Monday, September 30, 2013

Sens Blindside Zibanejad With Demotion - Theories Start Flying

One day it will be an obscure footnote in the career of Mika Zibanejad, but today it seems like a strange turn of events in the early going for the Ottawa Senators, who shipped Zibanejad down to Binghamton, presumably because of his waiver ineligibility and the notion he was beat out for a roster spot by players like Stephane Da Costa and Jean-Gabriel Pageau.

Meanwhile, rumours and insinuations are being thrown around that this was a budgetary move on orders from Eugene Melnyk, who commented publicly the other day that he “just found out” the team was over-budget. Others suggested, like myself, that the old-school management team might have been less than impressed with his one-off summer gig as DJ Zbad at a local nightclub, possibly bringing up issues of focus. Both theories seem like a stretch (although if you count in Zbad’s entry-level performance bonuses, this has the potential to save real money in the unlikely event he stays down), but until GM Bryan Murray speaks to the media later this afternoon, people will remain guessing why the fan favourite just got dumped on the eve of the season.

Strictly from a hockey perspective, it’s a tough one to get your head around. I suppose the signs were there for everyone to see but it almost seemed impossible to imagine Zibanejad, a near prototypical modern hockey player with size, skating ability and soft hands, would be thrown overboard for one of two smallish centres in Da Costa and Pageau.

Now Pageau, I can understand. This guy was going to be on the team no matter who he had to climb over. His character and talent dominated the Senators training camp and he’s already shown he can play at the NHL level. But Da Costa?

We’ve heard nothing but praise from Coach Paul MacLean on how Da Costa showed up to camp ready to play after being told he needed to change in exit meetings last season. It’s pretty easy to assume he showed more hunger than Zibanejad in camp, because if you’re talking NHL talent, there’s no way you could justify either player over Zibanejad, especially Da Costa who already fell out of favour once with the organization because he couldn’t adapt to the NHL.

Yet if two centres outhustled Zibanejad, and MacLean has already stated he only likes Zibanejad as a centre, you can see what happened here. Don’t believe for a second the team intends to have Da Costa ahead of Zibanejad for the long run. This is strictly message sending time and its clear Ottawa didn’t like the young Swede being outperformed by two prospects on the bubble.

There are very few times an organization has the ability to swing this kind of hammer on a young prospect and not hurt their own chances in the short-term. It happened to Jason Spezza early in his career under Jacques Martin when the comment was made about the NHL being a “man’s game” to justify Spezza sitting out. Now it’s happening to Zibanejad, and it’s likely the Senators can get along without him for a few weeks if it means getting this kid back into the right mindset to compete harder, assuming that’s the issue the Senators have with him.

Starting for a few weeks on the road without last line change will be pretty tough on some of the more slightly built Senators, such as Kyle Turris, Pageau and Da Costa, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see Zibanejad join them halfway. It’s a bit mystifying why MacLean would want to go into L.A., Anaheim and San Jose with the smallest team possible, but maybe Zibanejad’s training camp was just that bad. He looked good in the pre-season games that I saw, so there must be something behind the scenes that hurt his spot on the team.

It seems excessive, but it might be the best thing for both Zibanejad and the Senators if this cranks the kid up a bit.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Conacher Makes It Easy For Coach MacLean

Okay, I was wrong about Cory Conacher. This guy isn’t going anywhere soon.

I was convinced Mike Hoffman was destined to be on that second line going into the pre-season with all that speed and those flashes of NHL ability he showed last season before going on the shelf. Yet all he’s done this month is pretty much disappear and I’m not sure of the reason, whether it was not impressing early on in camp practices or not coming out of the gate strong in his first pre-season game on September 16. Whatever it was, Hoffman didn’t see another game until last night, a stretch of 10 days in which Conacher likely sewed up the job next to Kyle Turris and Clarke MacArthur.

Just look at Conacher’s last three pre-season games. 3 goals, 4 points, 10 shots on goal and he’s probably smelled more gloves from pissed off defenseman than any other Senator as he crashed the net every shift.

There’s no competition here right now for that spot. It’s Conacher’s. Hoffman had 3 shots on goal in his two games but hasn’t stood out. Mark Stone looked better than Hoffman but he still doesn’t seem like an NHL player. The gargantuan Buddy Robinson stood out early with two goals in two games but has started to fade. When the pace started to pick-up, it was Conacher, the guy with the most NHL experience, who kept pace.

