Thursday, July 23, 2009

Battle of the comments - Summer 2009!

This blog has some great regular commentors who prove that intelligent discussions can be held on a sports blog. The post from a few days ago provoked some great debate, so I thought I would give it the front-page treatment for those that don't normally read the comments:

This optimistic one from Andy:

I've noticed a lot of comments in general to the effect that if you compare the current team to last year, we simply haven't "improved" enough to expect better results, that our best hope is to still be in the fight for the last playoff spot come March, followed of course by a quick first round exit.

But there's something missing - how did such a terrible team make it to the finals? There haven't been that many personnel changes.

I've found for a long time that the perception outside of Ottawa was that this team was playing over it's head, that the Senators of December 2007 to February 2009 were the "real" Senators, the crappy team everyone always thought they were, and that any good showing before was some sort of fluke. The word "choke" stuck like glue, and playoff disappointments were always held up as a show of their "true colours". Certainly, they have not lived up to expectations every year, but they have won their share of series. This team has been reasonably close to a championship twice in this decade (missing the Cup finals by one goal against eventual champions NJ) - how many franchises would kill for that? Our nemesis down the 401 hasn't been anywhere near since, what, mid-90's? And while there have been disappointments, at least there were expectations to be disappointed about.

There have definitely been problems, but I'm optimistic that the Senators we saw in the last few weeks of the last season were closer to the "real" Senators. It seems obvious to me that they were playing an inappropriate system for most of the year, where a strong forechecking, puck-possesion team was suddenly not allowed to forecheck, expected to be passive and reactive. The second (now non-forechecking) forward always looked confused about where he was supposed to be and often wasn't able to defend effectively against opponents' transitions. I think Hartsburg was ultimately fired because he refused to acknowledge that his system wasn't working.

Goaltending has been the Achilles heel of this team pretty much forever, but last year's lack of scoring made it stand out even more. I'm optimistic that this will change. I like Elliott and think he'll make a strong backup who can challenge the starter. If Leclaire can play like he seems capable of (and of course, stay healthy) then goaltending is suddenly the least of this team's worries. Even slightly better goaltending last year would have been enough for a playoff spot, despite the poor team play.

And let's acknowledge something else - some important players had a bad season, even when accounting for overall team performance. We all know that Fisher, Kelly, Volchenkov can play much better. Combine that with strong output from Foligno, Shannon, and of course, Kovalev and I think we've got a respectable forward and defense corps. Kovalev is an automatic upgrade on the PP, and the PK was actually pretty good last year.

I don't think these expectations are unreasonable. And who knows, maybe there are nice surprises. Mabye Foligno scores 25 goals, maybe Shannon scores 20, maybe Kovalev has a career year, maybe Heatley comes back and scores 60. Maybe Karlsson exceeds expectations and Ottawa has the best PP in the league. Maybe Leclaire leads the league in shutouts, and Winchester adds some scoring to his already fine play. These hopes may be a little pie-in-the-sky but only a couple need to happen to really put the Sens over the top.

A spooky Anonymous commentor took Andy to task on the defensive end:


I differ with you in that I think that there have been significant changes since the 2007 Stanley Cup Finals team.

Notably, the defense has been completely overhauled. I can remember at the beginning of the 2007 season, Paddock commented that "we feel that our top 4 is as good as any in the league". And, for the first 20 games of the season, they lived up to those expectations.

For some reason, the wheels fell off and the defense was then overhauled. I don't think that our current top 4 ranks anywhere near the best in the league.

I also think that the vibe around the team is completely different. The Sens used to be a team that was full of guys who were drafted and developed by the club. The players appeared to be very close. Even Rob Ray was quoted on Off The Record as saying that they were a "real tight group".

They had a bunch of guys who played together in Bingo during the lockout. They really looked like a group that was having fun. I think that the team has lost that feel. Chicago seemed to have inherited that vibe last year.

I'm not gloomy about the Sens. I think that the potential is there. I'll be cheering for them. But, I still think that the back end needs some upgrading.

