Monday, November 25, 2013

GM Murray Has A Problem On His Hands – “Win Now” or “Win Later”

This Ottawa Senators team needs help. They’re not terrible, but they’re not very good either.

The smart move by GM Bryan Murray would be a patient one, not sacrificing any young players who’ll have a role on this team for years to come just to try and make the playoffs this season. But it’s a little more complicated than that.

Owner Eugene Melnyk would have been expecting the profits that come with one or two playoff series, and to take a step back this year after going to the post-season twice in a row will be seen as a failure for the organization. It will affect team revenues for this season and possibly dampen ticket sales for next. It was recently reported by Forbes that the Senators sit roughly in the middle of the pack for franchise value, and that value should continue to go up with NHL revenues rising year after year. But outside of shared TV revenue or possible expansion, that’s not money in Melnyk’s pocket unless he sells the team for that value. This team, as do a lot of NHL franchises, live or die with ticket sales. Still.

Hockey decisions aren’t made in a vacuum. The armchair hockey GM would keep building for the future but the real GM has an owner and a team president with one eye on the revenues and the other eye on mood of the ticket buying public. Luckily, Ottawa fans are fairly smart and realize not every year is going to be golden, but it’s not always the smart fans buying up the tickets.

A lot of people just like to go out on a Saturday night to the rink and be entertained and get a few beers into them. They don’t care that some Swedish kid is tearing it up in the juniors and will be on the team in two years. They’re not paying their money for that right now. They don’t like seeing low-scoring and hitless hockey. This is a great hockey market, but it’s not Toronto where people will flock to the rink to see any product put on the ice. It’s a delicate balance in this city and Bryan Murray is the one who has to manage it as best he can. The mandate is to win now and win later. That’s not always possible.

The seeds for Ottawa’s slow start were planted in the summer when Daniel Alfredsson and Sergei Gonchar departed, but even their lack of leadership and poise in tight games doesn’t explain everything that’s gone wrong so far this season.

A lot of guys played their hearts out last year because the team was decimated by injuries. Now that the stars have returned to health, some of those players who picked up the slack have fallen slack themselves, like Colin Greening, Milan Michalek, J.G. Pageau (now in the minors) and Patrick Wiercioch. Some guys are just not having career years like they did last season, most notably Craig Anderson. Stepping into the void has been Robin Lehner, but he’s also been inconsistent as well, alternating great games with mediocre ones.

It’s not like this team is going to miraculously turn this around to the point where they can storm into the playoffs, overtake the current 4 teams that stand in their way with everyone playing 3-point games. There’s also that historical stat that says teams out of the playoffs at Christmas (or even November 1st) tend to stay there. It’s going to take at least one team currently in the playoffs tanking fairly hard and probably an extended winning streak to power this team past everybody else. And then they’ll have to keep winning consistently just to stay there. It can happen, but it’s not likely at this point.

What Bryan Murray can at least do is try to bring in a defenseman who can move the puck out of the zone consistently (which is where they miss Gonchar the most) and skate on the power-play with Erik Karlsson, preferably someone who can’t walk away in just a year or two. It’s also important to keep what solid veterans they already have in Chris Neil and Chris Phillips. Their roles may be reduced in the coming years but it’s important to have these kinds of guys around, as demonstrated by the Alfredsson and Gonchar decisions. Having players who have won in the past is often overlooked by prospect junkies who are always pining for the next young player who will supposedly solve every problem. The fact is most teams win Stanley Cups with a mix of veterans, players in their prime and cheaper young players. It’s a balanced way to build and perfect for a market like Ottawa.

Larry Brooks of the New York Post suggested Ottawa is interested in defenseman Michael Del Zotto but remarked that the return would have to be Marc Methot. That makes zero sense for Ottawa. In fact, it’s a laughable notion. Del Zotto would be a nice pickup but it sounds like New York is trying to hit a home run on the deal. They may be swinging for a while on that one.

Anyone can take a quick look around the league and come up with a few players that might interest Murray if the price was right and who could conceivably be available. But then again, it always seems to be a player no had been talking about who ends up on the ticket, so sometimes this kind of speculation can be futile for the fans.

