delicate summer for both sides. Spezza may want some assurances that GM Bryan Murray is going to either re-sign Alex Hemsky or get someone similar to play with. If I had to put money on it, I think Spezza survives here and gets another contract.

Paul MacLean – When asked, both Kyle Turris and Erik Karlsson had lots of praise for the suddenly beleaguered head coach. As Ian Mendes tweeted out, Karlsson said “Guys have a lot of respect for him and we like him.” Turris maintained MacLean’s message is still getting through to the guys in the room and you can only think that a lot of the players said this to Murray in their exit meeting when asked.

When Barry Trotz was let go this morning by Nashville, it decreased the job security of at least 10 coaches around the league, including, arguably, Paul MacLean’s. The one thing everybody has been harping on has been this team’s lack of defensive prowess, which is what Trotz instilled annually in Nashville as coach. Even Jacques Martin was quoted in the Ottawa Citizen yesterday saying that he’s looking for a head coaching job.

But come on... MacLean can’t really be in trouble here can he? One tough season after signing a contract extension shouldn’t be enough to make this guy homeless. Saying that, some major adjustments need to be made by this coaching staff going into next September. It might mean Murray makes a change with the assistant staff and brings in a defensive specialist (like Pittsburgh did by bringing in Martin, a move that worked incredibly well with key defensemen missing there), or it could just be a different approach from the existing group. I’m not sure the defense roster is going to change that much, particularly in the top four, so any changes will have to be through coaching.

This is just speculation but I’m guessing Murray and Melnyk were a little unhappy that MacLean didn’t have more patience with the Bobby Ryan and Spezza pairing. They spent a lot of money and prospects to bring Ryan in to play with #19 but instead spent most of the season looking at a hole on Spezza’s right side that not only hindered the offensive potential of their number one-centre, but also the team. Eventually they had to go out and get Ales Hemsky and now they have two expensive right-wingers to re-sign, Hemsky this summer.

Sure, the Spezza/Ryan pairing didn’t seem to click in the early going but Spezza himself admitted he wasn’t fully himself in October after back-surgery. There’s always going to be that “what if” feeling around those two, especially if an unhappy Spezza wants out this summer. MacLean exhibited a bit of stubbornness this season, and that might have hurt the team. His unending patience with Jared Cowen is another example, but if you look at it closely, keeping Cowen in the lineup to try and play through his struggles is in the best interests of the team long-term. They committed to Cowen in his new contract and MacLean didn’t take him off the ice, even when he was clearly hurting their chances. That’s the dilemma for coaches of young teams. You have to balance winning at all costs with development. MacLean was caught in that trap with Cowen and a few other players.

I could be dead wrong but I think MacLean is safe for now. If the team falters next season in the same way, it could turn into the “night of long knives”.

Erik Karlsson – With a hoarse, exhausted voice, Karlsson beamed positivity throughout his media availability today. I don’t know what it is, but even in the midst of disaster, this guy just comes across as incredibly likeable and easy-going. He always has the hint of a smile on his face, even when he’s tearing into a ref (which he did a bit too much of this season). There’s no need to go into his play on the ice – he’s the franchise. But what fascinates me lately is his ways off the ice. He’s a magnetic personality and never seems to carry around the gloom on his shoulders like some can when things are going south. Sure, there was that self-imposed exile from the media earlier in the season which was bizarre, but his explanations for it were disarming. He’s noticeably honest, like a lot of Swedish hockey players (ie. “probably not”) but you always walk away thinking “things aren’t that bad” after hearing him talk. Makes you think he has the personality to be the next captain of this hockey team when Spezza moves on, even if it means this summer.

Now, it’s easy to be like that when you’re never taking the brunt of fan criticism like Spezza has over his career, and thus has no reason to be guarded. Yet I think Karlsson just has that innate personality to block those things out more than Spezza does. We’ve heard a lot about how Spezza is a keen student of the game and keeps up with what the media is saying about him. That’s got to do some serious mental damage over time, and undoubtedly it has. Spezza sounds utterly defeated at the end of most seasons but manages to get his spirits back up by September. Karlsson seems like the kind of guy who wouldn't pay much attention to what the media is saying. Maybe I’m wrong, but his personality is just too fast and loose to get caught up in that.

If he can get a full summer of training and heal that Achilles injury, it’s frightening to think what this guy can do next year. And if that captain’s “C” happens to become available, I don’t think he’d hesitate for a second accepting it.


More to come throughout the day.... Feel free to respond on Twitter.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Who Stays... Who Goes? Diagnosing The Senators Defence


Sure, going over the forwards in the last post was easy. Scoring hasn’t been the problem with the Ottawa Senators this season as they figure to settle in the Top 10 in league offense. In goals-against, the Sens are in a category with the Oilers, Panthers, Islanders, Sabres and horror of all horrors, the Leafs at the very threshold of hell.

At the beginning of the season, this team couldn't even get the puck out of their own end. Coach Paul MacLean held a practice where all they did was breakouts over and over again. Still, the pain continued.

