Tuesday, October 15, 2013
Still Lots To Be Optimistic About For Senators Fans
I know it looks bad. 106 shots against in the last two games. Winless in 4. Goalies yanked. An early loss to the hated Leafs. And GM Bryan Murray has already fired a warning shot in the press that roster changes could be coming.
Yet with one win tonight in Phoenix, the last game of this ugly Western road-swing, the Senators could head home 2-2-2, with the toughest trip behind them and a few easier games coming up on the schedule.
Right away they face the Devils and Oilers to finish off the week, two teams that don’t have anything going for them right now, followed by three days off that will no doubt be used to practice and get comfy in their own rink, things they haven’t had much time to do after a bloated training camp and a time-zone changing road trip.
This team is too good to struggle this badly, and more games against a much weaker Eastern Conference is going to help in the long run, even if they still have rematches with Western powerhouses San Jose and Anaheim and a visit from the defending Stanley Cup champs Chicago before the end of October.
November will be much nicer to Ottawa fans. 9 of 14 will be played at home in Kanata, including 4 in a row that with teams like Florida and Philadelphia. Lots of ground can be made up in a month like that, even for a team that stumbles in October.
Other early weaknesses should turn into strengths when normalcy returns. There’s no way Jason Spezza is going to remain this team’s second best centre as long as he’s relatively healthy. Kyle Turris has been much more dynamic and dependable early but once Spezza gets rolling he’s going to be more than a point-per-game player, especially against an Eastern Conference that’s giving up goals all over the place.
Erik Karlsson will find himself at some point, and it’s going to be scary when he does. This guy can win games on his own when he’s feeling it, and if that depends on how he’s skating, then I’d have no worries. He’s still flying out there but his struggles seem to be more mental than physical. He looks a little unfocused, showing frustrated body language when calls don’t go his way or he misses a scoring chance. That can’t go on forever.
Craig Anderson hasn’t looked bad, but he’s not stealing games like he usually does. Already you can feel a shift of allegiance from some fans to Robin Lehner, which happens every time Robin has a strong game or two, but the pendulum always swings back to Anderson. Last year’s shortened training camp was full of calls for Lehner to take over but Anderson quietly shut down his critics and he’ll do that again. Anderson is just too consistent.
Lots of rumours out there that the Edmonton Oilers will be begging Murray to send them a goalie, possibly in return for one of their young star forwards like Nail Yakupov, but it seems way too early for a huge deal like that. At some point, Ottawa will deal one of their goalies because the return they can get will be too huge to pass up, but right now it’s one of their strengths and will be something they can ride all the way to the playoffs. The time for that deal isn’t now unless they get offered something unbelievable. It’s a deal that Murray has to win, even if it doesn’t come until next season.
In the short term, expect to see one or both of Stephane Da Costa and J.G. Pageau sent down to Bingo for Mika Zibanejad and possibly Jim O’Brien or another player (I believe Mark Stone is injured). Right now, this team is way too small down the middle with those guys and it’s not like Spezza and Turris provide much brute strength there either. There’s certainly a place for small players, especially over-achieving ones like Pageau, but you run the risk of turning into the Montreal Canadiens from the last few years if you have too many. With Zibanejad up from exile, that would allow Zack Smith to move back to the middle where he belongs and suddenly you have 4 bonafide NHL centres, while Zibanejad can also spot on the wing in the top-six if you need him.
It sounds strange that O’Brien would even be considered at this point, after MacLean publicly said younger players had passed him on the depth chart (and unsubstantiated rumours of O’Brien complaining about ice-time last season). Yet the Senators are paying his full NHL salary whether he’s here or in the minors thanks to a regrettable one-way contract offered by Murray. The budget might force their hand and give O’Brien that second chance no one thought was coming.
To me, it looks like the Senators are paying a bit of a price for over-thinking and over-evaluating during that monstrously long training camp where it became more about rewarding players for instant success rather than making sure they had the best team on the ice to start the season. Zibanejad has only himself to blame for not showing the intensity the team wanted, but now it’s time to see if the message has sunk in and get this guy playing important minutes down the middle.
Early season struggles can be just as misleading as training camp heroics, as we’ve seen with the struggles of Da Costa and Pageau. The Senators look terrible right now, but until they start losing games at home, (don’t put too much stock in their home opener against New Jersey after a long road trip – a classic trap game), I see this team the same way I saw them before the puck was even dropped – a playoff team and one of the top seeds in the East.
It may just take a month before we see the evidence.