You can take a look at teams worse off than Ottawa and cherry pick defensmen that could help. Brian Campbell in Florida would be great in an Ottawa uniform but his salary wouldn’t even come close to working in Ottawa. Yet Dmitry Kulikov’s would, although there’s rumours he could head to the KHL after this year after a rough run in Florida.

Bryan Murray has to decide if this season is just an aberration in an otherwise smooth rebuild, or an indication that something is wrong with the structure. Because in order to really bring in an impact player for this season in hopes to make the playoffs, somebody important on the current roster is going to have to go the other way. Ottawa could deal Craig Anderson, possibly their biggest chip, but it’s not like the goalie market is thriving right now. Edmonton already signed Ilya Bryzgalov and Ryan Miller is out there as competition. Anderson is still this team’s number one goalie. You don’t trade those guys very often, nor would you want to unless the situation demanded it.

For Ottawa fans, you may just have to accept this is going to be a mediocre season and hope that improvement comes from within the organization. In fact, you may have no choice in the matter.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Black Aces Vintage: Alexei Yashin's First Hat-Trick

It was November 3, 1993 in Alexei Yashin's rookie season. It was the 11th game of the season and the Senators only had 2 wins at this point (and Sens fans think they suffer now?) but Yashin already had 6 goals and 4 assists. That was a surprise to many because Yashin wasn't yet the star of the team or the darling of the city. Breaking in the same year was first overall pick Alexandre Daigle, and before the Edmonton game he had matched Yashin's 6 goals and added 8 assists for the team scoring lead.

Then Yash took over. Here's some great footage from that game, including all three of Yashin's goals (he added two assists for a five point night). Yashin also added 4 assists two nights later in Winnipeg against the Jets and finished the year with 79 points. That included 10 more goals and 28 more points than the highly touted Daigle, and Yashin took over the Senators for the next 5 years as the team's superstar while Daigle faded badly and was dealt to the Philadelphia Flyers in 1998 for Vaclav Prospal and Pat Falloon.

This footage is notable because it's in relatively good shape, and there's not much out there of the early Senators years. Fascinating stuff if you ask me. Love the old CJOH logo as well.

Schaefer and Spezza Still Lay Claim To Sickest Goals In Senators History

Clarke MacArthur's ridiculous between the legs pass to set up Kyle Turris for a goal last night against Minnesota (above) had me trying to remember some of the nicest goals in Senators history. There can't any better than these two right? If you can think of one, let me know in the comments. I'm stumped.

Peter Schaefer against Dallas

Jason Spezza against Montreal


Honorable Mention:

Jason Spezza against Vancouver


Here's one suggested by a reader in the comments section and luckily I found a better looking video of it. Forgot all about this one but I remember watching it. Pretty ridiculous move.

Antoine Vermette against Tampa Bay


Yet another beauty play by Spezza that was finished off by Kyle Turris, as suggested by a reader:

Jason Spezza/Kyle Turris against Winnipeg

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Spitballing: Havlat - Michalek Trade Seems To Make Sense. But Is It Possible?

Just spitballing here, out of the confines of being accountable for it, as is a blogger’s prerogative (some would say responsibility), but with Don Brennan’s article today about Martin Havlat possibly being of interest to the Ottawa Senators, wouldn’t a deal to reunite Milan Michalek with the Sharks make a lot of sense for both sides?

Think of it this way: both teams, Ottawa and San Jose, would receive players they are already familiar with. Michalek spent parts of 5 seasons in the Bay Area under the eye of GM Doug Wilson, and played some of the best hockey of his career before coming to Ottawa in the Dany Heatley trade. From San Jose’s perspective, bringing back Michalek for a Stanley Cup run holds little risk but possibly a big reward. If it doesn’t work out, they get to walk away from Michalek and his bad knees in July. In sending Havlat to Ottawa, they also escape the final year of Havlat’s contract and a player they obviously don’t consider a core member, as according to Brennan, Havlat was playing on the third line recently and was made a healthy scratch for a game last week.

