Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Volchenkov/Sutton Non-Argument...

Nobody in the mainstream press is saying it, but you get the impression from some fans, through the blogs and the call-in shows, that Andy Sutton just might be a fine replacement for Anton Volchenkov next season, the premise being that GM Bryan Murray won’t be able to sign both under the salary cap.

For one, it’s not out of the question for Murray to keep both of them (in fact, I think it's likely). Filip Kuba can be moved this summer when his no-trade clause expires, and he may not be missed with the sudden emergence of Erik Karlsson as this team’s best offensive defenseman.

But for argument’s sake, let’s pretend that Murray has to choose just one to sign.

I don’t think I have to mount much of an argument to convince you that Volchenkov is the better player. That’s a given. But people will argue that Sutton provides much of the same for a cheaper price. Volchenkov currently has a 2.5 million cap hit (with a 3.2 million salary) to Sutton’s 3 million (with a 3.5 million salary), but Volchenkov will certainly require a hefty raise as a UFA this summer.

The first argument in Volchenkov’s favour has already been stated. He’s the better player. It’s also fair to say that Volchenkov is the best in the league at what he does, mainly sacrificing his body at all times to keep shots from getting to the net and being an elite match-up defenseman against the league’s best forwards. As a GM, you always want to have the best player in any equation. As for Sutton, he is right up there with blocking shots year after year and has been delivering huge hits since he got to Ottawa. Sutton has been an underrated defenseman for a long time now due to playing with weaker teams.

But the term “long time now” is more relevant than you think. Sutton is 35 years old and may be able to play another 3 or 4 years if he remains healthy, with the inevitable downturn in speed and agility that affects all players in their late 30’s.

Volchenkov on the other hand is only 28 years old and is just entering his peak years. His downturn is almost ten years away. Today’s Sutton can easily be the Jason Smith of tomorrow. That’s the chance you take with older players.

The next question will certainly be “But won’t Volchenkov's reckless physical style of play shorten his career? Why commit to a guy who could be worn out in another couple of seasons?”.

For one, Volchenkov has had an amazing ability to stay healthy throughout his career, with his one major injury being a damaged shoulder way back in 2003. For the most part, other than bumps and bruises, Volchie is in great shape and just seems to be one of those players with good genes, able to bounce back from collisions that would decimate lesser players. Daniel Alfredsson is much the same way.

Even if he did wear down quicker along the way, he’s still going to give the Senators as many years as an aging Andy Sutton will going forward from this summer, and at a better caliber of play. In light of that, Volchenkov is much less of a risk than Sutton, despite his more ferocious play.

That’s 3 arguments in favour of Volchie. None for Sutton.

So let’s get down to what the real issue is for everybody.


Everyone’s concerned about money. Like it’s coming out of their own pockets instead of Eugene’s.

The worry seems to be that Volchenkov and his agent are asking for an astronomical salary, somewhere in the 5 million a season range.

Despite the fact that nobody has verified that figure, not Bryan Murray, not Volchenkov, not his agent, not even the press, it seems to have entered the discussion as a plausible number. Some say it has the ring of “truthiness” to it.

But, like before, let’s just pretend that it will take 4.5 to 5 million to get Volchenkov under contract (I personally think it will end up at 4.2 or 4.3 with a no-trade clause provided to smooth things over - the cap hit could be at 4.5 with Volchenkov getting a front loaded 5 million plus in the first few years).

That’s 1.5 to 2 million more than Andy Sutton counts against the cap now at 35 years of age. Presumably, Sutton will be looking to capitalize on his new found reputation to hit it big with what will probably be the last contract of his career. But he may also stay at his current level in order to remain with the Senators, a team he most likely enjoys playing for after a career spent in the NHL wilderness. But don’t for a second think he’s going to take much less than 3 million on his last chance contract. So let’s peg Sutton at 3 million and Volchenkov at 5, even though the difference will probably be considerably less than that.

So keeping Sutton over Volchenkov will save the Senators 2 million dollars in cap space. But when the salary cap is expected to stay at 56 million or dip slightly to 54 in the worst case scenario, what’s 2 million dollars when it comes to keeping one of your most valuable players?

It’s nothing. It’s peanuts. Room could and should always be made for a vital, elite player, especially if it only means you have to shuffle around 2 million dollars on a 56 million dollar payroll. And, like I said, it will probably be a figure more like 1.5 million… or less!

Kuba alone makes 3.5 million dollars. He is perfectly expendable (though a quality player) and would be easy to move in a league where so few offensive defensemen make it to free agency. There is also such an abundance of forwards in Ottawa that Coach Clouston can’t find playing time for them all. There’s lots of room to maneuver here.

Paying your best defenseman 5 million dollars is not a liability. It’s a reality in today’s NHL. While some may argue that he doesn’t score points, therefore he doesn’t deserve big money, that’s an argument that retired alongside Paul Coffey. The game is much more sophisticated now and a defensive specialist as singular as Volchenkov is just as valuable as a Sergei Gonchar or a Dan Boyle. If you don't believe me, just watch what happens if Volchenkov hits the open market.

Keeping both Volchenkov and Sutton would give the Senators a top four of:

Phillips – Volchenkov
Sutton – Karlsson

This would leave the final two spots to inexpensive players like Matt Carkner, Chris Campoli, Jared Cowan and Patrick Wiercioch. I'm not forgetting Brian Lee either (though I try very hard).

Sounds like a perfect balance to me from both a financial and a hockey standpoint.

Lastly, wouldn’t it be a great thing for Volchenkov, a guy who loves playing here and doesn’t want to leave, to spend his entire career in a Senators uniform, much like Daniel Alfredsson will, and Chris Phillips probably will?

There is something to be said for team stability and familiar personalities to fans in the city. Great teams like Detroit commit to quality individuals and the identity of the team remains solid while the Stanley Cups keep piling up.

The Senators are a class organization and keeping great players in the fold like Alfie, Volchie, Phillips, Mike Fisher and Chris Neil is what sells this team to the public and garners it respect around the league.

If you’re still keeping score, that’s 5 arguments for keeping Volchenkov and 1 solid argument to keep both him and Sutton.

I have yet to hear a convincing point that would justify letting Volchenkov walk for nothing and signing Sutton instead.

Maybe you have one. I’d love to hear it.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Champ Featured In New NHL Ad

Excuse me, but I'm getting .... a little .... "verklempt". Talk amongst yourselves.


Now that we're on the subject of ads, here's a few random NHL centric classics.

Two from 1997:

Feelin' 7Up with 99

I used to eat these as a kid. They ruled. Had no idea they had aspartame though. Thanks a lot Wayne.

That's the way Wayne likes it.

90's Era Adam Oates "Coolest Game On Earth". Very provocative use of the phrase "loose rebounds".

Vintage Olaf Kolzig

Don't eat McDonalds, kids, no matter what Gretz and Mats tell you.

Rob Ray ESPN

Lemieux and the kids

We've saved the worst for last

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Who Won The Game Anyways?

A few quick notes for your Sunday afternoon, Monday morning:

I had a chance to make it out to Scotiabank Place for the first time in a few months last night. There was a great atmosphere in the rink despite a rather tame first period and as usual, the whole presentation was a class affair from the ushers on up the general show the in-house entertainment staff put on for the fans. Sporadic chants of "Alfie" were heard when the captain made a play, the fans were loud and boisterous and overall, it's still some of the best bang for your buck you can find in the city.

After such a positive experience, it was somewhat disheartening to sit in the parking lot and listen to the post-game show on the Team 1200 where seemingly all the hosts and callers could find time to talk about was the recent poor play of Alexei Kovalev, with suggestions that he be benched, sent to the AHL, bought out or be replaced by, of all players, Jonathan Cheechoo.

I sat there thinking, didn't the Senators just win their fourth game in a row? Why are people so upset? And why is there such a disconnect from all the happy fans in the building and the grumpy radio hosts and callers, who seemingly saw a different game than I and 18,500 other fans did?

