Exhibition Game 3 is in the books and it was a shootout loss to the Habs. But the real scoreboard is who's making progress in their fight for a roster spot and who's falling out of the pack. It's slowly starting to get clearer, but by no means are the battles over.
I try to make it a point not to talk about veteran players in exhibition games because... who really cares? Judging a vet's performance in a meaningless game is exactly that - meaningless. Camp is for vets to get up to speed. Who cares if Nick Foligno bobbles the puck on a 2 on 1. So what if Craig Anderson lets in a few untimely goals late in a game. They're proven commodities and they get enough of the microscope during the regular season to bother with them now.
That being said.... Daniel Alfredsson looked pretty damn good, didn't he?
And how about Zack Smith?
He had already scored two goals when he ended up fighting Habs prospect Jarred Tinordi in the third period. Smith could have easily waved off Tinordi and called it a night knowing he had already made a big impression on coach Paul MacLean and probably cemented his spot on the roster (which he has never really been in danger of losing anyways). He's already proven himself as a guy who can fight and nobody would have second guessed him if he begged off in a game that doesn't matter. Yet Smith is not that kind of player. He could have been hurt or possibly embarrased by a rookie but Smith gave Tinordi a chance to show his stuff to his own coach and that's always been a courtesy extended by tough guys to rookie tough guys looking to stick in the league. Smith made his bones in past pre-seasons by dropping the gloves, and with little to prove he did it again (although maybe he wanted to gently remind MacLean of what got him on the team in the first place - toughness, not goal scoring).
With rookies like Mika Zibanejad and David Rundblad getting the night off, Stephane Da Costa took centre stage literally as he squeezed in between Alfredsson and Milan Michalek and looked like he belonged for the most part, creating plays and skating well despite probably being tired after so much hockey in a two week span.
But the Senators have a problem to deal with that's coming on fast. They have too many forwards in the mix and if the rookies keep playing well, something is going to have to break.
Here is where I think the race for the top 12 forward roster spots on the Senators sits after three exhibition games. I've included two spare roster spots because the Sens could conceivably carry two extra forwards due to all their one-way contracts and the fact they are well below the cap, allowing them to sit a veteran if a rookie like Da Costa or Zibanejad deserve a closer look at the start of the season. This may or may not happen (it's certainly not ideal to have two players sitting at any time) but for the purposes of this list, let's leave it.
12. Da Costa
13. Konopka (*spare)
14. Winchester (*spare)
You may (or probably) will disagree with this list but I think it's a pretty close approximation. With a good spell to go before jobs are locked up, everybody from 10 on down could slide or rise in the rankings. Keep in mind that NHL veterans already have a hefty advantage over rookies and essentially have to be beaten out of a spot they already occupy. Hence Jesse Winchester sitting above Zibanejad even though Winchester hasn't played a minute because of injury. Yes, that seems to conflict with Da Costa sitting above Zenon Konopka and Winchester but I think Da Costa is going to be given every chance to play this year after quickly showing he has enough skill to play in the top six. His fight is far from over but Da Costa is closing in on a spot in the early going. But is Konopka really outside the top 12? The Senators went and got him specifically for his faceoff skills, apparently at MacLean's urging. Maybe it's Erik Condra who should be sitting in one of the spare slots. Yet Condra has so impressed me that I can't keep him out of the top 12. You can see the difficulties here. Imagine what it's like for Bryan Murray who's juggling millions of dollars and the future careers of rookies who are knocking on the door a little earlier than predicted.
I don't necessarily subscribe to the theory that Regin, Da Costa and Zibanejad are in a fight for just one spot. The Senators have shown a willingness in the past to shift centres to the wing if needed and if all three are good enough to make the team, one or two of them could play on the wings vacated by a veteran who would have to be unloaded in a deal to make room. That is still an unlikely scenario but if someone like Zibanejad keeps improving during camp, I don't doubt that Murray will make a move if he feels he has to.
.... Yes, that was Nikita Filatov backchecking with passion and determination, winning the puck back in his own zone late in the first period. The early-bird critics were out in full force after just one pre-season game with their pre-programmed views on a player they have barely ever seen. They said he couldn't play defense or give an honest effort. How are they going to deal with this conflicting information? Warning ... malfunction...does not compute ....capacity for thought overheating....cliche distributor melting.... system failure imminent.....