Michalek has certainly lost a gear and is struggling offensively, but he’s still a responsible, occasionally dynamic player who has no marks against his character, shown by playing through the pain of two wonky knees for many seasons now and never complaining or making excuses. If you’re San Jose, having soured on Havlat as one of your wingers, why not take the chance on a guy like Michalek, who they know a lot about. The risk is very low, and they even save a little bit of money on the deal for this year as far as the cap goes. Michalek’s cap hit is $4.3m compared to Havlat’s $5m for this year. It’s true that Michalek is owed $6m in actual dollars this year, but that won’t be a stumbling block for a wealthy Sharks franchise. They may value the little bit of cap room this deal could provide which could allow them to add another player at the deadline.

From Ottawa’s perspective, it’s a little more risky, but the reward could be bigger. First off, as is often the Senators big concern, they save a little money on Havlat for this year, getting out from under Michalek’s $6m real-money ticket for the slightly more affordable $5m salary of Havlat, whose cap hit and salary are the same (next season Havlat's salary is $6m in cash, $5m in cap hit according to Cap Geek). I don’t see any scenario where Ottawa re-signs Michalek this summer. He’s certainly in the mix to be moved.

Of course, Ottawa would be on the hook for Havlat next year at $5m, but if he works out as a real top-six player, that’s money well spent. They will have to replace Michalek next year anyways and the money they would pay for that replacement will end up being in the same ballpark as Havlat’s $5m.

The fact that Ottawa knows Havlat well, not to mention the speed and skill he can bring might makes this deal something they can digest easier. Brennan points out that Havlat has a no-trade clause but you’d think he’d be happy to get out of San Jose at this point, and Ottawa would be a homecoming tour. Outside of Erik Karlsson, it’s hard to remember a single player who could lift fans out of their seats faster than Havlat in his days with the Senators. He’s banged up after years of injuries but the speed and hands are still there. Maybe a trip back to where it all started would reignite his passion, the only thing that seems to be lacking.

Right now, Ottawa has to do something. Jason Spezza is on an island with Michalek and Cory Conacher, and Conacher seems to be going through the dreaded sophomore slump. They need to find somebody Spezza can play with consistently and produce to his levels. The match may not be perfect, as Havlat likes to have the puck just as much as Spezza does, but this move could open up coach Paul MacLean to switching some pieces around on the Kyle Turris line, possibly even reuniting Bobby Ryan with Spezza, a pairing that was never really given a fair chance to succeed in the early going.

There are plenty who will tell you this Ottawa team’s biggest weakness is in their own end, and I won’t disagree. But that doesn’t mean you quit trying to improve elsewhere if you have the chance.

Of course, this is all just pure speculation, and there’s no guarantee Doug Wilson is dying to reacquire Michalek, but it just seems like a natural fit to an outsider looking in. Both teams could truly benefit from this deal, and the risk for both sides is fairly minimal. Ottawa could have a $5m deal they can’t move, but what if Havlat comes in and starts scoring goals and blowing by defenders on the rush?

That’s a risk/reward scenario Ottawa GM Bryan Murray should consider if he hasn’t already.

And in the meantime, we’ll keep daydreaming while the season begins to slip away for this roller-coaster Senators team that nobody can get a handle on anymore.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Senators Could Use A Little Shakeup At The Quarter Pole

I like to think that Black Aces is occasionally a calm oasis amongst the raging inferno of opinion out there on the Ottawa Senators. A place where Jason Spezza can put his feet up and not get hit in the head from flying beer cans. A place of sober second thought, like the Senate on Parliament Hill, without Mike Duffy throwing those very beer cans (most of them already empty).

That’s not the case today.

Today is a day where I think it might be fun to see a little hell break loose around this team. A day where I finally think some changes should be made to this inconsistent, sloppy Ottawa Senators team that played one of their worst, uninspired games of the season against the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday night, falling 5-0 to the lowest scoring team in the NHL in front of another less than capacity – and bored to tears - crowd in Kanata.

It was rough to watch. Much like it’s been rough all season long, win or lose. It’s not like there’s been many real gems over the course of the first 18 games which is almost a quarter of the season. I get that this team is coming off a 3 game winning streak and a 5-game streak where they earned at least a point. Panicking now seems like a useless tactic, and in fact it is. But making a decisive move is not panicking. It’s proactive.

