Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Backhander - Jan. 30

Paul Maclean saying he “hatesPeter Regin as a winger seems a tad harsh, but refreshingly honest. Most coaches speak in codes, especially about strategy. Maclean really let it all out there. If I was Regin, I would make damn sure I died trying up the middle, because if the coach puts you back on the wing at some point, things probably aren’t going too well. ... There’s just something about both Jim O’Brien and Mika Zibanejad and the way they skate that makes them stand out. Both of them have so much size and power but they’re not truly filled out yet physically, so they seem knobby-kneed and a little out of control, like some kind of horse let loose on the ice. At times against the Caps, Zbad seemed like a giant among Smurfs. My pal says he looks like Marian Hossa when he was around that age and that when he learns to protect the puck like Hossa, he’ll be unstoppable. I think he’s right on that one. Sometimes I think of Scooby Doo though when I watch him pinballing around and those big legs scrambling. He was easily the best player on the ice against the Caps outside of Craig Anderson. As I said on Twitter, the only way he goes back to the AHL now will be over Paul Maclean’s dead body. He wanted him to stay last year. I doubt he’ll have the same fight with Bryan Murray now. Just open the gate and let the big dog run wild for a few weeks and see what happens. Maybe he’ll find a hidden treasure in a spooky old haunted amusement park ... O’Brien just keeps getting better and better. When he’s at full speed going over the blueline he looks strong enough to carry five players on his back. He’s certainly smiling a lot more now too. He always struck me as over-serious and sullen, but struggling to make the NHL after being a 1st round pick might do that to the best of us. Looks like he’s arrived now, at least as a third or fourth liner with speed and size. Nothing wrong with that....

... Another strong game from Erik Condra against the Caps. He’s living up to the reputation of the number 22 in Senators history. Chris Kelly and Shaun Van Allen would do a Wiser’s slow clap of approval if they happened to be sitting on a sofa and sipping drinks next to the Senators bench last night. The tradition continues... I hate that I just shilled for Wiser’s like a little punk but I think that ad has now crossed the line into “Where’s the beef?” territory – ie. part of our everyday vernacular. I hope the copy writer who actually came up with that idea is himself sitting on a pile of cash and sipping a nice Bourdeaux in the South of France somewhere.... Erik Karlsson, unsurprisingly, leads the Senators in shots with 22. Next on the list? Chris Neil with 15. I will spare you my usual gushing on Neil, but Sportsnet capturing him on camera cajoling his teammates into a better effort while sucking wind on the bench after another hard shift was great television. It’s hard to believe that just a few years ago people were talking about him possibly leaving town. If Cory Clouston had any idea what he was doing, he would have had a loyal soldier in Neil. Instead, Clouston let him rot on the bench. What a shame.... Keith Jones on NBC last night said he liked the increase in fighting this year and had no problem with fights off the opening faceoff. As a longtime NHL player, Jones understands the motivation behind it. While most journalists and commentators shift uncomfortably when the subject comes up because they don’t want to come off as barbarians in today’s buttoned-down environment, Jones was genuine about it and didn’t try to soften it up for the viewers. Again, good television. ...

... Mark Borowiecki had a tough game last night and that may not be a total surprise after the great press he was getting for his inspired play against the Pens on Sunday. My guess is he was a little nervous trying to live up to all that sudden attention and it got away from him in the early going against Washington. I thought he rebounded nicely in the 3rd period and got back to making simple physical plays in his own end. He’ll be fine.... You have to wonder if Maclean would like a mulligan on having Patrick Wiercioch on the ice in the final minute protecting a one-goal lead. When Zack Smith couldn’t clear the zone, the puck ended up on Wiercioch’s stick and he seemed to panick and threw it right onto the stick of a Cap in the slot for a point-blank chance. It didn’t even faze Anderson. He shut it down and that was the game right there.... As of this writing, it wasn’t clear if Anderson would get the start tonight against the Habs but after what happened the last time Ben Bishop took over on a back-to-back, I would be shocked if Maclean tried the same strategy and played Bishop. But you have to play him sometime... And finally, when is the Maclean moustache joke going to get old? I thought we got it out of our system the first year. Now it’s just snowballing. We have people purposely sitting behind the coach now wearing fake ‘staches so they can have their faces on Sportsnet for five seconds. If I was Maclean I would shave it off because clearly the fine people of Ottawa just can’t handle the very idea of it. It will become lamer than the Green Men in about five games. Or maybe I’m just a grumpy old bastard and should let people have a laugh. What do you think?