And this guy is entertaining to watch too. You see scuffles at the net and eventually this little guy comes out of the middle with his helmet on sideways and his shoulder pads hanging out of his jersey. He’s fearless along the boards, behind the net and obviously has a way of getting goals standing right outside the crease. I’m not sure there’s going to be many laser beams from above the faceoff circles but Conacher doesn’t seem to mind going up against huge defensemen down low anyways. He’s going to get his head kicked in scoring 75% of his goals.

An 82 game schedule is going to be hard on him, as it was last season when he faded with Ottawa after tearing it up early with Tampa, but he’s probably learned a lot from that.

Pencil him in. Throw away the pencil.

Friday, September 20, 2013

The Backhander: Kadri Gives Sens Fans The Douche Chills... Pageau Snaps Them Out Of It

It’s very easy to dislike Nazem Kadri.

Senators fans find it easy to despise anyone wearing the blue and white of the Toronto Maple Leafs, but it’s been a while since there’s been a real pain in the ass like the brash and talented Kadri, at least not since the days of Darcy Tucker, Tie Domi, Shayne Corson, Steve Thomas and Gary Roberts.

Last night’s exhibition tilt in Kanata featured Kadri at his antagonizing best – yapping at the refs, scoring a big goal, throwing softies at the only player smaller than him and generally acting like the superstar he is in his own mind.

Reading back that last sentence, I suddenly realize I’ve been afflicted with fan disease, something I’ve managed to avoid for most of the time I’ve done this blog. But Kadri is just that kind of player. He has that lethal combination of knowing how good he is (ie. contract holdout) and being that good for a team that year after year beats and bullies the Senators in every important game.

You can’t claim he isn’t effective. When you think of the most noticeable players on the ice last night, both Kadri and J.G. Pageau immediately come to mind and it’s no surprise the nastiest moment of the game happened to be a confrontation between those two along the boards.

Pageau threw a tough little hit on Kadri and the two ended up exchanging a few gloved shots before the inevitable swarm began. In that melee, David Clarkson tried to pry Pageau’s helmet off sideways which nearly resulted in Pageau’s head coming clean off. It’s hard to say if it was Kadri’s punch which bloodied Pageau below the eye or Clarkson’s fingernails, but somehow the Leafs ended up on the power-play and Kadri himself scored the goal, accentuating it with a “Yep, I just did that” hand wave as a celebration.

Sens fans everywhere had the douche chills.

Luckily for those same fans, they got to watch Pageau do his imitation of a young Denis Savard all night, dangling and racing around like a guy who doesn’t know or doesn’t care he’s the smallest guy on the ice.

There really is something special about this kid. In interviews he’s very soft-spoken, almost shy, but when he’s on the ice he has this real spirit in his play that goes beyond his all-too obvious skills. He’s not afraid of anybody or any situation. We all saw the hat-trick against the Canadiens in last year’s playoffs, Pageau’s first in the NHL. You could forgive a young, French-Canadian rookie being a little intimidated playing the legendary Habs in his first playoff series, especially with just 9 regular season games under his skates. Yet Pageau ended that series with his name being chanted in the stands, which is unheard of, at least in this town.

You could also predict that same player getting a bit of a swelled-head after all the hype and coming into this camp thinking a roster spot was locked up. Clearly, Pageau doesn’t have this problem. He was playing desperate hockey, going as hard as he did last spring and making a few well-paid veterans look like they were waiting for the 96 bus to Bayshore.

I don’t know how Paul MacLean or Bryan Murray can justify keeping this kid off the team. It’s going to mean someone on a one-way contract is going to be pretty pissed off being waived, demoted or traded, but there’s no denying how dynamic and exciting a player Pageau is right now.

Get ready for the next decade as Kadri and Pageau make this Battle Of Ontario their own.


The other real standout for Ottawa was Patrick Wiercioch who was nailing tape-to-tape passes all night coming out of his zone and looking dangerous on the first-unit power-play with Erik Karlsson. He still looks gangly out there, a bit like Scooby Doo on skates, but he’s clearly coming on as a real offensive threat and looks a bit stronger out there. If he permanently steps up to the first PP unit, that lets Ottawa keep Joe Corvo on the second unit which is a pretty good one-two punch of offensive defensemen. .... That was a hell of a backhand by Andre Petersson, who also had a real good night. It’s scary how many forward prospects this team has right now. You can see why Murray didn’t have much of an issue trading Stefan Noesen in the Bobby Ryan trade. Ottawa could lose two or three of these guys and still have a loaded prospect pool. Expect longer and longer tenures in Binghamton for young players, much like Detroit’s model.... Been hearing a lot of great things about Swedish defenseman Fredrik Claesson and last night was the first time I got to see him play. Seemed very steady in his 16 minutes of play, almost unnoticeable except for his goal. You know how the cliche goes, “the less you notice a young defenceman, the better....”