This just feels like a team begging for a trade. Not a major one with any of their core players, but something that will jar the room a little bit and make some guys feel less safe than they do. I’d guess GM Bryan Murray has been talking trade with a lot of GM’s after seeing the terrible October they had. I’m also sure he felt he could back off a little with the recent wins but every GM has something on the backburner that they might be able use when they decide the time is right.

Trades seem to transpire from months of off and on talks. Maybe Murray feels like taking a risk after watching this team long enough to know this is pretty much it. The Senators are what they are. Major improvement in their own zone defensively seems like a wish that may never come true. More speed, puck-possession and hitting from their forwards is not going to happen with the wingers they have now. Colin Greening, who management was hoping would turn into a real power-forward, is playing more like ex-Senator softie Colin Forbes than the guy we saw in the playoffs. Cory Conacher has the spirit but not the size. Milan Michalek is a shadow out there.

If somebody could or should get moved, I’d look to the wings. Not that teams would be beating down Murray’s door for these guys, but you can idly fantasize that some of them could be packaged for a fast, physical winger like Wayne Simmonds or somebody with a similar skill set to play with Spezza. I know, Milks, keep dreaming.

I also keep wondering when MacLean comes around to trying Bobby Ryan with Spezza again, a pairing that never really got a chance after being broken up when Spezza was struggling early with a groin injury and the team wasn’t scoring. Kyle Turris and Clarke MacArthur are playing so well that they could afford to use a different winger there and maybe spread the offense around a little. But right now, that line seems sacrosanct while all the others get the blender treatment.

Jason Spezza has performed well considering he’s been saddled with the hardest struggling wingers on the team. You could say Spezza isn’t making the likes of Michalek, Greening and Conacher any better either, but those same players struggled just as bad playing with Zack Smith or Derek Grant.

To me, they don’t need to do anything about their one true strength, which is goaltending. Craig Anderson got lit up last night but it had more to do with the near catatonic team in front of him than it did with the quality of his play. Paul MacLean is no doubt feeling the heat by making the decision to switch out the hot hand of Robin Lehner, but that’s a decision a lot of hockey people would have made. Most nights, you’re going to get elite goaltending from either Lehner or Anderson.

Instead, it’s everything from the net on out that needs a jolt.

The defense pairings are constantly in flux because no one is playing well enough to for MacLean to keep them together. Jared Cowen, a player I wrote about just last week needing time and patience, is regressing even further and may need to be scratched to let it really sink in. You can see him thinking out there – should I jump up in the play?... should I hold the blueline or fall back?... should I hit this guy along the boards or cut off his passing avenues?

It would seem to be an easy decision, but if you sit Cowen that means you have to play Patrick Wiercioch more minutes and that could be even uglier with the passive way he’s performing. It’s a domino effect and one they may not like.

Again, this all seems like an overreaction when put in the context of their recent success, but anyone who’s watched hockey for more than a few years can see this team isn’t as good as they looked on paper coming into the season. When vets and youngsters struggle alike for close to 20 games, it’s time to shake things up a little.

Whether that’s a trade (which I think is appropriate right now – easier said than done) or a surprising scratch or minor-league demotion, this team could use the sense of urgency those kind of moves can create.

I just get the feeling something is around the corner. We’ll wait and see.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Lehnsanity Breaks Loose, But Anderson Still The Rock Of This Senators Team.. And Other Notes

Robin Lehner played a hell of a game last night against the Montreal Canadiens, and in the process has seemingly converted the entire city of Ottawa into believers.

He’s getting closer and closer to being ready as a guy who can be a number-one goalie in this league, and his legions of fans on Twitter have already proclaimed him to be so after a couple of wins.

Just don’t forget, Sens fans, that you’re lucky enough to have an established, in-his-prime elite goaltender in Craig Anderson. Remember that guy? Yesterday’s news, right?

There’s no doubt Lehner has earned the opportunity to play more games this season and loosen Anderson’s hold on the spot, but one month doesn’t undo all that Anderson has done and can do for this Senators team if they want to make the playoffs.

I totally get the instant fandomonium over Lehner. He’s young and he doesn’t have any baggage that comes with being a veteran like Anderson. He’s the new shiny toy. And he’s really, really good.