....A lot of people were upset with TSN reporter Dave Hodge yesterday after he tweeted this: "Certain members of the Spezza family expect Jason to be a Leaf. I don't believe it--they do." Right off the bat, you should spare Hodge your wrath. He's a reporter. If someone told him that on the record, then he's free to report it. That's his job. Secondly, even if it's true, what family wouldn't want their son to play as close to home as possible? That's about as innocent a wish as wanting a pony for your birthday. Doesn't mean it's going to happen, but there's nothing wrong in them wanting it. In fact it would be weird if they didn't want him to play at home. Jason Spezza is a big boy. He seems to like it here and he's signed with the Senators for a long time. If Spezza ends up in Toronto it will be because GM Bryan Murray or his successor trades him there. No reason to berate the legendary pencil flipper Dave Hodge:
…. So it wasn’t just our imaginations when Daniel Alfredsson seemed more unsure of himself during interviews last week than he was really letting on. He had said he wasn’t 100% but there was a look on his face that betrayed a real lack of confidence in his surgically repaired back going into the first on-ice workouts. He told Ken Warren of the Citizen yesterday that he wasn’t feeling all that great coming in but now it seems the confidence is coming around, and by all reports, he’s been one of the better players out there in scrimmages and practice. But haven’t we seen this before? How many times has Alfredsson been waylaid by something severe and then magically healed faster than science would previously have allowed. Straight up, the guy is a freak. Watch him score 30 goals this year….. Has anyone noticed that Paul MacLean gets a very intense and kinda scary look in his eyes when he’s giving interviews? Maybe it’s just a quirk but if I was a player I wouldn’t want those eyes bearing down on me if I screwed up out there…..
Speaking of players getting into trouble, does anyone remember the story of when the Bruins were in Ottawa for a game during the 99-00 season and winger Joe Murphy turned to coach Pat Burns on the bench and said "Put me on the ice, I'll score a goal". According to an old Ottawa Sun article by Bruce Garrioch, both Burns and defenseman Marty McSorley told Murphy to "f**k off," and Murphy didn't play a shift the rest of the period. Then in the Corel Centre dressing room, Burns tore a strip off Murphy in front of the team and then defenseman Ken Baumgartner almost got into a scrap with Murphy, who promptly packed his gear up and "left the building". In the same article, Garrioch talks about the time Murphy was playing for Mike Keenan in Chicago years before and the coach yelled for Murphy to take a shift. But instead of hopping over the boards, Murphy allegedly said “Joe, Joe’s tired” and sat there without moving…...In fact, I believe it was also in Ottawa in the late 90’s when Keenan, then with the Canucks, had a run-in with Pavel Bure on the bench during a game which saw the Russian winger stand up and start tearing into Iron Mike. I’ve had a few beers since those days so some of the finer details have slipped my mind. Anyone remember that incident with any clarity?.....
..... A lot of people forget just how popular Alex Kovalev was in Montreal before he came to Ottawa and was unceremoniously booed out of the building. Mike Boone of the Montreal Gazette reminds us with this take on L’Artiste (via Kuklas Korner):
“Playing like he’d come from Togliatti by way of Thurso, the Russian brought the Bell Centre crowd to heights of emotion that hadn’t been scaled since the Canadiens left the Forum. And then he was gone – along with Saku Koivu, who had been underappreciated for, among other sins, a lack of crowd-pleasing hot-diggity-doggery. Montreal fans admired Koivu’s courageous conquest of cancer, and the more sophisticated among them appreciated his leadership (…). But they didn’t love him ... not like they loved l’Artiste. Koivu was the guy who got straight As, collected for UNICEF and was president of the student council. Kovalev was the bad boy with long hair and a fast car.”
......Someone asked me recently who my favourite players of all-time were and I was able to rattle off my top three immediately without even having to think about it. But it got me thinking, who have I always liked beyond those top 3 or 4 mainstays? I’m sure you’re just riveted, I know, but what the hell. It’s my blog. Here’s 10 players who for some reason or other I’ve taken a liking to over my 35 years:
1. Mark Messier: If I made this list as a kid, Yzerman would be at the top but when The Moose went to New York and carried that team on his back to the Stanley Cup in 1994, I became a life-long convert. A perfect mix of intimidation, heroics and flash. The stories that surround this guy are the stuff of legend. I read his biography once a year and never tire of it.