Grinder continues the great D-bate:

Clouston is a good coach. He needs a tan and a wardrobe consultant (Agreed! -Ben), but I think he is quite competent. The big question is whether or not he is able to communicate effectively with the players, for an extended amount of time, without alienating everyone with his hard-ass approach. His strategy seems sound and he seems able to adapt to changing conditions during the game and react quickly.

I am also thrilled that Gerber is gone. I like our goalies and believe that one of two things will come to pass and will define this upcoming season. Pascal Leclaire will either become a big star, or he will tear something in one of his knees or ankles and cost Murray his job.

The forwards (with Heatley) may be better than ever. That, my friends is such a big "IF" that it makes my head spin. IF he stays and actually plays to his ability, the team has four scorers and two lines that can score. IF he goes, there is no way to know what we get in return or what Murray does with the extra money.

Then there are the young guys who have looked so good lately. Foligno has shown signs of what may be and Shannon has been very effective with his speed and hockey sense.

I am torn between Andy and Canucnik on the subject of the Sens' D however. Nik loves to call them an "American League" group, while Andy looks at the same bunch as "top half". Who's right here? Good question...

First, let me admit that Corvo was a huge loss to the Sens. When he was here, I was the first guy to call him a liability and a screw-up. I really disliked him. The truth is however, that his speed and puck moving ability was important, despite his other shortcomings.

Then, Priessing was always very dependable. I can't explain what happened to him in the end, but he was good for a while.

Mez was hot and cold, but the guy had passion...

Today's squad is not all all the same kind of squad. I don't know that they are "American League", but I also don't think they are anywhere near "top half" either.

The big variables are Lee and Campoli.

I think Campoli has "something" and I have a feeling that he will become a much better player than anyone expects. Redden had that intangible at one time, early in his career before he lost his legs.

I thought Lee had that "something" too at first, but he doesn't seem to be very smart. Maybe it is only youth and the guy will become something of a producer, but that seems like a pretty big "maybe".

As for Karlsson, I have been on the record many times since watching him closely at the prospect camp. He is not ready for the show - not by a long shot. Not to mention that he is so friggin small. He is VERY skilled, don't get me wrong, but defencemen take longer to be ready for the big league.

Smith, God bless the guy, is done. He should do the right thing and retire. That was wasted money for sure.

Unlike many who love the guy, I don't like Phillips at all. He is way too soft on the puck and he doesn't hit at all. In that respect, I totally agree with Nik.

On the other hand, Volchenkov was clearly playing hurt for most of the year. He should be back to his old form this year and be a useful asset.

Kuba is good. He seems to be hated by many, but he is competent both ways. I suppose he may not be worth the big bucks, but I don't see anyone else stealing his job on this team yet.

So, having said all that - it is clear as mud, isn't it!?

Sure is, Grinder. Thanks to those who contribute to the blog in the comments. Keep up the great debates!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Three big questions for 2009-10

It's always difficult to make predictions about your favourite team. It's hard to see past your own passion in order to make an objective evaluation of, in this case, the Ottawa Senators.

The magic word after last season's generally disappointing performance was 'optimism'. But such a simple word doesn't encapsulate the many questions that the Senators are facing with the 2009-10 season about four months away.

Question 1: Is Cory Clouston a legitimate NHL coach?

Despite showing great potential as game-time decision-make ("Martin Gerber? No thank you."), and an off-ice team builder (Haven't bought out any contracts recently...), it's difficult to say whether Clouston will be the savior that the Senators have been searching for since Bryan Murray moved into the front office.

I believe the key to this situation is patience. Even if the Senators start the season 5-15, Murray has to move his finger off the panic button and finally realize, after three new coaches in three seasons, coaching isn't the problem. Sens fans have to temper their enthusiasm until Clouston can make it through one whole season.

Answer: I sure hope so.

Question 2: Will Leclaire provide better stability in net?