But so is Craig Anderson. In fact, he’s better. And he’s consistent.

There will come a day when Anderson is moved to make way for Lehner, this team’s future franchise goalie, but it may not happen this season.

Ian Mendes already wrote the only detailed piece you need to read on this subject, so I won't labor the point, but here’s a little reminder of what Craig Anderson can do, in case you forgot so easily after Lehner’s first two wins of the season.


.... The attendance issues for the Senators are embarrassing to the organization and the city, but it probably shouldn’t come as a massive surprise. Some people will dismiss it and point to a larger season-ticket base this season, but I think Daniel Alfredsson leaving is one of the main reasons we're not seeing bigger walk-up crowds. Not just the fact he left, but the doom and gloom it created, along with Eugene Melnyk crying poor and having tantrums on Toronto radio and in the local press. It suddenly created this negativity about the brand that wasn’t there before and the Senators and Melnyk only have themselves to blame for bungling what should have been an easy deal. Sure, endless highway construction and a poor start to the season tends to dampen enthusiasm, but losing Alfie was a public relations nightmare. He WAS the team. A verifiable hero to loyal fans. He was the one marketing tool that was foolproof and the only Senator that non-hockey fans in this city could instantly recognize. Suddenly, the Kanata rink is just not a “cool” place to be anymore. There’s a stink about it and the air still hasn’t cleared. Don’t be so quick to dismiss that intangible romanticism fans have with their team and the players they can call their own. It’s a delicate illusion, but when it’s working, it loosens people’s wallets because they buy into the mythology. When you mess with it, people snap back to reality a little and start thinking of all those responsibilities they need to cover before spending their money on expensive hockey tickets to a team they don’t fully connect with anymore. That being said, it won’t take long to get it back if Erik Karlsson and Jason Spezza start leading this team to more wins and create a buzz around town again. But it just won’t be the same for all those thousands of people who spent $200+ dollars on an Alfie jersey and now have to watch him playing for another team.

....So what do the Senators do now on defence? Mark Borowiecki has been more than solid in his first three games and put an exclamation point on it by scoring his first NHL goal against the Canadiens. There’s no way he’s coming out of the lineup, but you have two guys sitting every night in Patrick Wiercioch and Joe Corvo. It’s not a great spot for Wiercioch who needs to be playing and developing, but he’s been too soft in his own end and isn’t making up for it at the other end of the ice. I can see MacLean’s thinking by playing Borowiecki and Eric Gryba in an effort to get this team meaner in its own zone, but last night against the Canadiens, the Senators were still hemmed in and running around without the puck. It was only Lehner that kept the game tied until Ottawa got their offense going in the second period. Gryba in particular struggled moving the puck and I’m guessing he gets yanked for one of Corvo or Wiercioch against Florida on Saturday afternoon. That still doesn’t solve the situation of having too many bodies. The one guy who can go back down without waivers, Borowiecki, is playing too well right now. Yet trading Wiercioch doesn’t make sense either. Giving up on a young defenseman who can score goals is sacrilege in the NHL, but moving Corvo, who’s been fine this season, depletes your depth. Not sure what the solution is, but at some point there’s going to be injuries on the blueline (there always is) and this situation will seem like a blessing.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Cowen Just Needs Time And Patience... Wiercioch More Of An Unknown

Jared Cowen is feeling the heat in this early, miserable, god forsaken Senators season that’s spanned a month but feels like two thanks to a marathon exhibition schedule and crowded training camp that may or may not have contributed to a sloppy disorganized start when the real games began.

In Cowen’s case, it’s starting to look like he hurt himself by missing most of camp sitting in Saskatchewan waiting for his agent to make a deal with GM Bryan Murray on a new contract, and that’s on top of missing almost all of last season with hip surgery.

When you look at it this way, it’s no wonder the guy is struggling. At 22 years old, Cowen really only has one full 82 game season behind him. He just recently passed the 100 game mark and that’s not much when you’re talking about a young defenseman who’s still developing. Not everyone can win a Norris Trophy at 21 years old like Erik Karlsson, who’s more a freak of nature than an athlete.

Maybe, just maybe, the short-term expectations for Jared Cowen from the fans and management was a bit too high. And now they’re both paying for it.