.... Very surprised to see Karlsson logging over 29 minutes last night, on top of the 26 he played against Winnipeg earlier this week. Maybe MacLean is trying to push that leg and see what happens. If that’s the case, I don’t there should be any worries about Karlsson’s skating. The guy looked incredible out there. I think there’s a huge season coming up here.... And if you’re worried about the Spezza-Ryan-Michalek line, don’t be. In a month you’ll be looking back and wondering why everyone was so worked up about pre-season hockey anyways. These guys will be ready to go when the puck drops for real.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Black Aces Vintage: 78-79 Topps Wrapper

How incredible is this 78-79 Topps hockey wrapper?

Image courtesy of Shoebox Legends.

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Backhander: Karlsson Does A Tap Dance on the Jets And Other Pre-Season Notes

A few quick notes on the Ottawa Senators returning to action in Winnipeg last night for some pre-season hockey:

The only important reason to watch that game through the Jets website feed (with 1972-era AM radio audio quality) was to get an early look at Erik Karlsson. If he had come out of the gates looking slow and awkward, that could have been enough for some Sens fans to call the season off right there and head to the closest Royal Oak for a bender. Thankfully, the franchise kid looked fine. More than fine. He was the best player on the ice and seemed to have a little of that old swagger back too, smiling in between shifts, winking at the ladies in the stands (that’s a lie but it’s a good lie). His skating was noticeably better than it was in the playoffs. You’d even be tempted to say he looked exactly like the pre-Cooke Erik Karlsson but a September evening in Winnipeg isn’t enough to bet the house. But it’s a promising start.... There’s something about seeing the captain’s “C” on a #19 sweater in the NHL that just looks right. We can thank Steve Yzerman and Joe Sakic for that. Jason Spezza wore it for the first time last night and it’ll look pretty good on a hockey card. .... That top line looked really strong and not just because of Bobby Ryan’s snipe goal (which was a beauty). To me it was a healthy looking Milan Michalek who was going “biceps, triceps, arseps hard” everytime he went over the boards. I’ve never been convinced of any real chemistry between Michalek and Spezza, but with Ryan now there to feed off #19’s passes, that frees Michalek to do that straight-line, head-down style and go to the net which just naturally makes more room for his linemates who like to dangle a little bit. Michalek was even diving for pucks in what was a meaningless exhibition game. Maybe this guy is back in business. If he’s going like that all season, it’s almost a bonus scoring winger for the Senators. I’m not too sure many people were banking on him being healthy enough to play that style or stay in the lineup. First impressions are good though....

The player that surprised me most was Stephane Da Costa, who seemed to create something every time he was on the ice. He’s been the forgotten prospect in the organization and I’d almost forgotten how talented he really is. Yet even if he stays on this path through the pre-season, I can’t see him earning a spot on this team. Not only are the Sens over-stocked down the middle, but one more mighty mite may be one too many with Cory Conacher and J.G. Pageau expected to play games this season.... Nice to see Jim O’Brien still exists as a player for this franchise after being buried late last-season due to rumoured ice-time complaints. I was more impressed with college kid Buddy Robinson who ended up with a goal going to the net and generally played like the behemoth he is. He’s probably way too green to start the season here, but sometimes just having size is enough to be effective with limited minutes in the NHL. Just look at Matt Kassian in last year’s playoffs and in Winnipeg last night. As long as Kassian lays the body on every shift and keeps his tree trunks moving, he has an undeniable presence out there. Robinson obviously has way more tools than Kassian does, but if he plays any games this season, it will be his size and strength that keep him around until he develops his offense and gets a feel for the league. I think he’s one of the first call-ups when injuries hit, as they inevitably do....

