Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Searching for answers

I didn't write a blog about the Sens' 6-1 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers. There wasn't much to be said, it was a bad game that the Sens deserved to lose.

An interesting statistic graces the front page of the Ottawa Citizen today: In the first 19 games of the season, the Sens were 16-3; in the 29 games since then, the Sens are 14-11-4, less than a .500 winning percentage.

The fact that the Sens are still in first place in the East is a testament to how amazing the start of the season was, but that amazing start is far removed in the mind of most Sens fans. The nagging questions we've all been asking are what has happened since then, and how the Sens can get back to their winning ways.

Although this collapse cannot be placed squarely on the shoulders of one individual, you have to wonder what role John Paddock has in this dilemma. A lot of the problems start in nets, and by not choosing one goaltender to run with, Paddock has made both goaltenders worse. Ray Emery has not been given the consecutive starts he needs to get into a groove, and Martin Gerber has been unceremoniously pulled from games--the loss to the Flyers is a key example, where the result was not the fault of the goaltender--and hasn't been given reason to believe he'll be the starter. As the head coach, Paddock needs to make a goaltending decision and stick with it; both goaltenders can be good once they're given the opportunity.

In that story from the Citizen, Paddock seems to be asking the same questions we are all asking.
Why are we not playing harder? I think it's a matter of just raising the level of urgency and understanding that level of urgency has to be maintained.
-John Paddock
Once again, the head coach needs to have a handle on these problems. If the team is suffering from a lack of urgency--and I'm still a little fuzzy on what that phrase means--a coach needs to find a way to instill it into his players, and work off internal leadership to have the team work itself out of a rut.

The injuries to Dany Heatley and Daniel Alfredsson (although Alfie will be back tonight against Florida) have come at an inopportune time when the Sens started to look pretty good, as seen in the 3-2 victory over Detroit. And that is inconvenient to the efforts to turn the slump around. However, just about any coach with a top line of Heatley, Alfredsson, and Jason Spezza can win a game, especially when those three elite players are surrounded by the depth that Ottawa has. The challenge comes in having the team win when some of those players are not in the lineup, or are not playing at their best. And this is a challenge that Paddock has failed to answer.

There is a limited number of things a coach can do when a team is not playing hard enough. Paddock doesn't have control over the actions on the ice of a player like Antoine Vermette; he can't simply say, 'Antoine, go and score!' and have it happen. What a coach needs to do is establish a system the players can buy into and give the players the tools and the opportunities to play that system.

On a personal level, it's no secret that Paddock is a huge fan of the physical aspect of hockey. He needs to adapt his mindset to the assets of the Senators, however. Ottawa doesn't have players like Steve Downie or Scott Stevens, no matter how much Paddock wishes we did. Instead, we have Chris Neil--effective in small doses, but often prone to taking penalties while trying to draw them-- and Anton Volchenkov--much more effective for his positional play and shot-blocking ability than his bone-crushing hits.

More importantly, though, Ottawa has speed. Enough speed to break the trap when teams try it, and enough speed to outskate any team in the league. Almost to a man, the Sens are a fast team; Vermette, Dean McAmmond, Chris Kelly, and Shean Donovan are a few players whose speed can kill opposing teams, and even role-playing forwards like Cody Bass and Christoph Schubert are fast when they need to be.

So Paddock needs to adapt to the assets the Sens have. He needs to give the CASH line the ice time they need to be effective, but he can't over-use them; they will become worn out before the end of the season, and other players will suffer from their lack of ice time. And the players need to look at themselves in the mirror, and reflect on the run the Sens put together during last year's playoffs; if they want to get their again, every single person will have to step up their game. If they want to go that one step further, there's another step they'll have to get to.
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