It didn’t help that this team couldn't get any goaltending, but the defense core aggressively underachieved this season to the point of satire. Opposing teams would break over the blueline and the Senators most highly paid, veteran defensemen would start doing something that resembled the doggy-paddle. Almost every defenseman at one point ended up on blooper reels during the long season and nothing the coaching staff came up with ended up staunching the flow of errors.

Now we get to sit and watch other teams play in the post-season. Surely there’s going to be changes on defense... but maybe not as many as you’d think (or like). Here’s my rundown on each individual defenseman who played the majority of the year here and what awaits them next season. Pray with me. (Contract values are approximate cap hits per Cap Geek)

***

Erik Karlsson- 5 years left on deal at $6.5m: The most telling thing about Karlsson’s season is that he’s still not a hundred percent healed from his Achilles injury. Yet he’s comfortably in the team lead in scoring with 72 points and 3 games to go, he broke Steve Duchesne’s team record for goals by a defenseman in a season when he notched his 20th, and is only 6 points off his Norris Trophy season total. He’s also logged the most minutes of his career in 2013-14. What can this kid do with a full-summer of training and healing? It will lash your mind with fear if you think about it too deeply. I’m not one to nitpick some of his defensive lapses because that mostly comes from always having the puck and trying to create offense. I get the sense that if Alfie was still around he would have let Karlsson know it’s not always wise to chirp at refs and visibly show your frustration by banging your stick and shaking your head. Once Karlsson cleans that up – and he will with maturity – he could win a Hart Trophy. This guy is the franchise. And his contract is a major bargain compared to what he means to the team. And let’s always remember that the Leafs chose Luke Schenn 5th overall the same year the Sens grabbed Karlsson at 15th in the first round.

Jared Cowen – 3 years left on deal at $3.1m: Here we go. No defenseman took more blasting from fans this year than Cowen. Some of the things said on Twitter about the young defenseman would have made Don Rickles wince. It was a disaster from the start, with Cowen holding out through most of training camp waiting on a deal and then looking very much like a guy who missed the season before with a wonky hip. Cowen was burned savagely game after game this year by speedy forwards and most of his physical game seemed to disappear for long stretches. The coup-de-grâce was Cowen imploding against both the Bruins (-4) and Red Wings (-3) in games right before and after the Olympic break. You could see that coach MacLean was trying to get Cowen through the rough patches by playing him regularly despite the mistakes but even MacLean had to finally admit defeat and reduce Cowen’s ice-time significantly as the season wound down. Yet, I still like the guy. One bad year doesn’t mean you give up on a high-pedigree defenseman. He has the size and mobility to be a top-4 defenseman for years and the Senators paid him with that in mind. It’s tempting to imagine at least one of Karlsson, a confident Cowen and Cody Ceci on the ice at all times for the next 5 or 6 years. That’s the plan for GM Bryan Murray and he shouldn’t waver from it just because Cowen struggled. If he gets off to a terrible start next season, then it’s really time to worry, but until then I’ll keep the faith.

Marc Methot – 1 year left on deal at $3m: Like almost everybody on the team, Methot had a tough year and even seemed to clash with MacLean earlier in the season when he was made a healthy scratch. He had his partners changed and vaulted up and down the rotation, sometimes stuck on the 3rd pairing depending on MacLean’s mood. Yet this guy comes across as accountable and likely has something to prove next season (and a new contract to play for). To me, he’s the least controversial guy on the blueline for Ottawa, and possibly on the entire team. Right now he’s even on the season in plus/minus, he’s middle of the pack if you go for possession numbers like Corsi, he’s second on the team in ice-time and plays an honest, unflashy defensive game. Coaches love having reliable defenseman like this and Methot is very similar to what Chris Phillips was in his prime. I see it as a no-brainer for the Senators to re-sign this guy, especially when they’re trying to develop up a lot of young defensemen at the same time. Methot seems like the prototypical “team guy” and could even wear the “C” down the line, depending how things turn out. Hopefully the feeling is mutual among player and management.

Cody Ceci – 2 years left on deal at $900,000: If you’re wondering why Patrick Wiercioch was a healthy scratch for so long, it’s because Ceci came out of nowhere and flat out stole his job mid-season. It helped that Ceci was a right-handed shot which made Wiercioch look even more expendable playing his wrong side, but Ceci came into the lineup, immediately scored a huge overtime goal against St. Louis, and slowly the team began to win more regularly, at least for a while. You have to remember that when Ceci got called up from Bingo, the biggest panic on the team was about not getting the puck out of the defensive zone cleanly. Ceci seemed to provide another option other than Karlsson and the team’s play improved quickly. Ottawa won 9 of Ceci’s first 15 games and Wiercioch wasn’t able to get back into the lineup regularly until the end of March. The offense never really took off for the rookie (ironically Joe Corvo, also out of a job due to Ceci, had better numbers in limited play) but he moved the puck well and was rewarded with mostly steady ice-time from MacLean, occasionally hitting the 20 minute mark. Ceci looks like a guy who could get you 15-20 power-play points a year and be that offensive right-hander to slot in behind Karlsson. He may even have take a slight step-back next season as sophomores sometimes do, but he has a long future here in Ottawa.