Sure, Kovalev is in a big slump, but he was in a slump to start the season and he pulled out of that quite nicely, to the point where he was an indispensable player in the run up to the Olympics. Relax folks, he'll snap out of it. The team has even admitted he's been playing with an undisclosed injury.

The fact he took a goaltender interference penalty late in the game was certainly bothersome, but if you watch the replay, it was only because he was going to the net (which he is supposed to do) and simply stumbled over the back leg of the Florida defenseman. It was an accident. Who cares?

Why is there such a vocal segment of Ottawa fans who feel they can only relate to their home team by demonizing certain players? Year after year, they choose their nemesis and do their best to run them out of town. Daniel Alfredsson was once that guy. Jason Spezza was once that guy. We all know who the others were.

Criticisms of Kovalev are largely based on cliches. People have a misconception that he doesn't play hard. It's complete bullshit. A guy doesn't make it to the NHL and play over a thousand games if he's lazy. Fans expect everyone to play like Mike Fisher, but that's just not the case. Kovalev's game is all about puck possession, not grinding it out in the corners. He's not built to play that way. When he's in a slump, which all players go through, it just looks like he's not doing anything because his stick isn't working. If he ever gets out of this rut (and he will - he always does), Senators fans will be quite happy to have him along for the playoff ride.

Just relax. The Senators have won four in a row. They are going to the playoffs. Quit being so uptight and enjoy the fact you have an NHL team in town with world class athletes trying to win you a Stanley Cup.


The more important the game, the more Anton Volchenkov ramps up his intensity and the more he drives up his value on the free-agent market. Bryan Murray should have given this guy the money a long time ago. Just wait until the playoffs when Volchenkov will be even more incredible.

I've said it before and I'll say it again - if Murray lets Volchenkov leave this team, you can forget about a Stanley Cup anytime soon. As good as Andy Sutton and Matt Carkner have been (or as good as Jared Cowan is projected to be), none of them come close to providing what Volchenkov gives you.

This is not the guy to get cheap on.

Fight other guys over money. Volchenkov needs to stay in Ottawa, and if you have to give him market value, just give it to him. Cut corners elsewhere. Nobody in the league is as good at what he does than Volchenkov himself. If that's not worth market value, then I don't know what is.

The debate can turn on what that market value truly is, but even if people disagree by upwards of 2 million dollars, are you prepared to let such a vital piece of the team leave because you couldn't find between 1 and 2 million dollars under a salary cap that is going to top out somewhere around 56 million dollars?

I just can't see a valid argument for letting Volchenkov go.

And hopefully, Murray can't either.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Sens Can Survive Without Michalek

While there has been no official word from the Senators organization, more and more, it looks like Milan Michalek will be either out for the rest of the season and playoffs, or at least has some serious ACL damage to his left knee. While many say that Michalek could conceivably play without an ACL so long as he wears a knee brace, you have to wonder how effective he will be in such a scenario.

Already a survivor of two major surgeries to his right knee (at one point there was even talk of his right leg being amputated due to an infection!), this latest injury will certainly trouble GM Bryan Murray, both in the short term and long term perspective.

But the way Michalek plays the game, devastating injuries are going to be par for the course. That’s just his style. He flies down the ice and goes straight to the net, with or without the puck. Bad things tend to happen that way, but that’s how Michalek earns his living. You can’t fault him for that.

Yet, let me propose this theory.

Of all the top 6 forwards on the Senators, with the exception of Alex Kovalev, Michalek is the guy you can live without the most.

That’s not to diminish his skill and the fact he co-leads the Senators in goal scoring with Mike Fisher. But when you look at the bigger picture, Michalek is essentially an accessory and not a vital part of the core. In a way, he’s like a lone wolf whose statistics probably outweigh his real impact.

For the sake of brevity, let’s just all agree that the top six forwards on this team are : Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza, Milan Michalek, Mike Fisher, Matt Cullen and Alexei Kovalev. I know how you all feel about Kovalev lately, but he still deserves to be on this list for now.

In order of importance to the team, I would rate them as follows:

1. Alfredsson
2. Spezza
3. Fisher
4. Cullen
5. Michalek
6. Kovalev

I’d be willing to bet that the top two on that list won’t be argued by many. Probably the top three. It’s the last three players on the list that could conceivably be interchangeable, depending on your viewpoint.

The reason I rate Cullen a more important forward than Michalek probably comes down to one characteristic: hockey sense.

Michalek has most of the tools that someone like, say, Marian Hossa has. They both have speed, size and quick hands. But what Hossa has that Michalek doesn’t is above average hockey sense. Same goes for Cullen.

Michalek is like a racehorse – he’s good at going straight ahead faster than most but there isn’t really much sophistication to his game when you look at him objectively. He kills penalties the same way. He hounds for the puck and when he gets it, he’s off. His game relies on beating the opposing player physically, either through speed or along the boards with muscle.

And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Michalek is certainly worth his salary and is a great member of the team.

But someone like Cullen, he makes plays. He sees the ice in a manner similar to Alfredsson and because he’s a natural centre, he’s a more well rounded player than the prototypical winger Michalek.

What makes a player like Alfredsson superb is that he can do what both Michalek and Cullen can. He can beat you on speed and skill, or he can out think you and make the little plays that baffle the opposition.

As for Michalek, his importance is also lessened by the fact that the Senators have so many great penalty killers that his absence on that front hasn’t been felt. With guys waiting in the wings like Peter Regin and Nick Foligno, the minutes and spot on the top line vacated by Michalek is also being filled quite ably so far.

While it’s true this Senators team is still having a hard time scoring goals, the evidence suggests they can still be a very good team without Michalek. That wouldn’t be the case if they had lost any one of their other top six forwards (excluding the streaky and baffling Kovalev of course).

And if you accept that argument, you can think of the possibility of Michalek returning as some kind of last minute trade deadline player added to the mix for the playoffs.

What all Sens fans can agree on is that they all wish him a speedy recovery and that he has a long career ahead of him, hopefully in the local black and red sweater.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Fat Cats Outstyle "SENS"

Ottawa has a new baseball team (the Fat Cats!!) and, whaddya know, they unveiled their new logo yesterday. Not only have they adopted the traditional civic colours of black and red, but they've seemingly upstaged the Senators by using a stylized "O "logo very reminiscent of the shoulder patches the Sens currently wear.

The "O" logo is very popular with local hockey fans but the Senators unfortunately opted for the much less attractive "SENS" wording on their black third jerseys.

While the Fat Cats logo is kind of weird with that cat's eye thing going on, give them credit for taking an already popular logo concept and stealing it from under the noses of the big tuna in town.

It's a shame the Senators didn't fully embrace the "O" sooner, because they have the potential to have some of the nicest uniforms in the league, rather than the already dated Reebok Edge look they sport now.

All the elements for a classic uniform are there, they just need someone with some taste to put it all together for them.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Feels Like The Playoffs

Everybody loves a mean and nasty Philly-Ottawa matchup, but nobody revels in it like that sick, twisted soul Anton Volchenkov. He's seemingly found a soul brother in Andy Sutton who joined the bruising Russian in waging an all out physical battle in a game that was as close to a playoff matchup as you can get in the regular season.

While it was no all-time classic like the March 2004 doozy that still holds the NHL record for the most penalty filled game in history, tonight's match was a sometimes vicious affair that ultimately ended up as a huge win for Ottawa as they have suddenly given themselves some much needed breathing room in their battle for a playoff spot. Combined with Atlanta's deflating loss to the Bruins, it will take a drastic turn of events for Ottawa to miss now.

It also happened to be Brian Elliott's second straight shutout, a statistic so unexpected that it's almost beyond comment.

Yet the game didn't feel like it was won between the pipes, but rather in the trenches.

In what was an incredible sequence of events in the second period, Erik Karlsson battled with Flyers agitator Daniel Carcillo in the corner and ended up taking a retaliation penalty. When Karlsson and Carcillo stood face to face after the whistle, Carcillo quite clearly asked Karlsson if he wanted to "go". There was no way Karlsson was going to get sucked into something as lopsided as that potential scrap, but as soon as that invitation was extended, Andy Sutton did the right thing by stepping in to show that Ottawa's skilled players were not going to be touched by someone like Carcillo.