The decision to trade Sergei Gonchar was both financial and hockey related. There was no way they could pay both Daniel Alfredsson and Gonchar and stay within the much publicized “internal budget”. Turns out the Senators lost both players, one purposely and one through a misguided attempt to go cheap on their captain and franchise player. But let’s not get into that again today, at least for humanitarian reasons.

The Senators thought Patrick Wiercioch and Cowen would emerge to take over those important minutes from Gonchar and everything would be smooth sailing, give or take a few rocky moments that all teams experience with young defensemen. Given Murray’s financial constraints, it was a logical move, supplemented by bringing in Joe Corvo as insurance.

Cue the October disaster.

Both Wiercioch and Cowen have been dying out there for the past month, with a new record of shots against threatening to be surpassed almost every night. Wiercioch has been in and out of coach Paul MacLean’s doghouse along with Eric Gryba, another young defenseman going through problems of his own, although expectations for him are a lot less than the team’s other young defensemen.

MacLean has tried everything to get these guys on track. He’s switched their partners and sides of the ice. He’s played them together. He’s bag skated the team and rested them. They recalled Mark Borowiecki who played very well but, almost predictably, still managed to score an own-goal. That’s the kind of luck we’re seeing here.

We even heard the unthinkable from outraged fans, clamoring to trade one or both of Cowen and Wiercioch. Thankfully, we can assume Bryan Murray still has a firm grip on his sanity and the thought has never crossed his mind.

In Cowen’s case, all that’s needed here is time and patience. This guy is going to be a top NHL defenseman for a long time but right now he hasn’t played enough games, especially recently, to play like everyone knows he can. Losing Gonchar has clearly forced Cowen and Wiercioch to play minutes they’re not ready for but Ottawa has no choice but to keep sending them over the boards in the hope they can adjust. I think Cowen will have a much easier time overcoming his early struggles because he’s not directly replacing Gonchar. Cowen’s issues seem more like rust, whereas Wiercioch’s seem more deep rooted.

Is Wiercioch really a top-pairing offensive defenseman? At this time he’s not, but he may be by the end of the season or a few years from now. The Senators will find out one way or another, but it could be a painful process. Cowen’s issues seem more prominent right now because he’s a defensive defenseman and this Senators team can’t keep pucks out of their net. There’s not much trouble on the offensive side of the game and that’s why Wiercioch isn’t hearing it from the fans as much as Cowen is.

There really isn’t much for Ottawa fans to do but watch and hope this all turns around. My hunch is Jared Cowen won’t be a fan target for much longer.

Hey, he is 23rd in NHL shooting percentage. Of course, that’s off just 8 shots.

Gotta start somewhere.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Chris Neil A Pariah on Twitter, Loved In The Stands

I can’t seem to understand it.

During a Senators game I’ll occasionally scroll down my Twitter feed to see what everyone is saying, maybe catch a few good one-liners from Bonk’s Mullet or the handful of other people worth following. The majority is just Sens fans reacting to whatever play just happened, like an Erik Karlsson rush or a Joe Corvouh oh” moment. There’s fans throwing in the towel after one goal and fans pleading for the team to trade the last player who touched the puck. You know the drill.

I get all that. I get the instant passion that causes people to write things that could get them thrown in a jail cell if said on the streets. People have always said this stuff, except for most of a century they’ve been screamed inside a living room in front of a TV or next to a Victrola radio cabinet where only the neighbours could hear you lose your marbles over an offside call.

But one thing I’ve never understood about Sens fans on Twitter, that certain young demographic that’s completely dependent on social media for self-expression, is their almost total committed haranguing of and dislike for Chris Neil.

It doesn’t make any sense to me, but admittedly a lot of things don’t, like Dexter or Robin Thicke.

It would make sense to dislike a player that doesn’t play to the best of his abilities, that doesn’t play with passion and doesn’t stand up for his teammates. It would make sense to rip into a guy who’s not effective on the ice no matter how hard he tries.

In the case of Chris Neil, none of these attributes apply. Not even close.