Patrick Wiercioch – 2 years left on deal at $2m: I’ve been pretty positive so far but here we take a turn for the worse. I’m not a fan. I love that long-bomb pass Wiercioch is capable of at times and I like his reach with that lanky body, but watching this guy just leaves me cold. I was as impressed as everyone else with the training camp and exhibition schedule Wiercioch had and fully expected him to carry that over, but as soon as I saw Ceci play I suddenly realized everything I wasn’t seeing in Wiercioch. Ceci always seemed compact and in control. Wiercioch was all arms and legs dangling, zig-zagging through the neutral zone or throwing bombs across two-lines that sometimes connected, sometimes not. Wiercioch was still getting points but he just seemed more dangerous and prone to giveaways at the offensive blueline. Yet he’s still the 3rd highest scoring defenseman on the Senators and ranks about the same in unofficial possession numbers, which led me to wonder if it was just my individual bias about the way he “looks” out there not letting me see a good hockey player. I’m still wrestling with that dilemma because my gut tells me he’s not top-six but the raw numbers says he deserves to be. Yet with Ceci entrenched on the right side and Cowen still prized by management on the left, I can see a situation where Murray tries to move Wiercioch out simply because he doesn’t fit into the current d-man puzzle on this team. They also need to make room for Mark Borowiecki, another left-handed shot, who’s on a one-way contract next season. Many of you will scream that Wiercioch deserves to play over someone like Chris Phillips – I disagree and we’ll get to that next – but that argument was basically put to bed when Murray signed Phillips to a contract extension right before the trade-deadline. To me, that sealed Wiercioch’s fate right away. But there’s also the trouble with moving Wiercioch’s contract. I think some team would take a run at him but $2m is a lot for a guy who hasn’t been able to cement a role in the top-six.

Chris Phillips – 2 years left on deal at $2.5m: Phillips has taken a ton of heat for a tough season that neatly mirrored those of his teammates, but if you look at his career, Phillips has a history of bouncing back after sub-par years. In fact, you can look at Phillips as a barometer of how the team is doing in any given season. In 2010-11, the Senators imploded under Cory Clouston and had their worst campaign since 1995-96. Coincidentally, Phillips also had his worst full-season in 10-11, scoring only 9 points and going -35 in 82 games. When MacLean replaced Clouston, the team turned around and so did Phillips’ game, getting back to familiar territory with 19 points and a +12 rating. When the Senators were on their long streak of playoff appearances, Phillips was steady both on the ice and in the stats sheet and that continued under MacLean with a slight lessening of his ice-time the older he got. Now this season, the Senators are struggling again and Phillips is having a tough year defensively and offensively. As the team goes, so does Phillips. If they can get their defensive play sorted out next year, I think you’ll see Phillips rebound like he has throughout his career. As a 36 year old, Phillips hasn’t had two bad years in a row. To me that says something about his professionalism. He’s not a game changer and has never been a guy to dictate the play, but when he’s playing inside an organized system, he’s very solid, but when the overall structure isn’t there, he struggles. That’s what I mean by him being a barometer of overall fortunes of the team. One day he’ll fade but I don’t see that happening in the next two seasons. In fact, I see him turning it around along with the team.

Eric Gryba – RFA: Quietly, Gryba has had a solid year on a bad defensive team. He fits nicely on the bottom pair as the right-handed shot and it’s a testament to his play that MacLean was rarely tempted to play Wiercioch there on his off-side just to get more offense. He takes a lot of minor penalties but most of those come from battling in front of his own net and getting too aggressive. He’s a welcome presence back there physically and is kind of a menacing bastard with that lumberjack beard and a highlight in his back pocket from when he absolutely crushed the Habs Lars Eller in the 2013 playoffs. I’d actually like to see Gryba get meaner back there and really punish guys but it’s a tricky thing with the refs in the modern NHL. Even dropping the gloves a little more might give him a bit more of an intimidating presence but he doesn’t seem to look for that kind of trouble. I’m not entirely sure of his long-term future here with Mark Borowiecki ready to come in and provide a similar type of game. They may want to play Boro with more of an offensive-minded d-man to balance out the pairings and that could make Gryba expendable, especially now that he has to negotiate a new deal. My hunch is that MacLean likes what he brings most nights and would like to have him back (providing the coach is back himself) but Gryba could be moved to create some change back there and change the dynamic. Let’s just say I’m not 100% sure where Gryba fits when the dust settles on what should be a summer of change.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Who Stays... Who Goes? Opinions On Ottawa's Forwards


Usually I wait until the Senators are eliminated from the playoffs to do a “sign or trade” compendium, but much like this cruel, sadistic winter, this season has dragged on miserably for way too long and I don’t feel that any big surprises are waiting for us in the last 6 games of the regular season that would change my opinions on anybody.

Like anyone else watching this team or freezing our asses off out there, we’re all looking for closure.

For what it’s worth, here’s my take on each individual Senators forward (we’ll do the defense and goalies next week). We’ll look at their performance this season and whether or not I think they should or will be back. As usual, there will be a lot of dissenting opinion, so if you disagree, let me know in the comments or on the Twitter machine.