8 times out of 10, the referees let something like that go, especially when they have already called a previous penalty on the play. Yet Sutton has had some bad luck with the refs lately and the Sens were down two men for a full two minutes. A lot of people will call that a stupid penalty on Sutton's part but I'd disagree.

Sure, Sutton took a chance by getting rough with Carcillo, but everytime you let another team intimidate your star players, you lose a little something that is hard to get back. While teams find it hard to kill off penalties that arise from someone being lazy, no doubt the Senators wanted to snuff this one for Sutton and Karlsson who went to the box for standing up to the Flyers.

There's a real difference there, and when a team survives that kind of situation, as the Senators ultimately did, everyone is boosted by that unified feeling. To put an exclamation point on it, as the crowd stood wildly applauding the great penalty kill against the Flyers, Sutton stormed out of the box and crushed Carcillo to the ice with a pulverizing hit in almost the exact same spot that Volchenkov caught Carcillo earlier in the game. The crowd nearly blew the tin roof off the joint.

Sutton was telling the Flyers, "the refs can put me away all night, but when I'm on the ice, I'm coming for you". That's a language perhaps the players on the benches understand a lot more clearly than the giddy fan in the stands.

To me, that was the turning point of the game. Of course, Alfredsson's quick goal to start the third period cemented the win and Elliott pushed aside 26 shots. But it was that team aspect, that very visible hunger by all the players to do whatever it takes to get those two points.

Despite what that post-Olympic losing streak hinted at, the Senators still have that gang mentality that will serve them well in the first round of the playoffs, no matter who they face.

Black Aces Senators 3 Stars

1. Anton Volchenkov
2. Brian Elliott
3. Chris Phillips

Honourable mentions: Andy Sutton, Chris Kelly and Daniel Alfredsson.

Here's the season scorecard updated after tonight's game:

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

Alfredsson – 38
Elliott – 30
Spezza – 25
Kovalev – 25
Fisher – 21
Volchenkov – 18
Michalek – 16
Neil - 14
Phillips - 13
Leclaire – 11
Foligno – 10
Regin - 9
Karlsson - 8
Ruutu - 8
Shannon – 8
Brodeur - 8
Kelly – 5
Winchester - 5
Kuba – 5
Carkner – 3
Cullen - 2
Lee – 1
Donovan – 1
Cheechoo - 1


Chris Campoli has actually been a very effective player since he returned from injury and once Filip Kuba is healthy, Campoli will give Cory Clouston a few things to ponder before making him a healthy scratch.

You could sit Matt Carkner (who had a great game against the Flyers) but, assuming that Clouston keeps the duo of Andy Sutton and Erik Karlsson together, a pairing of Kuba-Carkner seems like a better balance than a Kuba-Campoli one. While Carkner has pretty much been steady all year, Campoli's effectiveness sometimes takes a swan dive for a stretch of games.

If you look at the potential pairings this way - Phillips-Volchenkov; Sutton-Karlsson; Carkner-Kuba, you have your premier shutdown pair and a couple of tandems that can play at either end of the ice. If you put Campoli with Kuba, you essentially create an unbalanced pairing that theoretically would struggle in their own end. But if Campoli keeps playing well, he'll be awful hard to take out of the lineup.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Out Of The Wilderness

That's the funny thing about prolonged streaks, both winning and losing.

The team and its fans are either sky high with confidence or rock bottom with the burden of unrelieved angst and pessimism.

But like all streaks, if you look closely, sometimes you can see the little signs that tell you it's about to break, for good or for bad.

Take Ottawa's big winning run just before the Olympic break. The wins were piling up, but near the end, defensive mistakes were popping up but because the luck was flowing so freely, the little flaws never seemed to hurt the team.

The same can be said for the post-Olympic losing streak.

Not many, including myself, could see through the haze of failure to notice that, slowly, the Senators were starting to turn their game around, even if it was at the speed of an ocean liner changing course halfway across the Atlantic.

They were going through a massive offensive dry spell but racked up 3 goals against Atlanta on Thursday and 4 goals against the Dallas Stars on Saturday. Both losses were huge letdowns but at least they were trending up in the goal scoring department.

Yet most of the worry was directed at the goaltending situation, and the Senators hobbled into Montreal on Monday night with seemingly everything on the line. A loss would have dropped them below the Habs in the East and left them open to a do or die game against Philly on Tuesday.

Who could have foreseen that Brian Elliott, only slightly less tarnished than the now completely counted out Pascal Leclaire, would be able to throw down a shutout in this kind of hostile environment?

Count me as one who would have laughed at the suggestion before the opening faceoff.

Elliott was stellar but he was given plenty of help by the Senators penalty kill and a godsend power play goal by Erik Karlsson, who made amends after a tough outing against the Stars.

From all reports by those who watch this team every day in practice and on airplanes, the guys are a tight knit group who support each other and still believe in themselves, despite the utter panic they cause with their wildly uneven play during the season.

There was no wild celebration when the 2-0 result became official. In fact, the players looked collected and somewhat reserved when crowding around Elliott after the buzzer, save for a few well deserved face washes amongst the younger guys.

It looked like business as usual from a team that has learned there is always a light at the end of the tunnel, even when everyone around them has figured them for also-rans.

As they left the ice, Chris Phillips, who battles the same way every night - at full tilt - was there to give his customary glove taps after a win, and suddenly, the Senators odds of not only making the playoffs, but avoiding the dreaded matchup with either Pittsburgh or Washington, look a whole lot better going into a home game against a Philly team with no number one goalie and their top scorer on the shelf with a broken foot.

But don't look to me for the answers. I was ready to write them off myself. I'm just as fascinated as the rest of you as to how this storyline will play out.

Black Aces Senators 3 Stars

1. Brian Elliott
2. Erik Karlsson
3. Daniel Alfredsson

Honourable mentions: Andy Sutton, Matt Cullen, Peter Regin and Jason Spezza.


The 1992 NHL Entry Draft seems like a long time ago but tonight in Montreal, there was Roman Hamrlik still going strong for his 5th team, having played well over a thousand games in the league. Not many people remember, but according to Roy MacGregor's essential book on the first year Ottawa Senators, "Road Games", Hamrlik was highly coveted by general manager Mel "Ottawa Apologises" Bridgman and the rest of his Ottawa staff. Hamrlik was not only a potential star defenseman, he also fit into the Senators marketing theme of the "Roman Warrior". As it happened, Hamrlik was Tampa GM Phil Esposito's first choice and Bridgman took Alexei Yashin 2nd overall. While this doesn't have the same cache as Detroit being forced to pick Steve Yzerman 4th overall after their desired pick, Pat Lafontaine was snagged by the Islanders 3rd overall in the 1983 Entry Draft, Bridgman made the right choice in the end. Despite Yashin's turbulent Sens career, for a while, Yashin was one of the best centres in the league and was a big part of those first three seasons (97, 98, 99) the Sens made the playoffs. Hamrlik has been steady but not exactly worthy of his number one status. But the fact is, he remains in the league while Yashin is a pariah, exiled to the KHL. So who would you pick if you had the chance all over again? I'd still take Yashin......

It's been awhile since I've seen a player hit himself in the head with his own stick on purpose (if ever) but that's what Matt Carkner did after giving the puck away in the 1st period. Hopefully, being named "Mr. Hottawa Senator" hasn't gone to his head. I've said it before, but Carks hasn't been the same guy since getting KO'd by Colton Orr before the Olympic break. He'd never admit it, but I think his confidence was stung by that very public defeat. Still, Carkner is a great find as a sixth defenseman and I expect him to be a character player for this team for a few years yet..... Wonder what Alex Kovalev said to former linemate Tomas Plekanek to make the Hab break out laughing after a close play at the Montreal net? Maybe he wondered out loud why he ever left Montreal in the first place...... Once in a while, when I'm unable to make up my mind on the game prediction in the Ottawa Citizen panel, I'll ask my two and a half month old son for some advice. Usually, I'll get some sort of hand signal, but when I asked him if the Senators would beat Dallas on Saturday, he let out an enormously loud fart. I didn't know if that was a yes or a no. I chose Ottawa and lost. Now I know......