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Backhander: A Few Quick Game Day Notes

A nice piece of writing by the Citizen’s Wayne Scanlan on Ottawa’s defense prospects going forward:

“A few years down the road, as the prospects mature, the Senators envision a large, physically imposing defence corps, with Erik Karlsson, of course, dancing among the giants.”

That paints quite the picture, although it brings to mind Karlsson in an elf outfit somehow.

... Gotta say I’m looking forward to the day Eric Gryba gets his shot to play in Ottawa. I thought he looked ready a few training camps ago, but it sounds like that’s just happening now. Ottawa has had a lot of “elves” on their third defense pairing over the years, not necessarily in size (Brian Lee was a pretty big man) but more in their style of play. Chris Campoli, Brian Pothier, Alexandre Picard and Tom Preissing. They could all skate and make plays but in the end, didn’t really make their mark and were considered disposable. A guy like Gryba, much like Matt Carkner before him, will provide an unmistakeable presence back there if he can manage the jump and get comfortable. As they say it, it takes different ingredients to bake a cake. Too much of the same kind of player can get a little tiresome to watch ...

... It’s a tough business. The clock is already ticking down on Guillaume Latendresse and he’s barely had a chance to get in shape. Although some would say that’s his problem in the first place. The reality for Latendresse is that Mika Zibanejad is knocking on the door and the organization would gladly throw over a lot of people in order not to impede Zibanejad’s progress. Same situation for Mark Stone when he's deemed ready. If it means eating a little crow on a no-risk free agent signing like Latendresse, the Sens will gladly make room for their strong group of forward rookies. In the meantime, Zack Smith and Colin Greening are doing a much better job at providing size and toughness on the top two lines whenever they’ve gotten a chance to. Latendresse still seems to be in a fog right now. Chances are, Latendresse will find his wheels and start getting a few goals here. Injuries will provide him that lineup spot as long as he can stay healthy himself, but if it comes down to him and Zibanejad, all things being equal, the Swedish rookie will get the nod. Nobody wants to see another Jonathan Cheechoo scenario in Ottawa, so Latendresse needs to start making a difference soon ....

... I’ve heard some complaints about the quality of hockey so far this season and I’ve seen a few bland games myself, but in theory, shouldn’t these games be more high scoring and exciting if a lot of the stars are in shape (from playing in Europe) while the lower-end guys struggle to get back in game shape? Truth is, the smothering systems and ridiculously huge goalie equipment can overcome any kind of adversity you throw at the game. I still can’t believe how much this league coddles the goalie fraternity and lets them subvert the spirit of the game. Someone needs to implement a good old fashioned scorched earth policy and shrink these goalies back to at least early 90’s size. It might not make too much of a difference on a behemoth like Anders Lindback or Ben Bishop but it will certainly add some goals to the game. I don’t care how many times people say they love 1-1 ties as long as they’re well fought. High scoring hockey is just better. Hopefully we see two pretty high octane teams in Washington and Ottawa open it up tonight.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Patience With Silfverberg Will Pay Off For Maclean and Spezza

There was a moment about halfway through Monday’s game between the Panthers and the Senators when I started wondering how soon Colin Greening would be back on that top line instead of the much heralded rookie Jakob Silfverberg. It seemed inevitable to me as I got caught up in the minutia of the game.

The new setup just wasn’t working. Silfverberg, the Senators latest draft steal, looked indecisive and wasn’t finding those open areas on the ice that Jason Spezza can always deliver a saucer pass into. After a game and a half, I thought I could see a change coming.

Then the kid actually scored his first goal in the third period on a classic Spezza dish into the slot.

Wrong again, Mr. Milks.

Any time a coach makes a change to what was considered a strength the previous season, there’s going to be doubts.  Greening, who has been pushed down the depth chart by Silfverberg and Guillaume Latendresse, had a productive run on that top line last season, scoring 17 goals, providing size along the boards and in front of the net. But now he’s on the wing with Zack Smith and Chris Neil, a line that basically puts most of Ottawa’s forward grit and size in one package.

