Saturday, January 30, 2010

Sens Better Off Skipping Trade Deadline Day

For NHL fans, the trade deadline day can be like Christmas all over again in March. It may be a drag to see your team do nothing when it seems like everyone around you has improved, but Senators fans may end up thanking GM Bryan Murray for acting like a Scrooge on March 3.

Not that it would be a stunning case of inaction seeing as Murray has already warned the fans that there is no salary cap room to bring in another player without shipping similar money out. Injuries and the fact that they've kept at least one or two extra players around all season makes that a cold reality.

But let's just imagine for a moment that Murray had a little wiggle room to make a deal for a top six forward or a top four defenseman. Who would have to accept less playing time, or worse, a move to another team, to make that happen?

Let's start with the defense. The current top four of Chris Phillips, Anton Volchenkov, Filip Kuba and Erik Karlsson are going nowhere. Volchenkov is a free agent but Murray would be crazy not to resign him. Kuba has a no-trade clause and he is playing really well anyways, despite some defensive lapses that drive fans crazy once in a while. Phillips and Karlsson don't even need to be explained. Phillips is a lifer and Karlsson is the next Daniel Alfredsson for this club in about five years (yes, I said it).

You could argue that an improvement on the bottom defense pair could be in play but Matt Carkner has been a godsend and Chris Campoli is dirt cheap, which is the kind of player that every team needs to fill out a roster and still stay under a salary cap. I think it's fair to say that Campoli has been a bit of a disappointment since some envisioned him running the power-play in the near future, but he actually does provide fair service for his 600,000 cap hit. If Murray felt he needed to improve Campoli's spot, what are the chances of bringing in a player as good for the same salary? Virtually nil.

The goalies? For one, the Senators have two great young goalies already - one on a real streak in Brian Elliott and an even better one with great potential who just needs to get on a roll in Pascal Leclaire.

Good luck trying to find an impact goalie in the middle of the season anyways.

As for the forwards, there's probably a little more room for debate here, but again, bringing in an impact player may provide some short term insurance but it would only impede the progress of some young players who are now just breaking out and would also disrupt the chemistry of a team that has obviously grown close and found a common goal under coach of the year candidate Cory Clouston.

The team is deep in centres with either one of Jason Spezza, Mike Fisher and Peter Regin able to anchor a scoring line. Fisher has thrived this year and it would be a shame to see Regin get less minutes in favour of a hired gun. He is progressing better than anyone expected. Why mess with what's working (for a paltry 600,000 cap hit)?

Chris Kelly has been the subject of a lot of rumours but I don't see why Bryan Murray, or any fan however, would want to see the defensive specialist moved. Kelly is a core player and has quietly had an excellent season. He's likely Ottawa's most underrated player or at least in a tie with Jesse Winchester. Kelly is also a veteran who has been through the battles with Ottawa all the way down the line. He'll be even more important in a tight playoff series where it's often the little plays that make the difference.

Nick Foligno's injury may have opened up a spot on the top six but the Senators already have Ryan Shannon who has shown he can play that role, and you can't go wrong by giving Chris Neil and Jarkko Ruutu more ice time either.

The only player I would have no qualms about Bryan Murray replacing would be Jonathan Cheechoo. He's improved since the start of the season but still doesn't really provide anything that Shean Donovan can't do better. I think it's fair to say that Cheechoo is not going to magically regain his scoring prowess, but on the other hand, he doesn't hurt the team either. He gives you an honest effort and replacing him on the fourth line with someone else, either through a trade or with a minor leaguer like Zack Smith, will make little lasting impact on the team's fortunes this season.

Unless Murray decides to gamble and trade away a core player, there doesn't seem to be any sense in making trade deadline day an eventful one here in Bytown.

And with a team as red hot as Ottawa is right now, who would want to change anything?

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Good Times In Bytown

I'm still here. Just busy as hell.

I've still been assigning the regular Black Aces 3 Stars and here is the updated list.

Of course, Brian Elliott has been rocketing up the card and Alex Kovalev has really come into his own on this team and the scorecard reflects that.

Black Aces Senators 3 Stars Scorecard

3 Points 1st Star
2 Points 2nd Star
1 Point 3rd Star

Alfredsson – 27
Kovalev – 20
Elliott – 18
Fisher – 17
Michalek – 15
Spezza – 13
Neil - 13
Volchenkov – 10
Foligno – 10
Phillips - 9
Regin - 9
Ruutu - 8
Leclaire – 8
Shannon – 8
Brodeur - 8
Winchester - 5
Kuba – 5
Kelly – 4
Carkner – 3
Lee – 1
Donovan – 1
Karlsson - 1

Yet it remains an imperfect barometer of how individual players are performing. Certainly guys like Chris Kelly, Chris Phillips, Erik Karlsson and Matt Carkner should have more points but the 3 Star system doesn't tend to reward guys who play steady game in and game out.

Who would have thought just a month ago that we would be saying that about Karlsson?

Along with the emergence of Peter Regin and the suddenly improved play of Nick Foligno, Karlsson's emergence has taken the pressure off Bryan Murray to pull off a trade in order to get this team over the hump.