However this unfathomable season ends up in the history books, it's become clear to me that Bryan Murray made two great moves in picking up Matt Cullen and Andy Sutton. Throughout the losing streak, these two guys have been among their better players and both should at least end up having conversations with Murray about a contract to play in Ottawa beyond this year. They'll both be hard to fit under the cap, maybe impossible, but it would be worth moving Filip Kuba to keep Sutton and someone up front to keep Cullen. They're that good, if you ask me..... Speaking of Sutton, we all knew he was a physical defenseman, but he has been lethal as a big body against the boards. He's delivered at least three massive, highlight bodychecks since donning the black and red and tonight he crushed Benoit Pouliot in the second period. Later on he bulldozed one of the Kostitsyns in the third. And for once, he didn't get called for a phantom penalty.......

Would it really be so bad if Ottawa ended up in 6th place and played the Sabres in the first round, as some have already pointed out? To me, the only two teams they must avoid at all costs are the Pens and the Caps. The Senators have beaten Martin Brodeur before. They can do it again. With complete respect for the future Hall of Famer, it's clear that Brodeur is not as infallible as he once was and it brings to mind the last two years of Patrick Roy's career where he took that little step back, which robbed him of his aggressive edge. That being said, Brodeur has so much experience that he is still capable of backstopping his team to a Stanley Cup. Never count out a winner..... I don't know this for a fact, but I'm willing to bet linesman across the league share one thing in common: they must hate it that after every whistle, the player nearest the puck feels the need to scoop it up and juggle it with his stick so the linesman can grab it out of the air. Just watch the linesman. All they want is to get that damn puck and get it to the faceoff dot. But they have to hesitantly wait while Joe Blow fumbles around for 5 seconds trying to look slick...... Two hairstyles separated at birth: Dallas coach Marc Crawford and veteran ref Kerry Fraser (who had to start wearing a helmet after the lockout. It still doesn't look right to see him out there with that lid.) .......

I'm not a huge fan of modern goalie masks for the reason that they are so detailed, they rarely look as good on TV as the old, simple, bold designs. But I have to admit the Stars Kari Lehtonen has a real beauty with his ode to Clint Eastwood, and in particular, his popular character The Man With No Name from the epic Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Senators Foiled By Headshot Paranoia

Opening faceoff at an empty Phillips Arena was not exactly the shot in the arm the Senators needed after weakly capitulating to a their sad-sack rivals, the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday night.

But who am I calling sad-sack?

Nobody is counting the losses anymore. The Senators are in a freefall where up is down and down is.... down. Forget statistics and line combinations and ice time. The Senators are beyond that now.

They may not have enough confidence left to tie their skates up, let alone win an NHL hockey game anytime soon.

Yes, that's me being melodramatic. But it's just the kind of mood that's kicking around these days.

How do they pick themselves up now after a game where they got behind 2-0 and 3-1 before battling back, only to get sideswiped by the headshot paranoia that has gripped the league so feverishly this season?

The score was 3-3 and the Senators had all the momentum. It was only a matter of time before they broke the game open. Then big Andy Sutton leveled Eric Boulton with a great bodycheck along the boards. That should have spurred the Senators on even more.

Unfortunately, the paranoia is so ratcheted up that the refs felt they had to call a penalty simply because Boulton was dazed after the hit. Never mind that it was clean. Never mind that Sutton hit Boulton in the chest and not the head. Never mind that players have been delivering these same exciting hits since the league was founded. It's just not cool to deliver big hits anymore, clean or not.

(The Associated Press is calling Sutton's hit a "cheap shot"! Clearly, the guy writing the copy, Paul Newberry, didn't bother to look at the hit on a replay. Why should he have to? In today's mindset, if it was a big hit, it just had to be a "cheap shot".)

Just like that, due to external issues beyond the Senators control, and beyond this specific game, the tide turned on a blown call, the Thrashers scored on the ensuing power-play and it was Goodnight Irene.

Now you know why the minority of us who aren't drinking the Kool-Aid regarding this sudden concern over hitting, keep warning that a rush to legislate a new standard without regard to consequences is going to slowly take big hits out of the game.

Sutton's hit was Exhibit Number Two. He got called on an almost identical hit against the Leafs. He got called because he's big and hits hard. Not because he hits dirty.

The Senators paid the price for that tonight.

Other than that, you can probably point to the usual suspects. Brian Elliott was mediocre, as he has been since the Olympic break, but Cory Clouston just doesn't believe in Pascal Leclaire, just like he doesn't believe in heart and soul winger Shean Donovan. Don't expect any changes in philosophy going forward from the coach.

But on a positive note, Ken Warren wrote an article today that could cheer even the most desperate of Sens fans. Despite this losing streak, the chances of the Sens missing the post-season are pretty slim.

While the Rangers would need 20 points from their final 12 games to hit 91 points, the Senators would only need to play .500 hockey -- 12 points in 12 games -- to hit that mark.

So think positive folks.

Everything is going to be all right.

Isn't it?


Sure, the atmosphere inside the Atlanta rink is terrible, but I kind of like the blue dashers and the blue seams on the glass. I think it would be a cool idea if more teams did that in their own colours.......A quick check of the Thrashers website reveals they are advertising possible playoff tickets. I guess it's better to be safe than sorry..... Slava Kozlov is also one of the featured players on the side banners of the site. I seem to remember him asking for a trade before the deadline. You know times are tough in Atlanta when........ Not to kick them when they're down, but the slogan the Thrashers proudly display on their site is "That's The Hockey Way". Who wrote that elegant little passage of high literature?........

You know Chris Neil is in the game when he gets that evil little smile on his face. He gets that smile when he's in a fight too. Kind of creepy actually...... I used to really give it to Team 1200 morning host Lee Versage on this blog for being too negative and ripping players too harshly. But I have to admit I don't mind listening to the guy anymore. Since Glenn Kulka left the morning show, Versage is less prone to hyperbole and seems quite reasonable most of the time. While the chaotic nature of the Kulka era was somewhat entertaining in a train wreck sort of way, the current show is actually informative and much more listener friendly. People no longer get attacked on air when they call in and have an opinion different than the hosts. Good job, Versage. Count me in as part of the listening audience......

In honour of Steve "That Was A Dirty Hit" Lloyd's recurring hour-long segment devoted to the latest hockey violence on the Team 1200 pre-game show (even Lloydie acknowledged tonight that they spend way too much time on it!), I feel it's our obligation to turn against the stampeding herd of sheep by pointing out a great article by The Hockey News' Rory Boylen. He brings up a lot of the exact same points I did last week here, but he makes a much more eloquent and better argument than I can about this absurd hysteria we find ourselves in.

Here's just a few of his well-taken points:

The day after a star player is injured by a devastating bodycheck, there’s always calls for rule changes to fix the horrible injuries that plague the league. A bunch of alarmist sentiment blows up, as if it’s breaking news that getting hit in the head is not a good thing – or that hockey can be a potentially dangerous sport....

It’s not a simple fix. It’s easy to shout for changes and leap at the league when they don’t happen because those voices have absolutely no accountability when the rules don’t pan out perfectly and they just move on to the next crusade.......

You don’t think if players can’t hit guys who cut across the middle with their head down that hip checks won’t make a comeback? It won’t be long before knee injuries set in and that becomes a target.....

There are only about two or three devastating hits to the head, that aren’t already covered by the rulebook, per year that lead to extended injuries.....

Of course there is an element of danger at the NHL level. Just like there is an inherent danger every time a NASCAR driver hits the track or a UFC fighter enters the octagon, NHLers take on some form of risk when they step on the ice.....

It’s easy to call yourself progressive on one side or claim you’re standing up for the game’s integrity on the other, dismissing each other’s argument with your arms crossed and your chin in the air, unwilling to listen. And, hey, you’ll get attention that way because it will anger so many.