So far, it’s worked out well because the Senators go into Florida Thursday night 2-0 on the season, but the top line has only produced two goals while the second unit centred by Kyle Turris has done the bulk of the offensive work.

But here’s why coach Paul Maclean is going to stay patient with Silfverberg:

The way Spezza plays, he needs the kind of winger who has the potential to read his sometimes zig-zag mind. Milan Michalek is a little different as he’s mostly an up and down winger who goes to the net with an above average set of hands. You could put Michalek on any line and he’d play the same way and not have his stats hindered too much. But when you plug a Dany Heatley or Daniel Alfredsson onto Spezza’s wing, you have a different type of dynamic at work.

Both Spezza and Heatley have elite hockey sense (regardless of what you think about #15, it’s undeniable) and knew a split-second before anyone else what Spezza was thinking and got into the right spot on the ice. That’s not an easy thing to do and it’s not something you can really teach.

Obviously Maclean sees in Silfverberg a player with elite hockey sense and those kinds of guys don’t come around very often. The short-term might be a little tough but Silfverberg is the “type” of player Spezza can work with and have the most success. That’s why the Nikita Filatov experiment was tried last year as well. It’s probably a carryover from Maclean’s Detroit days, where Hockey IQ was valued above all else. Greening, as good as he is, is not exactly in that mould.

Maybe, with that one goal late in the game on Monday, there’s a bit of a spark between Silfverberg and Spezza now. The rookie Swedish winger will likely get a long rope in the early going to see if that chemistry can build. Even if he doesn’t start piling up the goals right away, Silfverberg still needs to start converting those Spezza feeds into actual chances. That’s where the trust will build up and once that’s there, the points will come in droves.

Silfverberg was a slow starter in the AHL as he got accustomed to the league. The NHL is an even bigger step but the biggest challenge for Silfverberg is going to be learning how to play with Spezza, not the physicality or the speed of the game.

And my best guess is he’ll do just fine.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Sens Rolling The Dice With Rookie Defenders

For the Ottawa Senators, it’s nice to be on the other side of controversy right now. For all the goaltending doubts, the concern over the youth on defense and the standard opening night fears, the Senators calmed their fans down considerably with a lopsided victory in Winnipeg.

For Jets fans, their handwringing has only increased. According to Hockey Hall Of Fame writer Roy MacGregor, a lot of people in the ‘Peg already feel disillusioned – and that’s in a market where the honeymoon has just begun. Even the champagne is still bubbly.

With old pal Alexei Kovalev back in town with the rising Florida Panthers, some Senators fans may be reminded of some recent bad history and feel comforted that those days now seem so distant. For the most part, they are.

Yet the path to the Senators downfall is pretty clear, even to casual observers. And it’s not the goaltending (refreshingly).

It’s the defense – a top heavy group that’s thin and inexperienced once you get past the top four. What would happen if another D-man went down to injury? Or two? That’s not an unrealistic scenario. In fact, it’s likely, especially in a compressed schedule.

When you look at teams that have traditionally had success in the playoffs, they have depth and experience on defense, with people ready to step in when injuries strike.

Los Angeles refuted that theory last season when they had two greenhorns in Alec Martinez and Vyacheslav Voynov playing all 20 games in the Kings march to the Stanley Cup. Martinez wasn’t really a rookie, having played 60 games in 2011, but the point is made.

So it can be done, but you have to think Ottawa is going to address this issue with a trade before we get into the nitty gritty of the schedule in February.

Losing Jared Cowen was a big blow but the trade for Marc Methot looks to have filled that void in the short term. Methot is stable, experienced and big enough to protect his new partner Erik Karlsson. He’ll be a big part of this defense for years, especially with Sergei Gonchar likely leaving after this season.

The next pairing of Gonchar and Chris Phillips is a coach’s dream second duo. They’re both leaders and capable of playing big minutes in all situations.

Everything after that is a crapshoot – mind you sometimes a roll of the dice pays off handsomely. And it could again. But is Ottawa really going to contend with two rookies, Patrick Wiercioch and Mark Borowiecki, along with AHL journeyman Andre Benoit when games get ramped up and they have to battle the Penguins, Bruins, Rangers and the Flyers?