Joe Corvo was back in a Senators uniform, and despite all the tired “Uh Oh” jokes on Twitter, he looks like he’s going to be a good veteran defenseman for this team. He’s a definite downgrade from Sergei Gonchar, but if you think of his role in terms of what the Sens wanted from Andre Benoit and Matt Gilroy in past years, he’s an upgrade for the second power-play unit. He had one tough giveaway in Winnipeg, but who’s counting in the pre-season? I guess I was..... Cory Conacher stood out and there really is something nasty about Conacher’s game that I love, yet he still feels like an odd fit on this team right now. With Mike Hoffman getting the early chance to show what he can do alongside Kyle Turris and Clarke MacArthur, Conacher may end up being a part-time player. I did like his approach in Winnipeg and he may make a believer out of me soon.... Something like this had to happen, didn’t it? In Spezza’s presser upon being named captain, his assistants Chris Phillips and Chris Neil had to help him with his collar before the photo-op. Spezza just laughed along with the reporters as he was tended to like a little kid on his first day of school. It wasn’t exactly a Mark Messier captain moment, but then again, Spezza didn’t cry like Messier so he had that going for him. In the end, coach Paul MacLean couldn’t have picked three better guys to get the letters.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Murray’s Final Days As GM Anything But Peaceful

Senators GM Bryan Murray is just one of those guys. Likeable, even when delivering bad news.

He has that mysterious but undeniable calming influence whenever he gets in front of a camera, with that shock of white hair and grandfatherly tone, telling us not to panic despite the latest crisis he has to deal with, whether of his own doing or by circumstances out of his control.

When the proverbial shit hits the fan, as it always does with this born-dramatic franchise, Murray always seems to have a way of holding the strands together, whether that’s the strands of hope for the fans or the strands of their own sanity. And that’s on top of keeping his own cool. He’s mostly composed in public, even when his own neck is on the line, but those darting eyes sometimes hint at a man who can be highly emotional about his job.

We only get to see glimpses of it when the cameras pan to his box in the rink where he studiously hovers over a steaming cup of coffee, twitching every time a chance is missed or a big goal is scored on the ice. His reaction is usually to drop his pen, shuffle some papers and blink a lot. But don’t let that fool you. Murray is as competitive and gets pissed-off as anyone when things go south.

We saw a glimpse of that when cameras caught Murray screaming at Los Angeles Kings broadcaster Jim Fox in the Corel Centre hallways after a fight filled game in 2005 when he was the Senators coach. It was an epic rant by Murray which went something like this: “You say I can’t control my guys? That’s a fu**ing cheap shot on your part. You don’t have the right to fu**ing cut me up. I’ve never done anything like this in my fu**ing career. For you to say that is fu**ing wrong. You’re full of shit. You yappy little prick.”

You can say one thing about Bryan Murray. He’s a hell of a communicator.

While not dropping any F-bombs in his very public role as the respected and well-liked elder statesman of the franchise, you have to think he drops one on occasion in his own office, thinking out loud about some of the problems he’s facing in his twilight years as an NHL executive.

Losing Daniel Alfredsson and having to explain to the public how it happened on his watch was one of the more painful episodes of his tenure here. Firing three coaches in four years was another grueling experience, as rebuilding the roster just a few years removed from a Stanley Cup final appearance and trading fan favourites like Mike Fisher and Chris Kelly for draft picks and prospects.

Through it all he faced the fans with sometimes brutal honesty and kept the people who buy the tickets on-board with the program, all with that same disarming humour and tone.

Contrast that with Murray’s more volatile boss, owner Eugene Melnyk, who not only conducts himself much differently in public and elicits direct anger from the fans, but is arguably Bryan Murray’s biggest headache these days.

The latest in an increasing number of very public fiascos was Melnyk going on Toronto sports radio yesterday (as he always does, virtually ignoring the local Team 1200 in the process) and attacking Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson and deputy mayor Steve Desroches for a perceived unfairness in the casino process. He’s claiming losses of close to a $100 million dollars the past decade and doesn’t know how the team will “survive”. Coincidentally, his President Cyril Leeder abruptly resigned from every city board he could think of, which is very unlike Leeder, who is well-known for his commitment to the community. There are also hints the Senators won’t be involved civically in the future (outside of charities) unless Watson and his fellow martians start playing ball with the team.

Before that it was a potpourri of ugliness, from forensic investigations into Matt Cooke’s skate slicing of Erik Karlsson, a public battle over bonus money with former star Dany Heatley, unproven allegations of shaky finances, a drastically reduced team budget and the Alfredsson affair which turned sour after a promise of fair money to the franchise icon was broken by the organization, at least according to Alfie himself.