That was a rather long excerpt (and probably some sort of copyright violation) but his article is a rare argument to slow this whole process down and apply some more thought so we don't end up with unintended consequences. When this many people jump on a bandwagon so quickly, you just know that something is rotten in Denmark. It seems that this process is being driven by people who are frustrated that justice is not black and white in real life, and so they try to impose those impossible moral standards on a sport that has functioned extraordinarily well, more or less, for over a hundred years.

The hit on Marc Savard was vicious and clearly over the line. No one wants to see an athlete seriously injured, but there sure are a lot of people watching the Pittsburgh-Boston rematch tonight. Like it or not, you'd be hard pressed to find a rivalry that didn't start with or wasn't enhanced by some kind of vicious hit.

Detroit and Colorado started a feud for all times with Claude Lemieux's cowardly hit on Kris Draper from behind. The Senators and Leafs rivalry is plagued with borderline acts such as Tie Domi crushing both Martin Havlat and Magnus Arvedsson with open ice hits (both players had their heads down) and the now legendary Daniel Alfredsson hit on Darcy Tucker.

The Oilers and Flames battles of the 80's were so vicious that people are still in awe. Mark Messier and Joel Otto basically tried to kill each other every night and an elbow in the face was as common as a facewash is now.

If Gordie Howe were playing today, he and his legendary elbows would be vilified. Same as The Rocket, same as Ted Lindsay.

As Senators play-by-play man Dean Brown is fond of pointing out, there is already a penalty in the book called Intent to Injure. Refs can call it if they want to.

The railroading of a new rule with unknown consequences is simply a sham to quiet the outraged Canadian hockey media who know a juicy flank when they see one.

On a positive note, the league finally acted responsibly by handing the Ducks James Wisniewski an eight game suspension for what was essentially an "attempt to injure" Brent Seabrook.

This is a sure sign that Colin Campbell is starting to feel the heat after running his division like a gong-show for well over a decade now. On that we can all agree. Yet we can probably expect to see him in the same job ten years from now....

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Senators Hit New Low Against Lowly Leafs

If there was ever a night for Bryan Murray to storm down from his box at the end of a game and flip a table in the dressing room, it was after losing to the Leafs for the fourth straight time on Tuesday.

I'm thinking of a Larry Robinson type tirade, delivered to his New Jersey Devils after falling behind to the Flyers three games to one in a 2000 playoff series. The Devils stormed back to win the series and then beat the Stars in the Stanley Cup final.

Or in lieu of that, how about a Mark Messier special, relating to the time he allegedly grabbed Oiler teammate Reijo Ruotsalainen by the throat and threatened to send him back to Finland "in a pine box" if he didn't start working harder.

Maybe just a "death skate" as Mike Keenan used to employ during his heyday when he was known as Iron Mike.

Chances are, none of the above is what's needed.

It's hard to put your finger on what's gone wrong with these Ottawa Senators since the Olympic break. You watch the games and they're working hard. They're just not getting any breaks and as a result, their confidence has crashed through the ice and hit the concrete underneath it.

Yet they have no one to blame but themselves. Perhaps it was simply a case of the team thinking they were going to coast into the playoffs on their press clippings alone but once they racked up a few losses and had to turn up the intensity, they found that whatever spark they had before the break was no longer there.

But that's just conjecture. Who really knows except the coach and they guys in the dressing room, and they're probably as dumbfounded as all of us who have to watch this mess unfold.

There is no way the Senators should be sitting here having just lost four in a row to the lowly Toronto Maple Leafs, listening as their home arena is taken over by people who actually boo their own captain every time he touches the puck.

The players were bad. The fans were even worse. Maybe the hot dogs were good, but are hot dogs ever really good?

If you're looking for positives, maybe this was the latest rock bottom for a season long yo-yo team. Maybe this was the game where they close the doors of the locker room and have it out with each other and emerge with a united purpose going forward.

Maybe. Maybe we haven't seen how south this can all really go. Stay tuned.


Strange things you see on the bench in between plays: 1. Erik Karlsson talking to himself for nearly a full 30 seconds after giving the puck away twice on one shift. I'm not a lip reader, but I detected a few F-bombs in there. 2. Pascal Leclaire literally attracting flies while he sits for yet another game. One of them landed on his face as soon as the camera's focused on him in the third. Unlike his other injuries, he was able to just shake it off..... It could have been the rallying point of the season. Brian Elliott gets cranked in the head with the puck and has to change masks. The all-white anti-Gerber mask makes its first appearance and the Sens almost score on the following play. If they had managed to come back and win, maybe Elliott would have had to stick with the new white mask for the rest of the year. It could have been the modern day equivalent of Tom Chorske's little Buddha figurine or Bruce Gardiner's "toilet dipped stick". Unfortunately, it was just an ugly white helmet, nothing more, nothing less ..... You wonder if Matt Cullen and Andy Sutton are thinking "what the hell kind of team did I get traded to anyways?"...... No way Alex Kovalev should be playing less than 15 minutes and on the third line. This guy needs to be on your top line to be of real use. He's going to get killed on the blogs and sports radio over the next couple of days, but I'm telling you, he doesn't deserve it. He needs to play with Jason Spezza or Mike Fisher (when he returns) at comparable minutes. Clouston isn't using him right......

The "pansification" of the NHL continues. The roughing penalty on Andy Sutton in the 3rd period was a joke. He hit the Leaf player from the front with a clean check to the chest. The Leaf snapped his head back and the ref called it an elbow before changing his mind and calling it roughing. Basically, it was a penalty for hitting. In the NHL. What a freaking joke....

I don't care what side of the debate you're on. Surely, you must have had your fill of the never ending debate about violence in the current NHL. Host Steve Lloyd and guest Bob McKenzie spent the majority of their pre-game show segment on the local Team 1200 talking about the latest injustice (as they do seemingly every game), until there was virtually no time to talk about anything else that could possibly interest their listening audience. I have a lot of respect for both McKenzie and Lloyd for their NHL knowledge and their ability to break down hockey issues into a mildly entertaining, if not informative piece of radio. Unfortunately, that is exactly what has been lacking all season long. Surely there are a few other issues to which they could apply their knowledge and sophistication to? Here's an idea - talk about the Ottawa Senators. It would be refreshing, boys.....

I have to come clean with my family and my reading audience. I can't stand Tim Hortons. I know, I know. Sacrilege. Why we hold up a junk food restaurant as a symbol of our patriotism and way of life is beyond my comprehension. But back to the Senators...... I don't think too many Sens fans are shedding a tear after Brian Lee was sent back to Binghamton. In fact, an avid Sens watcher I know claims that Lee is the worst defenseman the Senators have ever employed. That being said, it was still a wise move for Bryan Murray to sign the youngster. The terms are great for the team and he still has some upside as an asset, either on the ice or as part of a trade.......

The annual Rogers House telethon is as good an excuse as any to re-tell another great Roger Neilson story, this one culled from Brian McFarlane's great book "The Best of... It Happened In Hockey":

"Neilson was equally inventive when he coached baseball teams in Peterborough. One day he substituted a peeled apple for a game ball in the middle of an important game. With the bases loaded and two men out, Roger went to the mound to talk to his battery. Unobtrusively, he slipped the apple into the pitcher's glove. Then he secretly gave the ball to his catcher.

When the opposing runner took a lead off third, the pitcher threw a wild pitch over third base. Peterborough fans groaned for it looked like a failed pickoff play. Smirking, the runner on third trotted home, only to be tagged out by the catcher, who'd been hiding the game ball in his glove."

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Does Ottawa Really Deserve A Stanley Cup?

Minor but interesting tidbit over at the Hockey News. Adam Proteau (who happens to be one of my favourite writers covering the NHL beat today) wrote an article ranking which NHL cities deserve a Stanley Cup winner, based on a loose criteria of fan interest, fan suffering and a few other intangibles.