I have my doubts despite Wiercioch looking like he’s ready to play some games and Borowiecki on track to be a Chris Neil clone on defense. Mike Lundin may help when his finger heals but he doesn’t exactly have the reputation of being battle hardened veteran. Those Eastern Conference playoff rounds were tough, mean and bloody and they’ll get harder with Rick Nash barreling down the wing and Sidney Crosby and Nathan Horton seemingly healthy again. Despite the Flyers losing their first two games of the season, they look dangerous and well-rounded. The Rangers and Bruins play harder than anybody and the Penguins are lethal offensively.

The Senators just can’t match that pedigree despite having the reigning Norris Trophy winner and a deep crew of forwards who can score a lot of goals. That top-four on D looks good when healthy but breaking in two rookies could soon turn into three and it may not even stop there. There just doesn’t seem to be any insurance and that’s a dangerous way to drive.

Youth on a hockey club is great and exciting for the fans, but when it gets ugly out there – and it will – you win with veterans. You win with guys who send their dentists Christmas cards and can actually grow playoff beards.

Bryan Murray, an old vet himself, surely knows this and will move when the time is right.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Underrate Craig Anderson At Your Peril

Why is everyone so anxious to give Craig Anderson the boot?

That might be overstating the facts but the sentiment is out there amongst the Ottawa Senators fans. They see Robin Lehner and Ben Bishop tearing up the AHL and are quick to believe they’d do the same in the NHL.

To them, Anderson is old news. Yesterday’s paper. The guy who hasn’t played all year.
Be careful what you wish for.

It’s very easy to get caught up in the wayward throes of “prospect porn”, as the hip kids like to call it, because there’s no excitement factor around veterans anymore. It’s ingrained in the hockey culture now. Most fans look forward to the Entry Draft more than they do the Stanley Cup finals. Vets are already associated with failure and impatient fans always sense the solution is just one draft pick away. Hence the fretting when picks are moved for real bodies. People freak out.

But when’s the last time a true number one goalie coming off a great season was booted for an unproven rookie? It doesn’t happen. At least not before a game has even been played.

Craig Anderson was the best goalie in the organization last year and stabilized the position, leading to a playoff berth. He’s now a respected veteran in the league and will have plenty to offer in a shortened season when every single game is cranked up to double-pressure.

Are fans really that eager to see the Senators experiment with Lehner when a playoff berth could be on the line in just a matter of weeks? That’s not to say Lehner wouldn’t be able to handle the pressure and the workload, but there is still nothing out there that suggests to me Anderson won’t be the number one goalie, at least in the short-term.

It’s easy to see a day when Lehner and Bishop are the duo in net for Ottawa but what’s the rush? The main goal is to make the playoffs – the only goal – and playing Anderson is surely the best way to get there right now.

If Anderson falters for more than five games, then maybe that crease opens up and one of Lehner or Bishop gets on a roll. But there’s no reason to think we’ll get to that point.

I can’t fathom why fans should have lost any confidence in Anderson as a starter over the summer. Lehner and Bishop’s play has been encouraging but until they prove it at the NHL level, I’ll take Anderson as my starter every day of the week.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Melnyk Claims Underdog Role Again, But 2nd Round Is Minimum Goal

Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk sat in front of a room full of reporters during his first press conference of the season on Sunday and, smiling almost mischievously, said "We are a quiet, quiet favourite. We're still positioned as the underdog."

Was it real modesty or a conscious effort to damper expectations for an already lockout weary fanbase? If you put yourself in Melnyk's place, or President Cyril Leeder's seat, you might be able to understand why they would want expectations to be low going into an abbreviated season.

One, the underdog role worked miracles last season.  Two, season tickets are understandably down in numbers (although Leeder said they sold 100 this week) and the last thing the Senators need is a fanbase expecting a long playoff run only to get a mediocre 48 games. If you piled up all the free or discounted hot dogs the Senators are giving away this season, that still wouldn't cushion the blow of a disappointed, already fickle ticket buying public here in Ottawa.

No... the way to go was safe. Stick to the talking points from last season and hope the dominoes fall in the same pattern. Melnyk, in front of the entire Senators training camp roster who stood en masse at the back in workout shorts and t-shirts, even positioned his team as a lower-payroll club, saying "we can't keep up with the Goliaths", yet in a roundabout way, confirmed the money would be there at the trade deadline if GM Bryan Murray wanted to add some players.