I don't mean to say "I told you so" but I'm happy to point out the great play of Regin and re-state what I've said before: Regin has the skills to be the next David Krejci - a guy off everyone's radar who turns into a top-six forward seemingly overnight. Regin is going great guns now, but next year he should really make the leap.

A 7 game win streak has put the Senators in a position where missing the playoffs now seems like a distant worry. What they have going for them is that teams like the Rangers, the Bruins and the Habs haven't been able to get any consistency and there are no real signs that any of them will pull out of it.

Of course, injuries and a re-emergence of a goaltending controversy could derail any team and the Senators would be no different.

There is that nagging worry that the run Elliott is on is more of a blip rather than a future path. Elliott has impressed the heck out of everyone and he deserves all the accolades he's been getting. But it still seems to me that this team won't be for real until they get Pascal Leclaire back in a groove.

But if starting Elliott is working, why change it now? It's not like they have another choice at the moment anyways.

Regardless, this is a great time to be a Senators fan.

After almost two seasons worth of confusion and disappointment, this team is playing with heart, grit and passion and look just as close off the ice as they look syncopated on it.

The ticket sales may not be where they should be (and there are a lot of mitigating factors for that), but it's hard not to embrace this character group of guys. Win or lose, they always look like they care and a lot of credit needs to go to Cory Clouston.

I may not understand why he feels the need to change the lines up all the time, or why Jonathan Cheechoo skates instead of Shean Donovan, but he is getting the proper results and is on his way to making as much of an impact as Jacques Martin did when he showed up (with a moustache) from the Colorado organization and turned a laughingstock into a perennial playoff contender.

Since I've started this blog, the Senators have essentially went into the tank except for a brief stretch under John Paddock, but even during that run I spent most of the time berating him for overplaying the top line and sitting Ray Emery when he was finished rehabbing his wrist injury from the previous spring's Cup final.

Just when I take a short leave to focus on other priorities, the Senators start turning the tide. I'm almost afraid to start blogging again in case I curse the team and they start tumbling down the standings.

It would be refreshing to write about a team on the upswing for a change.

Let's see what unfolds....

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Format Change... and the Ignominious End of Eli Wilson in Ottawa

Okay, the big day arrived. I've become a father for the first time (all is well by the way) so that means the format change I was talking of a few posts ago will happen here at Black Aces to allow me time to do what I have to do (and what they all say is true... it's a 24 hour job but completely worth it!)

I will blog whenever I can but most likely starting 2 Sundays from now I will be doing one large column covering the events of the week in Senators land and around the NHL. This works for me because it allows me time to hang with our little guy Jake, but still lets me enjoy writing about the Senators and going back and forth with people who don't necessarily agree with my take! Starting next season I expect to be back doing my regular posts after every game day.

I hope all my readers will be patient with me and still check out the blog from week to week. I'll do my best to stay on top of things, and will always find the time to write about any major event as it happens, such as any big trade or , gasp, major firings.

As for Bryan Murray letting goalie coach Eli Wilson go, I have to agree with him. The numbers just haven't added up since Wilson was given the job and bringing in a new voice may help to turn things around, just as it worked when Murray very bravely fired his second coach in as many season and brough in Cory Clouston last year.

With that being said, I still think that Pascal Leclaire's game would have turned around regardless of who his goalie coach was. Excuses are lame, but the injuries the Senators are going through have put much more pressure on the goalies than was anticipated. When you have a guy like Leclaire who is still trying to put his game together after numerous injuries and a young goalie who is still trying to establish himself as a backup in the NHL, all the elements are in place for a teams goaltending to fall apart. Leclaire may have been able sail through some rough patches if the Senators were able to score goals, but now that the whole first line is out, Leclaire (and Elliott) essentially have had to be perfect.

Of course, they haven't been able to do that and the whole situation just snowballed into what we have today. The game is largely played between the ears and a lack of confidence has hurt the Senators goalies, not a lack of skill.

Leclaire is still a good, if not excellent goalie and time will prove that.

For Senators fans, players and management, they just hope it's not too late for this season....

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Clouston Shaky When Sens Need A Steady Hand At The Wheel

I just don't get it.

Perhaps someone can give me an explanation that will suddenly make it all seem so simple.

But until then, I just don't get it.

Why is Cory Clouston not starting Pascal Leclaire game after game in order to get his number one goaltender back into a groove? Why is he panicking just because Leclaire is predictably struggling after coming off a lengthy layoff?

And can someone tell me why Clouston chooses to make good guy Shean Donovan a healthy scratch against the Panthers in order to replace him with a minor-leaguer and then turn around and not play Zack Smith any meaningful minutes?

Why sit down Donovan, a guy who is playing without an ACL in one of his knees yet still manages to give everything he has on every shift? Why sit a guy who is as well liked by his teammates as anyone on the roster?

None of it makes sense.

Unless you come to the conclusion that the well respected and determined coach is starting to make poor decisions under pressure, much like his goalies that he yanks in and out every other game.

Far be it from me to pretend that I know what goes on in that locker room or that I know more than a lifelong hockey guy like Cory Clouston. I don't. Not even close.