Of local interest, Proteau ranks Ottawa as 10th most deserving:

10. Ottawa: In their second NHL go-round, the Senators have given their fans more headaches than the dude who thought it wise to locate their arena in suburban Kanata. But all the teams still to come on this list have suffered for longer.

Fair enough.

I'm not sure why he felt San Jose should be 5 places ahead of Ottawa in the queue, but I do agree with having Buffalo at number one. Not many cities and teams have been the brunt of so much misfortune or close-calls than the Queen City, and not just in hockey either.

The Sabres do have some real bright spots in Ryan Miller and Tyler Myers who should both be around for quite a while. It's just too bad that Thomas Vanek turned out to be a B-List superstar making A-List money.


Since Ottawa finds themselves in Calgary tonight, might as well point out that the Flames are officially bringing back their vintage 80's unis as a third next season. They wore these a few times this year and they look killer, especially on HD TV. I think the NHL execs are starting to wake up to the fact that colourful jerseys look better on TV than the muted navy's and black uniforms we've been forced to watch for close to two decades.

Along with Buffalo and Edmonton bringing back their original sweaters, the New York Islanders may have the nicest of the bunch. I am a huge fan of these jerseys and I have no idea why they don't wear these full time. It's a no-brainer.

Speaking of which, I scored an official vintage Oilers Gretzky jersey today for an extremely cheap price. My first choice would have been a Messier 11 but you can't go wrong with the Great One. Kind of funny that the sweater has a fight strap though ....

A sweater I really want - an original Senators Brad Marsh 14 jersey. Can there be anything rarer? Maybe just a Senators Mike Peluso 44 sweater.

I heard some folks making fun of Oilers goalie Jeff Deslaurier's mask on the Team 1200 the other day, but I happen to think it's one of the best in the league. It's simple and you can tell what team he plays for. What good is a goalie mask that has intricate designs that no one can see unless they are within two feet of the guy? Like it or not, the Deslaurier mask looks great on HDTV.

For more obsessive uniform talk than you can probably handle, be sure to check out these personal favourites - Uni Watch and Icethetics.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Can We Move On Now?

Now it's dominating my damn blog.

So, thankfully for all of you, this will be the last time I wade in on the "head shot" obsession that has taken over the NHL.

Actually, I don't have much to say that wasn't addressed in my last post other than that I concede defeat. There is no more debate because 99.9 percent agree that something has to be done and the NHL has finally buckled under the pressure. Maybe now we can collectively talk about something else.... anything else... perhaps even...!

The league has issued an ambiguous statement regarding a rule change that seems completely open to interpretation, meaning that it could start us on the road to a far less physical brand of hockey or just keep the status quo, which consists of bizarre and unpredictable judgements by Colin Campbell, an official who should have been replaced about a decade ago after not suspending Tie Domi when he beat the crap out of a fan who fell into the penalty box in Philly (Domi got a fine!).

It doesn't seem to make clear what a "blindside" hit really means. Does it mean that you can only hit a player who is aware he is going to be hit? If the player has his head down and gets hit in the head with a shoulder by someone in front of him, is that a blindside hit? If so, doesn't that make the player virtually unhittable? Does he have to be tripped to be stopped? No one can say they know one way or the other because the league hasn't defined what they mean by a blindside hit. EDIT: Campbell is quoted as saying this about direct hits which, thankfully, seems to clear up some of my biggest worries regarding the new rule (per TSN):

"We felt there is a degree of responsibility - moreso to the player receiving the hit - when a guy's coming straight at you. But it's that blindside hit that we find is so disturbing and it's tough to protect yourself in our game, with the speed," said NHL senior vice president of hockey operations Colin Campbell.

Regardless of my ideas going the way of the dinosaur, I felt it was important to at least offer a contrary dialogue in the face of an almost across the board desire to scrub the game clean so the casual post-lockout fan can enjoy his two minutes of NHL highlight viewing a night without being exposed to anything likely to keep his attention or cause him or her to Twitter in disgust.

I don't think there has ever been anyone who likes to see a player hurt. We all want to see the really over the top dirty hits out of the league. My problem was that there was potential to throw the "baby out with the bathwater". Not to mention the overblown media hype that drowned out all other discussion.

But now the skirmish is over and "fans" can go back to their favourite pastime of bashing players for being so rich and lazy.

Following up on the Greg Wyshinski quote in the last post, here's another by your favourite player that I feel raises some interesting points.

Chris Pronger of the Flyers:

“Some of the [hits] near the boards probably could be addressed, but open ice hits are hard. Both players are going at such a speed that it’s difficult to readjust. If a player moves one way you might get him in the head, and if he moves another way you might get him in the shoulder. Or, sometimes you miss him and you see knees-on-knees.

So, you’re going to let up when a guy has his head down, so then he beats you to the net and scores a goal in a big playoff game or a crucial game towards the tail end of the regular season? Then, you’re getting critiqued by the media and the fans: why didn’t you hit him?

It’s a lose-lose if a player lets up on somebody and something bad happens against his team like a goal or penalty. You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t. It’s a fine line. I haven’t seen the rule and I don’t know what they want to institute, but any rule is going to have its ups and its downsides.”

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Big Hits Endangered By Manufactured Hysteria

The never ending “head-shot” debate has hit a fever pitch in Canada and the usual suspects are one step away from rioting in the streets if the GM’s of the league don’t make an expected rule change in the coming days. The phrase “ad nauseum” doesn’t even begin to describe the frantic hand-wringing by the hockey media who are now actually making significant headway in eliminating big hits from the NHL.

Because make no mistake about it, if you make all contact with the head a standard penalty, you are slowly but surely going to eliminate all big-hits from hockey or at least create a scenario where every hit, even minor ones, are going to be scrutinized creating another mess similar to the “toe in the crease rule” that plagued and embarrassed the league in the late 90’s. If you think it’s a big topic now, wait until each hit is analyzed to death every single night with pundits wondering whether the ref made the right call or not. In essence we are headed towards the NBA on Ice or Major League Soccer where diving and faking injury is just as important as scoring points.

The very mechanics of big hits virtually ensures the head is going to be involved.

Think about it.

The hitter is running into a player who is skating, which means that his head is lower by virtue of the fact that no one skates perfectly upright. If the hitter puts his shoulder into the skating player, it’s going to either hit his head, his shoulder or his high chest. If it hits his high chest or shoulder, the player’s head is on a thing we call “a neck”, which is a swivel. The momentum of the head will ensure it goes forward or sideways bringing it into contact with the hitter’s shoulder. If that doesn't happen, chances are the head is going to hit the ice. Maybe fans would prefer players go for gut shots. Or maybe they don’t want hitting at all.

There is no way around it unless you outlaw all hitting with the exception of old-school hip-checks. And we all know that hip-checks can just as easily turn into a situation where a player’s knee gets taken out if the hitter is off by just a few inches.

So then there will be a predictable uproar about knees getting hurt and grown men will cry for the poor millionaire athletes who sacrifice their bodies for our country….. errrrrrr…. our entertainment. (Isn’t it funny how fans are so critical of “millionaire players” nowadays and call them lazy and selfish on talk radio shows all day long but they recoil in horror at the idea of one getting hurt on a legitimate hockey play. Maybe the one way Dany Heatley can win his way back into the hearts of Sens fans is to take a big hit and watch all the pity flow his way from north of the border. You can’t cheer for that folks. That would be hypocritical.)

This is, after all, a sport. It’s entertainment. These athletes get paid a lot of money to endure physical risk. Anything above and beyond the norm is always dealt with by supplemental league punishment or in some extreme cases, actual legal proceedings against them. You can argue the punishments are lame, and I would tend to agree with you, but that doesn’t mean the sport must be revolutionized to eliminate an incident which is surprisingly rare when you consider the amount of collisions that take place during an average NHL game.

So please, give us all a damn break.

I realize that a new rule is virtually a fait accompli, but let this be my last words on the subject, right or wrong.

There is already a penalty for attempting to injure players who are defenseless (which seems to be the major stigma here). Just make the refs call it in appropriate situations, much like the league forced the refs to begin calling obstruction after the lockout.