2. Steve Yzerman: The local Ottawa great was pure class. The smoothest hands I’ve ever seen. Will never forget the look on his face in the last minute of play in the 1997 final before he won his first Stanley Cup. Nobody had been questioned more about their ability to win when it mattered most and you could see that in his eyes as the seconds ticked off slowly.
3. Wayne Gretzky: No brainer. Best hockey player to ever live. I watch clips from that Ultimate Gretzky DVD once in a while and I think the guy was honestly supernatural on the ice at times. Defenseman knew he was going to cross the blueline and then curl back and dish the puck, but they could do nothing about it because it was like watching a slow-motion movie but the puck was on fast forward. He’s actually disorienting to watch.
4. Daniel Alfredsson: I try not to be a homer when covering the Sens. Even though no one pays me to do this, I still adhere to the basic journalistic standard of objectivity ie; no cheerleading. But it’s sometimes hard to do this when writing about Alfie. Like Yzerman or Joe Sakic, he has become synonymous with his franchise. And if you ask me, he’s far from done. As complete a hockey player as you’ll ever find.
5. Dominik Hasek: A total maniac, this guy was entertaining just standing there drinking water at his net. Or just simply talking in that patented thick Hasekian dialect. Think of the damage he could have done in the NHL had he come over when he was younger. To me, he’s the best goalie of the modern age even though he didn’t have the long career that Roy and Brodeur did.
6. Sergei Fedorov: Sergei could be on this list just for his skating alone. Every kid should learn to skate by watching old videos of #91. He made a huge mistake by leaving the Red Wings, but Fedorov may go down as one of the most underrated “superstars” in NHL history. People fall all over themselves about Pavel Datsyuk but Fedorov was doing it better during his time in Motown.
7. Chris Neil: If you read Black Aces regularly (not sure why you would do that), you know that I have a soft spot for brawlers and the brawls themselves. Neil got known as a fighter who regularly took on bigger enforcers but has always been a good tenacious hockey player when given the ice time. He’s got a lot of Dale Hunter in him, a little Ken Linseman and maybe a dash of Tiger Williams. Should be a lifelong Senator. Old Time Hockey, eh.
8. Ray Emery: Emery was the king of this town for a few short years until his undoing. But what a couple of years it was. People didn’t like his cocky demeanor in Ottawa but that’s what made him so good. Who can forget the huge smile on his face during that brawl against Buffalo when he dusted his goalie counterpart Martin Biron and then took on enforcer Andrew Peters just seconds later. Coach John Paddock badly mishandled him when he didn’t put Emery back in the net over Gerber when he finally got healthy after the Cup run. The rest is Emery’s fault, but if you didn’t like Emery, you probably won’t like Robin Lehner either. Emery is a winner and here’s hoping he gets healthy in Chicago.
9. Ron Duguay: It’s the hair. And the fact he was a Red Wing during my Red Wing crazed youth. In Ottawa during the 80’s you didn’t get to see the Red Wings very often unless they were playing the Leafs on TV on a Saturday night. But for some reason I fell in love with the team from hockey cards with those dingy red sweaters and names like Duguay, John Ogrodnick, Gerard Gallant and of course, Stevie Y. I remember getting made fun of for being a Red Wing fan back when they were terrible but then nobody believed me when I said they were always my favourite team once they started winning. I’m not sure if that was a perm Duguay was rocking but he could score goals and get the ladies (or so I imagined). I liked him. What can I say?
10. Anton Volchenkov: When a guy takes that much abuse and pain every game, you tend to gain respect for him as a player. There’s not many as selfless as Volchenkov and he was never really appreciated like he should have been while in Ottawa. He’s earned every penny he got in that big contract from New Jersey, and it’s just a shame both sides couldn’t find a way to keep him in town to play with Chris Phillips for years to come.
Other players who didn't make this list but deserve a mention are Mario Lemieux, John Ogrodnick, Scott Stevens, Pavel Bure, Igor Larionov, Jason Spezza, Dale Hawerchuk, Esa Tikkanen, Eric Lindros and Paul Coffey.
I could probably name twenty five more. But let's end this sucker so I can go listen to the Stones and daydream about them touring one last time.
It's gotta happen.