Maybe Clouston wants to give Donovan and his ligament-free knee a rest. Maybe Bryan Murray made the decision for him. Maybe Clouston and Leclaire don't see eye to eye. Who knows?

To me, the real problems began to show when Clouston went with Elliott over Leclaire against the Bruins earlier this week. Leclaire was pulled in the previous game against the Flyers but most expected him to get back in the net against the Bruins. As one commenter correctly pointed out in my previous article, Elliott had already lost three games against the Bruins this season and it would have made sense for Clouston to at least try to shake things up against the seemingly unbeatable Tim Thomas. Yet there was Elliott back in nets against Boston and he got lit up early, forcing Clouston to put Leclaire back in.

That's when the yo-yo started and who knows when the string is going to run out?

Clouston's "lose and you're out" system isn't working. It didn't work tonight against Florida, it didn't work against Washington, and it certainly didn't work against Boston.

Basic hockey logic would tell you that Leclaire is never going to get better unless his coach backs him up and sticks him in the net come hell or high water, allowing the goalie to put bad games behind him by getting back in there right away. That sort of thinking worked for young defenseman Erik Karlsson. He was struggling but Clouston let him play his way through it and dare I say, Karlsson is already turning into one of the Senators most effective rearguards when it comes to moving the puck.

Leclaire is not going to get back to what he does best by sitting on the bench. He's just going to get injured by flying pucks.....

I would also suggest that Shean Donovan is just not Cory Clouston's guy. You can sense that over time. Donovan is almost always the first guy to come out of the lineup despite rarely wasting the scant minutes he's given.

If Clouston doesn't like Donovan, Murray should do the honourable thing and find a new home for speedy winger through a trade. No doubt there will be many teams who can find a spot for a character guy who gives it all to his team. Evidently the Senators don't need a guy like him.


And just let me say, thank the heavens for players like Chris Neil and Jarkko Ruutu for making even this stinker of a game somewhat entertaining. It's one thing to lose, but if you can at least bruise and enrage the other team in the process, you've come away with something, if not two points. Bryan McCabe may no longer be a Toronto Maple Leaf, but Ruutu got him so angry and frustrated near the end of the 3rd period that even the most jaded Senators fan had to smile a little.

The great thing about this Senators team is that they don't like to lose. When they do, you can bet that players like Neil, Ruutu and Matt Carkner are going to do everything they can to stay in their opponents memory.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Clouston Should Go Back To Leclaire For Bruins Tilt

Let's stop the Martin Gerber comparisons.

A lot of fans are fretting about Pascal Leclaire letting in "soft goals", and they have a right to, but Leclaire is in no danger of falling into Gerber territory.

Leclaire is a top-tier athlete with elite technical skills and the right mental approach to become the goalie the Senators have seemingly always needed. Leclaire is in a totally different class of goaltender than Gerber was.

It seems strange to say at the mid-point of the season, but patience is the key word here. Leclaire is only going to get better.

The problem with Leclaire has been his many injuries all clustered together over the span of two years. He's the type of goalie that needs to get into a groove and play a lot of minutes for him to get his game in shape. Before his freak jaw injury, Leclaire was playing like everyone expected him to but has struggled a litte with consistency since coming back. That doesn't seem out of the ordinary but what should make everyone hopeful is that when Leclaire is on his game, he's right up there with the best of them as far as "big save" ability goes.

Clouston trusts this guy and the only way to get Leclaire back in top form is to play the hell out of him until the Olympic break. Brian Elliott is coming along well in his role as a backup, but that's all he's proven himself to be so far - a backup.

The important point is that the Senators are getting points. Lots of 'em. When and if Leclaire starts costing the team points regularly, then it's time to panic. But that hasn't been the case so far. In fact, Leclaire has been directly responsible for a lot of those points when the team couldn't score in the early going, and it's not like they are setting the world on fire now (Philly game excluded).

As of this writing, it was unclear who Clouston would start for the Boston game, but my money would be on Leclaire.

As for Alex Kovalev, he just can't win it seems. The morning show guys on the Team 1200 we're all over him after his 5 point, 4 goal performance against the Flyers. It almost would have been better for Kovalev if he had just stopped at 2 goals. That way we would have been spared the "he should be doing this all the time" and "he's so talented... when he wants to be" talk.

The truth is, Kovalev has been getting better and better in the past 2 or 3 weeks and has, along with Chris Kelly, Ryan Shannon and Chris Neil, allowed the Senators to not miss a beat after losing both Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza.

Maybe all he needed was a little more responsibility and some pressure. It may have been the game of his career, but don't let the dramatics fool you. Kovalev has been working up to that type of game for a while now.

Senators fans certainly hope that trend continues.


On a personal note, you may have noticed that my posts have been far apart lately. That's because I'm getting ready to become a first-time father any day now and understandably, my priorities are elsewhere at the moment. Knowing that my attention is going to be on more important things in the near future, some kind of format change is going to happen at Black Aces, perhaps one big weekly column on the weekends rather than the usual 3 or 4 during the week. I'm undecided right now what shape it will take but I still look forward to the give and take with all you Sens fans in the future.

Thanks to my readers for being patient in what is shaping up to be a whirlwind few months ahead!