There is no need to create another rule which will only further dull the product to appease new generation NHL fans who don’t know their ass from a hole in the ground, let alone the history and tradition of the game. These people will also be the first ones to turn the dial to something else when the sport they helped change seems about as exciting as an All-Star game (which contains no hitting and is a constant target of many of the same pundits for being terrible to watch!!!!)

If you want NBA on Ice, then follow the herd of pundits and bloggers down the path to invented crisis after crisis. If you want to preserve the dignity and excitement of the NHL, then let your voice be heard to at least offer some resistance to this pointless daily exercise that somehow passes as vital discussion.

Another thing to ponder - If a new rule is passed specifically banning intentional contact with the head, this inevitably opens the door to banning fights in the NHL. How can you allow hits to the head in one situation and not in another? It doesn’t work that way. A punch to the head can be just as damaging as a shoulder.

But maybe that’s the ultimate goal. The same people who want big hits out of hockey are probably not fond of fighting either.

In the meantime, we can all look forward to the endless debate.

Who won the game last night? Who scored a nice goal? Who cares?

The real question is who got hit and should we start a charity telethon to help them make it through their paid convalescence?


A take I happen to agree with:

Greg Wyshinski - Puck Daddy

"I'm not in favor of banning all contact with the shoulder to the head on hits, because it would penalize what are essentially good hockey plays (Doug Weight's hit on Brandon Sutter, close to the blindside but just a nasty open-ice hit) or the types of collisions that make hockey more entertaining for me (Ovechkin's hit on Jagr in Vancouver, which by the letter of the IIHF law was a head shot and should have been penalized).

I spoke with Keith Primeau when we were on TSN's Off The Record about the head shots issue as it relates to fighting, because I have a problem with fans or pundits screaming "protect the brains!" one minute and then having a winking endorsement of fists slamming against those brains the next. I find it an illogical stance, from a player safety standpoint.

Primeau said the difference was that a player doesn't ask to be hit to the head, but willfully accepts the risk in a fight. My argument is the player accepts risk by playing in the NHL, and that the League can only do so much to protect them in what is an inherently violent sport. "

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Despite Loss, Leclaire Redeems Himself In Epic Provincial Battle

Hands down, the most entertaining game of the Senators yo-yo like season.

This tilt had more interwoven story lines than a Raymond Chandler detective novel. And just like The Big Sleep, nobody is really sure what it all means in the end.

A game against the hated Leafs is always enough to sell tickets, but this one featured a Senators team so depleted by the flu, that players were puking their guts up on the bench in between shifts.

Binghamton forward Zack Smith was racing to Ottawa but was still late for a game that already had plenty of fireworks ignited before he managed to get into his equipment in time for the second period.

While not as hyped as that classic Tie Domi-Bob Probert rematch at Madison Square Garden back in the early 90's, a lot of minds were devoted to the possible bloodbath between the Leafs Colton Orr and the Sens Matt Carkner. As you well know, the last scrap ended with Carkner on his back flailing his arms towards the rafters in a state of wild confusion and pain. The rematch did occur but it was effectively a draw, despite the fact that Orr broke the code by challenging an already end-of-shift tired Carkner while he was fresh off the bench. Orr also cracked Brian Lee's skull into the end-glass for good measure (Lee was, remarkably, okay). As Orr left the ice, he held up three fingers for the split crowd, proclaiming himself the winner of three out of four bouts between the two. Orr was celebrating so hard that the only thing he forgot to do was chug a pitcher of beer on the way back to the bench ala Jon Montgomery. As expected, Orr was admonished by Don Cherry during Coach's Corner. Life goes on.

The grit displayed in the game was unreal. Vicious, exciting hits were landed, in particular by Chris Neil and Andy Sutton, and rarely did a play end without some kind of scrum and a glove in someone's grill.

And of course, the real story here was Pascal Leclaire, thrown on the garbage heap by Coach Clouston just two nights ago, and presumably left for dead as far as the rest of the season goes.

As fate would have it, Brian Elliott couldn't keep his date (flu) and Leclaire was given another unlikely shot to salvage at least his dignity in a season that has gone completely awry by any standard.

Leclaire did more than that. He more than likely gave Coach Clouston another sleepless night by playing so strongly that the whole damn situation has to be reassessed. Break out the Pepto.

Even myself, as optimistic a person around that Leclaire was going to be the number one goalie down the stretch, had decided to throw in the towel and declare Elliott as the only choice going forward. I questioned Leclaire's mental toughness.

Now I'm not so sure if it's my mental toughness that should be questioned. Leclaire did all the things a number one goalie needed to do. He kept his team alive despite the fact that they were literally falling apart as the game progressed. The third period was all Leafs as they took advantage of a team just barely hanging on. Leclaire was there.

So what happens now?

Clouston should throw Leclaire back in against Edmonton on Tuesday. Just to see what happens. Clouston already has Elliott in the bank. He knows he can depend on him to at least give adequate goaltending, even if he sits for a period of time.

In Leclaire, meanwhile, Clouston has an athlete who can potentially be much better than Elliott if only he could keep him healthy and confident for a meaningful stretch. Leclaire has that certain "thing" about him, perhaps just because he's a classic-style French-Canadian goaltender, that leads you to believe he can follow in the footsteps of a similar goalie like Marc-Andre Fleury.

But Clouston is one stubborn s.o.b. and it's anyone's guess who he'll go to next time.

Regardless, the game on Saturday night was one to remember, even if no one understands what the hell just happened out there.

Black Aces Senators 3 Stars

1. Pascal Leclaire
2. Matt Cullen
3. Chris Neil

Honourable mention: Erik Karlsson.

Black Aces Senators 3 Stars Season Scorecard

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

Alfredsson – 32
Elliott – 25
Kovalev – 25
Spezza – 22
Fisher – 20
Michalek – 16
Volchenkov – 15
Neil - 14
Phillips - 12
Leclaire – 11
Foligno – 10
Regin - 9
Ruutu - 8
Shannon – 8
Brodeur - 8
Winchester - 5
Kuba – 5
Kelly – 4
Karlsson - 4
Carkner – 3
Cullen - 2
Lee – 1
Donovan – 1
Cheechoo - 1

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Is It The End Of The Line For Leclaire?

If anything, the loss to the Carolina Hurricanes has cured me of my season-long faith in Pascal Leclaire.

One game is never enough to judge a player's overall performance, but there are certain games where character is revealed, and it's now become obvious that Leclaire is a long shot to ever recover in time for the playoffs.

Simply put, Leclaire just had to have a big game in Carolina. Everything was on the line for him. Clouston was giving him his shot and it just felt like it was his time to take the reins back. Instead, Leclaire only showed that he is not mentally tough enough right now to face any adversity.

Of course, the Senators defenseman were terrible for the second night in a row, in particular Matt Carkner, Anton Volchenkov and Chris Phillips. But early in the game, Leclaire needed to make a save to keep his team from getting eaten alive and he couldn't get the job done.

No one has been a bigger supporter of Leclaire than Black Aces, but it's become clear he doesn't have the toughness to overcome whatever is plaguing his game right now.

Time to go with Brian Elliott down the stretch.

The Senators just don't have a choice anymore.



Is it just me or has Matt Carkner not been the same since getting KO'd by Colton Orr a week before the Olympic break? He still seems groggy out there and has been even worse than Brian Lee in the past two games (I never thought I would utter those words). But here's betting he gets it under control soon enough. He just needs to dust someone in a scrap and get on with his season.....

And what's happened to Volchenkov? This unnecessary contract dispute seems to have thrown off the Russian's concentration as he skates around in no mans land out there on the ice. Both sides in the dispute should just cave a little and get the damn thing done. I can see Murray fighting some players over dollars, but Volchenkov? This guy has done nothing but leave his body on the ice every single game he plays and he should be a Senator for life. This is not the guy to get cheap with and risk losing. Hell, let two or three forwards go if it means keeping this warrior in Ottawa. Just get it done.....