My fellow Ottawa Senators fans, I celebrated extra hard this Canada Day because it meant the end of a horrifying era in Ottawa: Martin Gerber's reign of terror. Not only is he no longer anywhere near the team, he's not even on the books anymore! Pascal Leclaire is almost certainly an upgrade in net. At least, he will provide the knowledge that he won't be beat out for the starting job within two months. Backed up by Brian Elliott, the Sens should have the standard #1-#2 goalie relationship that most teams thrive on.

In this category, despite the questions, Senators fans have reason to be most optimistic. Even if Leclaire's groin explodes in the first game of the season, fans will at least know who's #1.

Answer: He's not Martin Gerber... so, yes.

Question 3: Will Kovalev improve the team?

He's the most significant free agent signing in the (short) history of the franchise, and I hope he's smart enough to understand that he'll be observed and analyzed like the only hot chick on a nude beach. It's difficult to say whether adding Alex Kovalev to last year's Senators would have been enough to push them into a playoff spot (hmmm.... probably not. Your thoughts?), but it's safe to say that even if he contributes only 20 goals to the Senators in 2009-10 (which some would consider a disappointment), he'll be the number 4 or 5 scorer on the team*.

Answer: You bet your ass.

When I began writing this blog, it had the headline "Senators will make playoffs"... but writing the story got me thinking about how much rests on Clouston being able to replicate his performance last year. And despite what Pierre McGuire yelled at us at the trade deadline last season, no one in Ottawa can really predict how well Leclaire will play for the Senators (especially in front of the Sens' increasingly young defenders) - he had 24 wins in 54 games with Columbus in 2007-08, but these stats can be transferred across teams and conferences.

One thing is for sure: It's going to be fun watching these questions be answered by the players and coaches when the puck drops.

*Foligno could score 25 this year... who knows?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Senators better with Heatley

Speaking purely in terms of talent (and not in the made-up categories of 'heart' or 'commitment', invented by Bryan Murray in 2006), the Ottawa Senators are a better team with Dany Heatley on the roster.

Sure, he's gone and spoiled his reputation with the Sens fans, the team's management, and parts of Western Canada, but there's no doubting the man's ability to put pucks in the net. There's a reason why the Oilers wanted Dany: because he's a great goal scorer, and such players are special. A whole team of second-line players will not win games against the NHL's best clubs.

This whole situation is Heatley's fault, and it's unforgivable. He has spoiled his own reputation, and tainted the image of the Senators in the eyes of fans and other NHL teams... but that doesn't make him a less talented player.

Mediocrity is the ultimate sin in the NHL. You don't get a shot at the Stanley Cup and you don't get high draft picks - just ask the Maple Leafs. When Heatley and the Senators do accept a trade (this season or whenever), they are back on the path of mediocrity. The talent and goals received will not equal what Heatley added to the team.

The Senators have acknowledged all of the above. By signing Alex Kovalev, Murray conceded that you need a collection of special players to be a winning team in the NHL. Murray is taking a chance on Kovalev because mediocrity doesn't satisfy Eugene Melnyk or fans of the Ottawa Senators. Adding Kovalev to the mix finally breaks the Senators out of the mentality that the top line can provide all the goal-scoring. It's a combination that could prove over-powering for opponents, and Heatley's as big a part of the recipe as the other three.

I suspect that Heatley is looking at the upcoming season like an oncoming train, and he's tied himself to the tracks with his illogical demands. With every passing day, it becomes more likely that Heatley will have to swallow his pride and face the fans, the media, and his teammates. At the same time, fans will have to accept that when Heatley scores goals, he's helping the team win. Who's going to boo that?

As an added bonus, if Heatley doesn't have the season of his life, he'll never get out of Ottawa. How do you like them apples Heater?

Ultimately, if the team is winning, and Heatley's the one scoring, I'll be cheering. I hope other fans can swallow their pride and cheer along too.

PS: Last article on this situation until training camp or a trade, I promise you (and I promise myself).