It was a public relations exercise, like all these season opening conferences are, but it's not too hard to see through the fog.

Publicly, the Senators remain humble. Internally, and this is my best educated guess, the Senators feel they jumped a year in their "3-year rebuilding plan" and will be very disappointed if they don't reach the second round of the playoffs.

How could they not be?

They have a Norris Trophy defenseman in Erik Karlsson. A Jack Adams finalist for the coach of the year in Paul Maclean. They have goaltending depth the rest of Eastern Conference would envy. They are strong down the middle with Jason Spezza and Kyle Turris, overloaded on the wings and their best prospects are either fighting their way onto the team or leading their AHL affiliate to a possible championship season in Binghamton.

Sure, the defense is depleted on the bottom pairing but they have plenty of cap space or tradeable prospects to address that as soon as they need to.

So why are we throwing around the word "underdog" as frequently as Valley boys say "eh"?

Check that. It's probably just Melnyk. I think if you polled most Senators fans, they'd say a second round appearance is the bottom line this season.

Now, if the Senators fail to get there, it doesn't mean that the bottom drops out of this thing. In just 48 games, a lot can go wrong. One key injury can destroy a team because there's no time to claw back after a bad couple of weeks. And you can bank on a lot of injuries this season due to so many back-to-back games.

If they fail to make the playoffs, Paul Maclean is still safe. Bryan Murray probably has his job until he decides he doesn't want it anymore. The core of this team is signed and committed to the organization for bad or worse. But I don't buy the "underdog" bit anymore.

Clearly, this Senators team is ready for the next step. This might be their last with Daniel Alfredsson in the fold (although I think he'll play next year) and all this extra rest should pay off in a playoff run that will start after about 50 games instead of the usual 80.

Melnyk may tell us he's being patient, but that little grin and glint in his eyes tells me he thinks he's got a winner here.

The poker game continues....

Monday, January 7, 2013

Predictions: The Fool's Game

It’s never too early or too late for predictions.

Here we go, pals.

Ottawa Senators Predictions

Finish in Eastern Conference: 5th

Get past 1st round in playoffs: Yes

Leading Scorer: Jason Spezza

Most surprising player: Marc Methot

Comeback player: Zack Smith

Slow starter: Chris Phillips

Fast starter: Milan Michalek

Doghouse candidate: Guillaume Latendresse

Rookie defenseman to crack roster first: Mark Borowiecki

Trade for a defenseman early or wait and see: Early

Trade bait: Ben Bishop

Division team Ottawa will have most trouble with: Boston

Division team Ottawa will dominate: Buffalo

Is this Alfie’s last season: Nope. At least one more.

Rest of the NHL

Stanley Cup winner: Pittsburgh Penguins

Stanley Cup finalist: Los Angeles Kings

Will Bettman present Stanley Cup? No

Who will: Wayne Gretzky

Art Ross: Sidney Crosby

Surprise teams that stumble out of the gate (East/West): New York Rangers/Los Angeles Kings

Surprise teams that charge out of the gate (East/West): Florida Panthers/Edmonton Oilers

Most underrated team: Carolina Hurricanes

Most overrated team: Detroit Red Wings (breaks my heart to say that – I’m a long-time Wings fan)

First coach to get fired: Joe Sacco (Colorado)

Surprise team to make the playoffs: Buffalo Sabres

Surprise team to miss the playoffs: Minnesota Wild

First Brendan Shanahan video: Second day of the season

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Fans Will Come Back Crazier Than Ever

Hockey's back.

But will the fans find their love of the game again anytime soon?

Does the tin man have a sheet metal cock?

NHL fans don't lack passion, especially when pints are involved. Here's a few of my favourite examples of fan insanity over the years.

Anaheim fan brawl over Niedermayer stick:

Beer vs Flames

First game back in Winnipeg

Tie Domi vs Philly nutjob:

All-time classic Bruins vs. Rangers Milbury shoe beating

And finally, the loudest the crowd in Ottawa Senators history - Igor Kravchuk's goal to bury the Devils in '98.


The real reason Senators fans will return with money in hand?

You get to see this guy play again in your uniform. It's worth it. Enjoy it while it lasts.