Any chance Murray can find a taker for Filip Kuba this summer and use the savings to sign Andy Sutton? That would still leave room for a rookie like Patrick Wiercioch to crack the roster, but it may be too much of the same if Jared Cowen is ready to play. Can you imagine having Carkner, Sutton, Volchenkov, Phillips and Cowen in your top six? Not likely to happen, but it would be fun to watch....

Folks should lay off Matt Cullen. He'll prove to be a great pickup. Either their shifts overlapped or it looked like Coach Clouston played Cullen with Alfredsson late in the game and they seemed to work good together, for whatever that's worth. The idea is intriguing because both are smooth as silk and have great hockey sense. Maybe it's worth a shot against the Leafs on Saturday. Stay tuned.....

It's a nice story seeing Carolina stringing together a bunch of wins, but it's easy to play that way when you have nothing to lose. Every year it seems that a bottom feeder goes on a wild run in the last quarter of the season but falls short every time. Even Ottawa started to turn things around last season when all hope had already been lost. But that may have had more to do with Clouston and his coaching skills than anything else. Still, you have to hand it to the Canes. These guys go on wild streaks from year to year. Who knows? Next year they could win the Stanley Cup. They seem to alternate long playoff runs with colossal failures.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Senators Get Their Man

Of the top 5 shot-blockers in the league, the Ottawa Senators now own two of them, thanks to Bryan Murray sending a second round draft pick to the Islanders for veteran defenseman Andy Sutton.

While newcomer Sutton comes to town with no real expectations beyond this season, the other shot-block king, Anton Volchenkov, has found himself the centre of a contract imbroglio that threatens to steal all the buzz from trade deadline day. But back to Sutton....

First off, I love this deal.

Sutton is exactly the type of player Ottawa needed for their blueline after spending the season leaning too heavily on mobile but unintimidating players like Alex Picard, Chris Campoli and Brian Lee. Adding Sutton adds one more mean s.o.b. to play against on the Ottawa backline and that's the sort of balance you want heading into the long grind of the playoffs.

Some may argue Ottawa is now overly balanced towards defensive defenseman but that's the right way to lean in the post-season anyways. They already have a nearly perfect combination up front of skill and toughness and now opposing forwards are going to have to deal with a possible tandem of Matt Carkner and Sutton in front of either Pascal Leclaire or Brian Elliott.

In a conference stacked with offensive superstars like Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Alex Semin, Jeff Carter and Ilya Kovalchuk, the Senators had to come up with a way to counter those forces and since trading for a player like Scott Niedermayer or Sheldon Souray was not in the cards, Murray chose to get tougher and bigger, the right path in my opinion.

This deal will also shrink the crease for Leclaire and Elliott. With goaltending being the only real question mark on the Senators, adding Sutton's size, muscle and shot-blocking ability is only going to help the team's inexperienced netminders.

The price for Sutton?

Draft picks are valuable items nowadays but, as Murray pointed out, the price for a rental defenseman was a second round pick, established by the Jordan Leopold trade and cemented by the Denis Grebeshkov trade to Nashville.

Give credit to Murray for jumping on the coveted Sutton before the bidding wars heated up on deadline Wednesday. He paid no more and no less than the market value. You can't blame him for that.

Considering that the 2nd round pick had no guarantees attached that would ensure the Senators would get an impact player, and that whoever they drafted would only be able to contribute 3 or 4 years down the road, the cost becomes even more reasonable.

Daniel Alfredsson and Alexei Kovalev are not getting any younger. If they want to win a Stanley Cup championship, they have to try for it now. For the most part, the Senators have all the pieces to at least give Pittsburgh and Washington a challenge.

Murray could have hoarded picks and played it safe but the Senators would have went into the playoffs with possibly both Chris Campoli and Brian Lee playing in their top six.

No offense to Campoli or Lee, but they are not what you picture when you talk about playoff warriors. They barely have enough gusto for the regular season as it is.

Sutton on the other hand, is going to take some of the pressure off of Volchenkov and Chris Phillips and will prove to be a reliable presence who can log upwards of twenty or more minutes a night.

In short, Murray has built a team that can now play any way you want. They can play run and gun or they can fight for every inch along the boards. You can't say the same for most other teams in the Eastern Conference.

The only real questions remain in goal but that's a story for another day.


Also of note: Murray seemed to throw cold water on the notion of trading Volchenkov today, saying that it was not in the plans. In my previous post I went over the possible implications of Murray's interview yesterday on the Team 1200 where he gave the impression that he was unhappy with the now halted contract negotiations with the defenseman, but thankfully the wild rumours making the rounds today about a possible deal (that would have crippled the Senators chances this season) were just that ... rumours.

Speaking of rumours, it's hard to stomach the brazen audacity of the a lot of the "inside source" NHL blogs that make a living off of feeding false information to the masses to run up site hits, but the one that made me laugh today was the one about the Penguins wanting to move Sergei Gonchar.

People will believe anything I guess.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Murray Playing Russian Roulette With Volchenkov

In the afterglow of an historic Canadian gold medal win, it may be a Russian dilemma that brings Senators fans down to earth again.

Ottawa GM Bryan Murray guested on the local Team 1200 afternoon show and was asked where negotiations were with soon to be unrestricted free agent Anton Volchenkov.

Murray's response was troubling... and brief.

"Nowhere" was his response and what followed was a few seconds of silence. When prodded to say if he would trade Volchenkov if a deal was not in place, Murray said it was something he would consider.


Far be it from me to present to you another argument about why Volchenkov is so important to this team's short and long term future. If you've watched only a handful of Senators games in the past 4 seasons, you already know the impact Volchenkov has, not to mention his super-human grit and pain tolerance.

No need to go over that well-trod terrain. Let's just assume that keeping Volchenkov is a high-priority for everyone in the organization.

So the solution seems simple, right? Just give him the money he wants and get ready for the playoffs, of which the Senators are almost assured to be a part of this season.

But what kind of GM would Bryan Murray be if he just handed the players the team cheque book? Not a very good one, but on the other hand, if he somehow lets Volchenkov leave this city for another team, he will have a lot of explaining to do.

Murray has always been a hockey man I've respected but sometimes I question his tactics, such as his unwillingness to defend his players when they get ripped in the local and national media, his neverending openness about what moves he intends to make in the trade market and his annual contract haggling with core players like Volchenkov et al.

Yet I'm always reminded by a friend that Murray went through the same sort of negotiations with Chris Kelly and Chris Neil, both "heart and soul" core players and in the end, he signed them to deals just before the clock ran out on terms that were very favourable to the organization.

So there's hope there. Murray is not a dupe. He knows that Volchenkov has stated he wants to stay in Ottawa. The real deadline is July 1, not March 3.

But when is the luck going to run out?

We all saw what happened when John Muckler went to the wall with Zdeno Chara (apparently not even offering a contract in the end). Volchenkov is one of the most respected defenseman around the league for those in the know, and if he's worth X amount of dollars to one team, why is he not worth that to Ottawa?

It's a good question. If anyone knows how valuable Volchenkov is, it's Murray and his Senators staff. Ultimately, they are just trying to extract a hometown discount. It worked with Kelly and Neil. Maybe it will work with Volchenkov.

But Senators fans would feel an awful lot better going into the post-season if they knew it would not be their last with the A-Train.


Of other note in the interview:

Murray raised the possibility of Jonathan Cheechoo returning to the team later in the year or in the playoffs if the need arose. According to Murray, Cheechoo is playing well down in Bingo and mentioned that Cheech could be one of those players who is capable of a "surprise" playoff run.

Depending on who Murray picks up at the deadline, there very well may be room for Cheech on the salary cap sheet and the ice. Something to watch for anyways....

Murray also mentioned that he had interest in Florida defenseman Jordan Leopold before he was traded to Pittsburgh earlier this afternoon.

I'm still predicting one of Milan Jurcina, Aaron Ward or Jason Strudwick. I just don't see a big name coming in to this team right now. Maybe I'm wrong. That's what makes deadline day such a good time.