When there’s a lack of success, there’s always a tidal wave of opinion. I’m no different. So here’s my rundown... (Contract values are approximate cap hits per Cap Geek)


Centres

Jason Spezza – 1 year left on deal at $7m: I love the way Spezza plays the game and would like nothing more than to see him sign an extension to stay in Ottawa, simply because I enjoy the entertainment. He’s a throwback to an 80’s style centre but that’s what gets him into trouble with a lot of the fanbase. Seeing Spezza come alive with the addition of Ales Hemsky has convinced me yet again that there’s a lot of great hockey left in that wonky back, but there has to be some concern from management. To resign Spezza will take a lot of capital and commitment and there’s a risk involved with his health. He’s still only 30 and should have about 3 or 4 strong offensive years left. Yet the Senators can’t risk losing him for nothing in 2015. They have to re-sign or trade him this summer. I’m not completely convinced that Kyle Turris or Mika Zibanejad are true number-one elite centres, either now or in the near future. Moving Spezza would hurt this team in more than just entertainment value. Here’s a more in-depth look at how I view Spezza from a few weeks ago.

Kyle Turris – 4 years left on deal at $3.5m: Right now he’s the perfect second-line centre on this team and has been, along with linemate Clarke MacArthur, the Senators most consistent player all season. There’s not much to criticize about his game except that he’s still a little scrawny. That may be the only thing holding him back from being able to go up against the other team’s top centres every night the way Spezza does (Spezza is 30 pounds heavier). Turris has a great contract as well. GM Bryan Murray absolutely stole him from Phoenix for David Rundblad, a trade I initially didn’t like. I was wrong. Big time.

Mika Zibanejad – 1 year left on deal at $900,000: Coach Paul MacLean has brought Zibanejad along very slowly which has infuriated some fans but in the end it’s probably the right thing to do. That’s the Detroit Red Wings style that MacLean brought over with him and at times it seemed Zibanejad was being held back, but I think we’re seeing that approach pay off. You can see glimpses of so much power in his game and if he eventually fills out to 220 pounds he’ll be even harder to take off the puck. If the Senators decide to deal Spezza, Zbad will get a lot more responsibility but right now he’s in a pretty good spot. If that old cliché about players breaking out in their fourth year holds true with Zibanejad, we should start to see some real offensive numbers in about two seasons.

Zack Smith – 3 years left on deal at $1.8m: Ottawa’s second best faceoff man behind Spezza, Smith has the most even-strength defensive zone starts of anyone on the team who’s played over 50 games. He kills penalties and is a welcome physical presence down the middle. He sometimes loses his temper and takes bad penalties, but according to Extra Skater, he also draws a lot of penalties on the other teams, leading the Senators in that category with 34. In the grand scheme of things, he comes out even and I’m sure MacLean can stomach a few penalties here and there if it means Smith is engaged physically and emotionally in the games. In his first few years, Smith had a tendency to disappear for stretches and look uninterested. That hasn’t been the case this year. There’s no doubt he’ll be back in the same role next season.

J.G. Pageau-1 year left on deal at $600,000: I don’t pretend to know what’s going to happen with this guy. The Sens are deep at centre at the NHL level right now so it’s hard to see Pageau there full-time next year. I guess he could play the wing with that speed of his but there are a lot of skilled guys ahead of him there too. There’s something in his game that has big-time written all over it, but I don’t know if he’s going to get the opportunity he needs here. Do the Senators really want the smallest fourth-line in the NHL? I doubt it, and that hurts Pageau’s chances right now.

Stephane Da Costa-RFA: See Pageau above. Same deal, although as an RFA, Da Costa might have hit the end of the line in Ottawa if he expects to be a full-time NHL’er. Both teams might benefit from a trade here.


Wingers

Bobby Ryan – 1 year left on deal at $5.1m: Ryan spoke to the media for the first time after his hernia surgery this week and said he “loves” playing in Ottawa and can see himself here for a long time. Hockey fans all over the city gently hugged one another and wouldn’t let go for a few awkward minutes. From day one there’s been a lingering suspicion that Ottawa was just a brief stop on his way to the Philadelphia Flyers when he becomes a free agent in 2015. It’s a bit of that small-town defeatist attitude that’s so abundant here at times, and I wasn’t immune to it myself. I just assumed that the disastrous season the Senators had would have soured Ryan’s outlook (not to mention enduring the worst winter since Big Joe Mufferaw Montferrand was prowling Bytown and fighting Irish gangs in 1829). If Ryan is genuine, and I have no reason to doubt he is, then Murray has to get this guy signed long-term come July 1st. When you have a true goal-scorer like that, just get it done. He’s going to be a big ticket but that’s the price of doing business. If for some reason they can’t negotiate a contract this summer, Ottawa has no choice but to deal him and get something back. Waiting until the deadline to move Ryan could backfire on a Thomas Vanek-like level.

Clarke MacArthur – 1 year left on deal at $3.2m: Another no-brainer for Sens management. MacArthur was the biggest surprise of the year and the most underrated UFA signing of last summer. He’s provided goals, leadership (with his blunt honesty to the media) and lots of speed. I’m not sure how much his next deal will be, but I can’t see Murray balking at a reasonable demand. MacArthur and Turris could play together for the next 4 years if the Sens play this right.