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Auld out. LeClaire and Elliott will be the duo

Ladies and gentlemen, we have our goaltending tandem.

Alex Auld, after a solid season backing up, then overtaking (as usual) Martin Gerber, has been traded to the Dallas Stars for a 2010 sixth-round draft pick.

Not only does this move mean that Brian Elliott will be staying in the big leagues (a well deserved permanent promotion) to back-up Pascal Leclaire, but it also frees up a bit of the salary room needed to accommodate Dany Heatley, should he return for next season (I can hear the daily newspapers salivating).

It should be noted that Elliott has to be re-signed as he is a restricted free agent at the moment.

After removing Auld's $1-million salary, the Senators still need to free themselves of approximately $2-million (or one Dany Heatley) to get under the salary cap for next season. If Heatley can't be moved, it's likely that a prospect or an expendable part will be traded. I would wager that Shean Donovan or Jesse Winchester (PS: I know, I know, we all love Winchester) will be moved if Heatley isn't.

I just want to add that I salute Auld for his consistent play while here in Ottawa. I always preferred to see him in net over Gerber. Enjoy the sun, Alex!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Sens Army Blog on CBC

Just had a nice chat with CBC Ottawa's Jeff Semple about the Kovalev signing and the Heatley situation. A lot of his questions had to do with what the commentors were feeling and what they (you!) felt about the signing. Plus, you'll get to see me squirm in front of the camera for a few minutes, acting like an expert (when I'm actually an overly opinionated nerd with too much time on his hands... but you know that by now).

I hope I did a good job of representing how people feel about it... or maybe they'll edit it to make it look like I said something else entirely. Who knows? It should be fun to watch tonight on CBC Ottawa at 6 (It's on after the Simpsons).

Monday, July 6, 2009

Kovalev now a Senator

Sens fans have to be excited that Alex Kovalev is coming to Ottawa. Dany Heatley saga aside, this adds some serious secondary (or dare I say more PRIMARY!) scoring to the Ottawa lineup. The recently announced contract is for two years, and the salary has not yet been revealed. (Update: TSN says the contract is with $10-million.)

Kovalev's scoring abilities are the definition of streaky. He was loved in Montreal when he was having a good season, and loathed for being moody and selfish when he wasn't putting the puck in the net. He's bounced between 40 and 80 points per season over the last few with Montreal.

From a historical standpoint, this is the largest free agent signing the Senators have ever made. The only other one that pops into my head is Petr Bondra, and that was just a playoff addition (and a disaster, sorry to bring it up).

I believe the recent Heatley hatred has diverted a lot of attention off Bryan Murray. While the city's been busy advertising $4-million salads (seriously Ottawa Sun? Isn't there something about our mayor's trial you could be putting on the front page?), we seem to have forgotten a lot of the anger toward Murray for handicapping this team over the past few seasons. Though I am not his largest critic, stats don't lie, and Murray had to do something to shake up this team.

Holy crap! The Sens have four scorers now! Can we make Kovalev play defence and put them all on the same line?! Imagine the possibilities! (That's sarcasm, btw... Although we'll probably see that on the powerplay.)

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Bad Soap Opera

First came the over-the-top poor, poor pitiful Heatley drivel from Tom Molloy, hockey coach and former neighbour to the Heatley's in Wayne Scanlan's column in the Citizen the other day in which Molloy all but said Heatley playing for Team Canada was essentially charity work. Then came the asinine comments by Heatley's agent about being "blindsided" by the deal Bryan Murray had worked out with the Oilers. If trying to get the best deal possible for a disgruntled player is "blindsiding," then what do we call said player's trade request through the media in the first place? Pot, meet kettle.