I don’t feel I need to go into what Chris Neil brings to the table, because anyone who has watched hockey for more than a few years will understand that, but here it is anyways. He’s a role player, and a very unique one, because he’s one of the few guys playing that has almost 100 career goals, can fight a heavyweight like Milan Lucic, plays meaningful minutes and is an acknowledged leader for his team. These kinds of players are highly coveted by general managers and coaches for a reason.

What I don’t understand is how Twitter fans don’t feel there’s a need for this type of player on their favourite team. Part of it, I feel, is that Neil is part of the “old guard”, players who have been around so long that they’ve been picked apart by fans for years. Familiarity breeds contempt. Chris Phillips gets slung by a lot of these same arrows. But it could also very easily be a case of “don’t know what you got until it’s gone”.

Whenever Neil takes a penalty, and it’s often, fans lose their minds, as if it was some outrageous act of laziness and stupidity. A player like Chris Neil, with the role he plays, is going to take lots of penalties. That’s just the way it is. Penalties are a part of the process of playing the game the right way. You have to cheat and play as close to the edge of what’s acceptable to win hockey games unless you’re extremely skilled like Pavel Datsyuk or Sidney Crosby. The problem is, those players are harder to find than Florida Panthers fans. They exist, but you gotta be lucky to stumble onto one.

Coaches play these kinds of role players because they go out and hit guys like Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and try to wear them down over the course of 60 minutes. Or they match up with their counterparts and it becomes a war of third and fourth lines, made up of checkers and pests. These battles can be just as important, especially in tight games. Facewashing, hacks and whacks are all part of the recipe.

It works, otherwise these players wouldn’t have jobs in the league. Teams win with a combination of all different kinds of skills, partly by necessity, partly by design. It’s not the argument from me that should win you over, it’s the fact that MacLean and every other coach in the league plays these guys, sometimes for significant minutes in the case of Neil. It’s self-evident. I’m merely pointing to the rosters and ice-time and saying “Look for yourself”. What more do you need?

For the most part, Neil’s penalties are from playing on the edge of acceptable levels of aggressiveness. Sometimes Neil gets caught, sometimes he doesn’t. Sometimes he gets over emotional, but that’s also a strength of his in certain situations. He’s brought an entire rink and his own bench to their feet with a massive hit or a fight at the right time. It doesn’t always work, of course. People love to snarkily point out that a fight or a hit didn’t do a thing for the team’s momentum, but the fact that it works SOME of the time is the reason it keeps happening, and the reason a guy like Neil is so valued by the organization in Ottawa. The old saying of “it takes a lot of different ingredients to bake a cake” is relevant here. You win by having all the elements, not just one. You need skill, you need goaltending, you need defense and you need toughness. To embrace one side of the team over the other doesn’t even seem rational if you want your team to succeed in today’s NHL.

Chris Neil brings a vital element to the Senators, even if his importance is not on the level of Spezza or Karlsson. The fact that he’s loved in the community and loves playing for this team is just a bonus. There’s plenty of tough players out there who work as mercenaries, going from team to team and not making much of a difference along the way. Neil has roots in this city now and plays his heart out every night, even if that emotion gets him into trouble on occasion.

You may not like “tough hockey”, and you wouldn’t be alone in that sentiment, especially nowadays with the puritan trend in full swing with the media, but you can’t argue that it’s not part of today’s NHL game, because it so clearly is. And not many play that type of game better than Chris Neil.

The divide between fans in the rink, who cheer Neil after every hit, and the whining about him on Twitter is something I’ll never understand. Oh well, you can’t win ‘em all.

Vintage Black Aces: Pierre McGuire Gets Canned In Hartford

This is a pretty wild read on Pierre McGuire (tweeted by Gare Joyce today), from all the way back in 1994 when he was fired as head coach of the Hartford Whalers. I remember some of the drama that was going on at the time but forgot how heated it really was.

If you think McGuire is an intense, polarizing character now, read the article. “When the hallway curtain opened after a loss in Boston, McGuire was found by the media wildly smashing sticks against the wall. When the door opened after a loss in Pittsburgh, McGuire was seen knocking furniture around the coach's room.

It goes on to say that Jaromir Jagr felt his overtime goal against Hartford in a regular season game was the “biggest of his life” because it was against McGuire. Wow.