Milan Michalek-UFA: All season I’ve been convinced he was gone this summer but lately Michalek has at least given me a little reason to doubt that early verdict. Not even Spezza benefited as much from the addition of Ales Hemsky like Michalek has. Suddenly he’s scoring goals again and finding that speed we all thought he’d lost after multiple knee injuries. But a late-season surge shouldn’t cloud our judgement here. The Senators have a lot of prospects like Mark Stone, Mike Hoffman, Matt Puempel, Shane Prince and Curtis Lazar who will need a full-time roster spot in the next few seasons. If the Senators plan to bring back both Ryan and Hemsky, it will be too expensive to save Michalek. It’s one thing to gamble on Spezza’s back when he provides you with a number one centre option, it’s another to gamble on Michalek’s knees for limited production in the future. I’d let Michalek go for all those reasons.

Ales Hemsky – UFA: I’m a big fan. Maybe it’s my imagination but I sometimes see glimpses of what Ottawa used to have with Marian Hossa on the wing when Hemsky dangles in the offensive zone. Hemsky doesn’t have the power that Hossa had but that dose of high-end skill has been refreshing to see here. Not signing Hemsky just means that the search for Spezza’s winger will start all over again and nobody wants to read any more stories about that. Yet the Sens have to be careful how much money they throw around to all their other pending UFA’s like Spezza, Ryan, MacArthur, Marc Methot and Craig Anderson. Not all of them are going to be back and signing Hemsky to a big ticket will ensure that even more. Still, I find it hard to believe Murray won’t go after Hemsky hard this summer.

Chris Neil – 2 years left on deal at $1.9m: If you read Twitter, Chris Neil is the worst player who ever lived. If you sit in the stands at the rink, he’s a fan favourite. Neither viewpoint really matters much. What matters is that Neil is trusted by the organization to go out and play the same way every single night and provide the physical element that this team needs. Too many nights he’s alone in that regard but when he’s going to the net and hitting the other team’s best players, he’s effective as a third-liner. A lot of his detractors point to poor possession numbers but they often miss the point of a player like Neil. Even the best teams in the league possess the puck at just around 55% (using proxies like shot attempts), which means you’re still playing without it for almost half the game no matter how skilled you are. You need physical players who can hit and cause havoc when you don’t have the puck. Neil is not here to score goals. He’s here to terrorize the opposition. That’s his role and he does it well. Like Spezza, he’ll seemingly never win over his detractors in this town, but I see him reaching 1000 games in a Senators uniform and probably finishing his career here.

Colin Greening-3 years left on deal at $2.6m: At this point, I’d be ready to cut bait with this guy. He got the big contract in the off-season but he hasn’t gone to the next level. Just six goals so far is a huge disappointment but to me the biggest complaint with Greening is that he isn’t mean relative to his size. When he gets mad, he can be a force but too often he’s a gentle giant. The Senators have a lot of guys up front who aren’t known for being strong, so you expect that a player like Greening would make a difference. He doesn’t. Greening will be tough to move with that contract now, but you never know. If the opportunity is there to deal him, the Sens should take it and move on.

Erik Condra-1 year left on deal at $1.2m: To me, he’s a great fourth-liner who can kill penalties and has a cheap ticket. Good enough. When he’s playing with Pageau or Da Costa, you sometimes think a fourth line should be a LOT bigger, but Condra always stays in the lineup, isn’t on for many goals-against at even-strength and has good puck possession numbers for a fourth liner. That tells you a lot about how he plays the game. When I look back, I can see a lineage of similar players in the Sens system, from Shaun Van Allen to Chris Kelly to Condra. I think he’ll get an extension before his deal runs out.

Matt Kassian-UFA: I don’t think he’s needed beyond this point with the way the NHL works nowadays, but you never know with Murray and MacLean. Both subscribe to the theory that you sometimes need a nuclear weapon, even if he’s just sitting on the bench smiling at opposing players when they act tough. His only role is to fight and has trouble getting into the lineup. The Sens will likely give his spot to someone who can skate and play that much talked about “200-foot game”. But it is kind of fun to watch when he gets to his top speed and takes a run at someone on the boards. He’s also the funniest guy on the Senators, so that’s something at least. It was entertaining when Andre Roy was around in the late-90’s and Kassian brings a similar act. But I wouldn’t put money on him being back next year.

Mark Stone-1 year left on deal at $600,000: It’s been a short audition but this guy looks like he’s ready. Love his size and his hands and he’s not nearly as bad a skater as some had made him out to be. Reminds me of Scott Hartnell with that hair too. He’s a natural to replace Michalek on the top line.

Mike Hoffman-RFA: Similar to Stone, it’s been a brief watch but I like what I see out of Hoffman, particularly his speed. His hands seem a bit clunky but who cares if he’s always beating guys to pucks. I was convinced he was going to be on this team going into training camp but things went sideways. Now he looks like he belongs. If Greening goes, Hoffman is also a natural to step into that vacancy. Not sure he’s a top-sixer but they can use that speed without the puck on the third and fourth lines right now.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Mark Messier - Fashion Plate And Man Of Many Hats


Yes, in my spare time I occasionally look at Mark Messier pictures on the internet. It's sad really.