Melnyk granted the Ottawa Citizen an interview and, in my view, disparaged the character of the city’s favourite adopted son in a see-through pre-emptive strike before Alfredsson’s first local news conference. Contrast that with Murray’s words the day Alfredsson left, when emotions were still high and an aggressive stance would have been understandable. Instead, Murray’s words were filled with respect towards Alfredsson and a genuine regret at losing him in the free agent process. He even called it “devastating”, which are words that rarely come out of a GM’s mouth. It showed an empathy with how the fans felt and went some ways in calming the situation down (although his immediate trade for Bobby Ryan was the real balm). In contrast, Melnyk was still angry and defiant an entire month later, which seems to be his most defining characteristic lately.

Yet, despite being handcuffed with an internal team budget that forced him to balk at Alfredsson’s asking price, Murray has assembled a young contending team that’s ready to make some real advances in the standings this season and win some goodwill back from the fans. Meanwhile, Melnyk is out there spitting venom. Let’s be honest here. We’re all just waiting for him to mutter the familiar words “move the team” any day now, aren’t we?

In a fair world, Murray would be on the verge of going out a champion whenever he decides to retire (probably sooner than later), handing the reins to his nephew Tim Murray or Pierre Dorion and staying on as an advisor, the celebrated architect of a stable franchise. He’d be riding next to Alfie in the parade car, both hometown heroes.

He may still get to go out a winner, but his job just gets tougher and tougher every time his owner gets hold of a microphone or puts financial limits on the hockey side. This should have been an easier few golden years for the silver-haired veteran.

I remember seeing Murray on that weekend, two days after Alfredsson’s departure, walking out of a grocery store and across a parking lot, carrying a bag of groceries to his car like a normal schlub. Lots of people walked by and didn’t recognize him. There were no “good luck this year” outbursts or even whispers of “Hey, isn’t that...”. I passed him and noticed that same pensive look on his face, maybe wondering what went wrong, or more likely just wondering what he was going to cook on the BBQ that night.

Pretty soon the worries of running this team for a hockey mad city won’t be his problem anymore, but in my imagination, that day he seemed to me like a man with some heavy weight on his shoulders.

Imagination or not, it’s a good bet he’s feeling that weight going into this season.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Spitballing Forward Lines (aka Bullshitting)

Michalek – Spezza – Ryan

MacArthur – Turris – Zibanejad

Greening – Smith – Neil

Hoffman – Pageau – Condra

Subs: Kassian, Conacher

Line 1: This just seems too easy to put together, so expect Michalek to slip on a donut in the dressing room and force MacLean to call for Greening again, or even the unthinkable... which would be Spezza and Ryan having no chemistry. I can’t see that happening but stranger things have occurred... like Spezza and Michalek having no chemistry dating back several years. Yet this just seems like the right fit on paper going into the season and could be a hell of a line.

Line 2: We all know it’s going to be Turris in the middle, but I like the idea of making Zibanejad a winger right now. It allows Smith to stay at centre on the third line and loads a lot of skill into the top-6. Turris had some success with Alfie on his right side, so why not put in the young Swedish horse there this year and see what develops?

Line 3: You gotta have a grind line and this fits pretty good. Smith and Greening can both play a shutdown game with their size and Neil does a bit of everything . Plus, Smith seems to shrink when he’s shifted to the wing but thrives going up against big centres. Think of the battles this trio will get into with bigger, physical teams like the Leafs and the Bruins. Not that Alfie and the Red Wings will be given a pass. Neil “joked” on the Team 1200 when asked if he’ll hit the former captain by saying “For sure. I’ll text him before the game and tell him to blow his nose so I don’t get snot on my jersey”.

Line 4: Now it gets sketchy. Condra is a lock, but nobody else can say the same. Pageau is awfully small and skilled for a fourth centre it’s his job to lose at the moment. As for Hoffman over Conacher, I always account for one surprise every training camp and I think this is going to be it. It’s just a hunch, but Hoffman’s speed is so ridiculous and Conacher’s short stint with the team was so underwhelming, that I can smell an upset here. Of course, Conacher has had more success than Hoffman at the NHL level and he’s the favourite to stick, but I’ve always liked Hoffman (what little I’ve seen of him) so I’ll live dangerously. Kassian will go in there more than most people realize as both Bryan Murray and Paul MacLean like having that threat in the lineup during the regular season. Kassian may not be able to skate with Pageau or convert too many 2-on1’s, but he’s going to be like his big brother named Chongo and won’t let the kid be menaced by anyone out on the ice.

I’m sure you disagree with my lines completely, so go ahead and give me an earful.