(Via Tumblr - that's not my text on the picture)

The Many Faces Of Chris Neil


Originally I was going to title this pic post as a play on Lon Chaney, "Man Of A Thousand Faces", but realized that Neil doesn't really have a thousand faces. He's got three, with endless permutations - Ecstatic, Grumpy and Enraged.

And for this reason, there's a motherlode of great Neil pics out there. He's never just going through the motions on the ice. He's either in the midst of a shitstorm around the net, in a mob celebration or throwing punches. How can you not take a great photograph of Chris Neil? It's impossible.

Neil isn't a very PC player to like anymore in this enlightened age of temperance, and I can guarantee you I'm the only Sens blogger who will say "he's one of my favourite players to watch on the Senators right now". Win or lose, there's always something happening with this guy. And I like seeing stuff happen. But mostly, I love the faces.
















Monday, March 17, 2014

5 Options Bryan Murray Has To Fix The Senators


***

NOTE: I’ve already had some people completely misinterpret this article as a list of things I’d wish to see happen. Not even close. If you read the intro, it should be clear that these are all just options facing Bryan Murray this summer, not some kind of misanthropic manifesto calling for Spezza and Ryan to be traded away. I thought I made great pains to convey that but clearly some people just read what they want to read. Never had to do this for an article before, but anyways....

***

Nobody wants to revisit the horrors of Saturday night and the historic collapse against the Canadiens. Who wants to waste words on the lousy Sunday matinee against the Avalanche? Everybody knows this season is over for the Ottawa Senators (it was over in Alberta a few weeks back) and we all just want to know what GM Bryan Murray does now.

The slow march to April 13 is on for the current roster, but Murray has work to do that will last months. The choices he has to make are among the hardest for any GM. Do you hope this year was an aberration in the rebuild or do you make drastic, risky changes to get this thing back on track?

Here are five options (among many) that face Bryan Murray this summer and every single one of them could work like a magic trick or backfire like a dirty Plymouth rolling down Carp Road. I’m not saying I advocate any of these moves (in fact I disagree with many of them), but they are possibilities when a team has played as badly as Ottawa has.

So let’s get on with it:


1. Trade Bobby Ryan at the draft or this summer: A lot of Sens fans would be aghast at this scenario but it could definitely happen. The remaining two years on Ryan’s contract that the Senators inherited was seen as a rehearsal for both sides before committing marriage on a long-term deal. Ryan, who left a better situation in Anaheim where he was unhappy, holds most of the cards because he can choose where he wants to go as a UFA in the summer of 2015. If I was a betting man, I’d wager Ryan hasn’t found happiness in Ottawa just yet.

He told reporters he was excited to get a chance to play with Jason Spezza but coach Paul MacLean barely gave that combo a chance. Ryan found success with Kyle Turris early on but has faded badly since being snubbed for Team USA. He has two goals since the beginning of February and just one since the Olympic break, which happened to coincide with the most important games the Senators played all year. His linemates and ice-time have fluctuated and has never seemed like a go-to player for MacLean. Ryan is on pace for the worst full-season goal totals of his career. That won’t make for a happy player or a happy GM. And on the basis of that, the two sides must come to a contract agreement in a short-time frame. This may be headed for a separation.

If Murray doesn’t believe or knows he can’t get Ryan to sign long-term in Ottawa, he may have to move him as early as this summer. I don’t think Ryan’s value has diminished that much, but if Murray waits until his back is against the wall next season, other GM’s will know he’s desperate to get an asset back. If this isn’t going to work out – and my suspicion is that it won’t and Ryan already knows this in the back of his head – it would make sense for both sides to move on right away. Murray can get a lot for Ryan, even after a bad season. Murray can't lose Ryan for nothing considering what he gave up to get him.

If I’m wrong, and Ryan decides he likes his situation here, all the better. Guys who can score like Ryan don’t come around very often, especially to Ottawa. But if it’s not working, both sides will agree to quickly move on. To me, this is the biggest story heading into the off-season.



2. Trade Jason Spezza: This is a less likely scenario than a trade of Ryan, but it’s still a possibility. Again, it’s an expiring contract in the summer of 2015 that will force Murray’s hand one way or the other, but the value that Spezza would bring back could be tempting.

The problems with dealing Spezza are two-fold. One, he’s your captain and has been here a long-time. The fallout from losing the last player in that situation was hardly a win for the organization. Two, Turris and Mika Zibanejad don’t score enough to justify dealing your number one centre. There may be a time when Turris and Zibanejad can be a 1-2 punch down the middle but do the Senators really want to gamble a much needed-playoff berth next season on an unknown like that? No way. Getting a number one centre in return for Spezza is very unlikely. Murray, even if he is unhappy with Spezza’s first year as captain, will have to sit down and make a long-term deal with his number-one centre or pull off a magical trade that somehow doesn’t weaken this team down the middle. Good luck with that.



3. Move out second-tier, soft, underachieving forwards: To me, a huge problem with this team is that aside from the 3rd line of Chris Neil, Zack Smith and (when he feels like it) Colin Greening, this team is way too easy to play against. Spezza and Turris aren’t going to turn into Ryan Getzlaf or Mike Richards over the summer, but there are second-tier guys that Murray can possibly switch out for more competitive, gritty players. At this point, Greening is never going to be the guy that Murray or MacLean wanted him to become. He just doesn’t have a mean-streak in him despite having all the physical tools to dominate down low. He’s a serviceable third liner, but when your top offensive guys are of the more gentle nature, it doesn’t make sense to surround them with equally gentle giants. You need a mix of both types, and Greening doesn’t add anything unique to this team with the way he plays most of the time. If Murray could swap out Greening for someone with size and grit, this team would be better served.

The same goes for Milan Michalek. You have to love his speed and competitiveness but he’s not scoring anymore and doesn’t create much physical room out there for skill guys like Spezza and Ales Hemsky. He’s UFA this summer (like Hemsky) and is unlikely to be back anyways, so the Senators would love to have a big, physical winger in his spot next season. Easier said than done, but Murray will try to get bigger up front this summer.

Erik Condra is a little trickier because he’s a good penalty-killer, but the PK has been terrible all year, weakening his status on the team. Again, with a lot of smaller players ending up on the 4th line this year, like Condra, J.G. Pageau and Stephane Da Costa, it doesn’t seem to make sense in a league that rewards size. I like Condra, but I wonder if he'll be a casualty of change. I wouldn’t say this team is getting pushed around the way they were before they had to acquire the behemoth Matt Kassian, but they are getting outmuscled and outcompeted in both the defensive and offensive zones which comes down to compete level. This has to change but without sacrificing this team’s offensive wealth. Not easy to do.



4. Change the defense core: Of all the options I’ve gone over, I think this would be the most difficult to do. The Sens set themselves up nicely with their top-4 thanks to the draft and trading Nick Foligno for Marc Methot a few years ago, but this year has been a disaster defensively.

Jared Cowen has taken most of the heat but giving up on a guy like that would be a poor decision after just one lousy season. You can see the faith this team has in Cowen to eventually turn it around and they have to stick to that plan now or watch him develop into a shut-down defender with another team. Cody Ceci has come in and shown he can provide secondary offense to Erik Karlsson. Methot has had a tough season but he’s still the most reliable defender they have, along with the retained Chris Phillips. On paper, this is a defense core that can grow together for the next five seasons and become elite. On the ice right now, they can’t pull their heads out of their asses for five minutes at a time.

It’s frustrating but I can’t see Murray moving any of the core players back there. There’s just too much potential in them as a group. Rather, look for Patrick Wiercioch to be moved because Ceci has stolen his spot, and for Mark Borowiecki to challenge Eric Gryba as this team’s most physical defenseman. Gryba gets a lot of rope from the coaching staff because they don’t have much meanness or size back there, but Borowiecki will be gunning for his spot next October. I would be surprised to see a major move back there but you never know.

Which brings us to the nuclear option:



5. Change the coaching staff: Don’t believe for a second that MacLean is going anywhere. He just signed a new deal, has a Jack Adams from a year ago and works for a GM that had to fire 3 coaches in a span of a few years. MacLean’s job is safe, no matter how you think he performed this season (and there are some very harsh opinions on that as you all know).

The more likely change could come in the assistant’s chairs. Against Colorado on Sunday, some astute observers noted that Dave Cameron was now working with the defensemen and Mark Reeds was working with the forwards. I don’t remember seeing that mid-season before, but when MacLean was asked after the game about the role switching, he muttered a terse “No comment.”

Now rumours are going to start about the safety of both Reeds and Cameron. It might be a positive change to shakeup the staff and would avoid the organizational trauma of changing the head man. The players would have a fresh voice in their ears and that might be all that’s needed. There’s lots of great coaches out there without a gig (how about former Sens assistants Perry Pearn or Craig Ramsey?) and a guy in Binghamton, Luke Richardson, who already has the respect of a lot of young players and old alike on this team. Some might call this move “tinkering” but assistants have a lot more responsibility and say than they did even 10 years ago. The effect they have can’t be trivialized just because they work without much scrutiny by the media and fans.

NOTE: To correct the record, it was revealed today that assistant coach Mark Reeds will be undergoing a medical procedure in the coming days. Clearly, the shuffling of coaching roles was related to this health issue. Our thoughts are with Mark Reeds and his family as he gets through this ordeal. ***

We could probably find 10 more big options Murray has this summer but I’ve already committed too many words to this team that can hardly find the commitment to play 60 hard minutes a night.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

On Jason Spezza ... And Other Underdogs


Someone I was talking to recently said, rather matter-of-factly, that the Senators should have traded Jason Spezza at the deadline and gotten him out of town. When I politely disagreed, he seemed shocked.

Not that someone would disagree with him, but that I disagreed with him.

“But I thought you only liked tough guys?”

For some reason I’ve gotten that reputation in the Sens small but fiercely opinionated online community and maybe that’s my own fault. When someone slags Chris Neil or Matt Kassian (and that happens about once every 2.7 seconds according to Stats Can), I’m sometimes the only one with anything contrary to say. In a way it’s made me a pariah, or a bit of a black sheep, but I’m fine with that.

Many take the leap of logic that because I see value in a player like Chris Neil, I must dislike skilled hockey players, which is ridiculous if you know me. I grew up in the 80’s worshipping the Edmonton Oilers and Steve Yzerman. Jason Spezza and Erik Karlsson are part of a small handful of players I’d pay to see.

My vision of great hockey is high-scoring, end-to-end play with tiny goalie equipment and a harsh crackdown on obstruction.

I love the shootout for crissakes.

But I also love the hits and the fights and the drama that a little violence brings to the game. To me, hockey at its best is an opera of speed, skill and violence that hearkens back to a less sensitive age, when people could separate entertainment from moral hang-ups and just enjoy the tradition of the game. I realize those days are over, but I cling to it stubbornly because I can.

It’s the same with rock ‘n’ roll. I prefer the danger of Iggy and the Stooges in the 70’s to the corporate, nice-kids feel of Arcade Fire in 2014 (although I’ll be at that show this Friday - not in formal wear as the ticket suggests). The NHL is moving into safe indie-rock territory where it strives to offend no-one.

But that’s a terrible, uncalled-for digression. Let’s get back to Jason Spezza.

Just look at the title of this blog.

It was symbolic to me when I started this thing back in 2007 that the title Black Aces represented the underdog. That underdog label over the years has, to me at least, covered a wide range of players, from stars to 4th-liners.

When the whole city was intent on running Ray Emery out of town with a sort of indignant hysteria, I was on here defending him. When Dany Heatley was being excoriated, I took his side over Cory Clouston and got nothing but daggers for it. I don’t want any medals here, but when that many fans get onto one side of an argument, it creates a herd-mentality and that basically precludes any rational thought on the subject.

Even if I’m wrong sometimes, I take satisfaction in defending a player that gets almost unanimous scorn. Twitter is a big playground full of anonymous bullies who can say vile, moronic things and not be held accountable, mostly because everyone tends to agree with the person saying the most jaded, mean-spirited and post-ironic things disguised as “analysis”.

Which brings us to Jason Spezza, easily the most divisive player in Sens history.

He’s a throwback to an earlier time when offensive players were allowed to try plays seemed to have been concocted by a group of drunk coaches trying to one-up each other. He’s got an “aw-shucks” demeanour and a teenager’s laugh. His hunched over skating style makes him look slow when he's trying to backcheck.

In short, he doesn’t fit any kind of prototype in the modern NHL. Yet here he is at 30 years old with 674 points in 671 career games, wearing the captain’s C for your Ottawa Senators, the same team that has made the playoffs in 8 out of the 11 years he’s been here.

And still, all fans can say is they “want more”. Some call him the “second-line centre”. He’s in trade rumours all the time. You’d think this guy was a bum if your entire hockey education was based on post-game call-in shows.

Yet, I like the guy.

I don’t want to turn this into another stats argument and point to a bunch of numbers. We all know they’re good.

It’s something more indefinable. I just like his strange ways, the fact that no coach has ever been able to fully marginalize his thinking or bend him into something he’s not. Spezza is a guy who likes to play hockey the way he did as a kid, and to me that’s more entertaining than almost anyone in the NHL.

It seems like every player makes moves on a “beat”. As a viewer you can count off two Mississippi’s from the time a winger crosses the blueline to the time he’ll take the shot or peel back to create room. Everyone knows the “beats” but it just comes down to how fast one player is over the other whether a play is ultimately successful. In Spezza’s case, he’s off the beat. It’s like he’s playing with an out-of-tune guitar but bends the strings into the right tone when he’s feeling it, or into atonal squalls when he’s not.

To me, there’s nothing better to watch in Ottawa right now than when Spezza blows some minds on a play. Maybe Erik Karlsson when he rushes up the ice like a madman, but we see that every single night. When Spezza does something truly magical, it lights up that Kanata rink with awe, the same way a huge Neil hit can, the same way Daniel Alfredsson used to with that rifle of a shot on the power-play.

There’s a way to win with big, prototype, defensively perfect players, but that’s not always as entertaining. You still need those guys who have a little personality on the ice and the ability to piss off a strategist like Ken Hitchcock. A guy who until a few years ago used a wooden stick is that kind of player ... my kind of player.

From watching so much bland, defensive hockey since the Devils won the Stanley Cup in 1995, I’ve come to appreciate entertainment just as much as winning hockey. Spezza is unique in that he can deliver both. Not all fans see it that way, but more and more I think he’s poised to lead this team to a better fate in the coming years.

If we’re talking underdogs, Spezza is the biggest of them all right now.

And that’s just the kind of player I’d like to see prove people wrong.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Black Aces vs. Trade Deadline Day... Full Sens Analysis


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

Fans Want Youth But Can’t Live With The Mistakes


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.

Kumbaya.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

23 Games Remaining That Will Test The Sanity Of Every Sens Fan


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

Leafs Rivalry Dies Hard For Some, Never Existed For Others


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.