The Ottawa Senators have over the years been the focal point of many changes in the NHL, perhaps the earliest and most well-remembered example being the Alex Daigle contract that led to the creation of a rookie salary cap. With any luck, the next round of CBA talks will see the installation of the Heatley rule: when a player who has a long-term contract with a no-trade clause asks for a trade, it is to be considered an automatic waiving of the no-trade clause, and the player will have to accept any destination their club can find for them. In other words: no vetoing specific teams. At this point this is the issue that I think is sticking in most people's craws - the fact that Dany Heatley can have his cake and eat it too. It's one thing to demand a trade the way he did, significantly weakening his current team's bargaining position. But to reject what was undoubtedly the best deal the Senators could have gotten for him for apparently no particularly good reason is quite another thing. This is the enraging part for fans.

So where do we go from here? With nobody other than the Oilers showing much interest, it would appear that Heatley will have to prepare for Senators' training camp. I know, I know. It seems unimaginable to me too that he would start the season in a Sens uniform after what has gone down in the last couple of weeks, but there is a silver lining in all of this courtesy of Steve Yzerman.

Team Canada's GM said today that although Heatley is invited to Team Canada's camp this August, he's not a slam-dunk to make the team. Yzerman said that those who are playing well from October through December will get a shot at making Team Canada.

So if Heatley really does want to play for Olympic gold in Vancouver in 2010, he can't be sitting out while the Sens work out a deal. He has to prepare to play and play well. In fact, given his so-called "friend" Molloy's comments, Heatley had better be ripping it up in order to really stand a chance. I do not think the Team Canada brain trust took too kindly to the insinuation that Heatley's past participation for the team was some kind of charity work. There are a lot of highly skilled younger guys who would gladly take his place given the chance.

So Sens fans may have to endure him for a little while yet, as awkward as it will feel. And if Heatley does go on a tear this fall in a bid to make Team Canada, then the chances of getting a better deal for him will rise as his on-ice performance may yet eclipse the off-ice drama. He may start the season in a Sens uni, but that doesn't necessarily mean he'll finish it in one.

But there is also the possibility that maybe, just maybe, Heatley rescinds his demands for a trade if he gets sufficient ice time and starts racking up crazy points. He may come to realize there are worse places to play than on the wing with Spezza with Alfie on the opposite side of the ice. The Clouston-Heatley relationship in such a scenario might even be resuscitated, and a new golden age dawns on the Senators... But that really does sound like bad soap opera.

Is Dany Heatley traded yet?


Edit: Everyone's got to stop acting like the $4-million bucks is coming out of the fans' pockets. It's not, so just chill out about this self-imposed deadline. Melnyk's pocketbook is the least of my worries, and I bet it's the least of his worries too.

Despite my previous defence of Mr. Heatley, I must say that this Oilers saga has certainly revealed the devil in the details. What sort of guy asks to be traded and then... refuses to be traded? That's the most anger you'll get out of me.

In any case, we can glean some insight into Bryan Murray's opinion of his own team from this almost-deal what would have landed the Sens Dustin Penner, Ladislav Smid, and Andrew Cogliano:

#1: He doesn't think too highly of his offence overall. Secondary scoring has been a problem for the Sens for a number of years, and obviously Murray has learned not to count on Mike Fisher, Chris Kelly, or uh.... (searching through Senators roster for goal-scorer not named Spezza or Alfredsson...) Nick Foligno (?!). Even Dustin Penner's albatross of a contract seemed like an acceptable compromise to add about 35-40 goals (Penner's 17 from last year and Cogliano's 18) to the Senators roster.

#2: The Senators are getting too old and slow. The players that would have come from the Oilers are 23 (Smid), 26 (Penner), and 22 (Cogliano). No doubt an attempt to inject some new blood into the organization after a couple years where Murray attempted to transplant some bullshit Pierre McGuire-esque "intangibles" to the team like "toughness", "grit", and "leadership". The Sens have been sacrificing youth and talent for big, stupid bodies for too long, and I believe this was an attempt to reverse a failed policy.

With the above in mind, I cannot imagine why the Sens decided to re-sign Chris Neil. I understand that he's the only player on the team that drops the gloves on a regular basis, but with Jason Smith still on the roster (and awaiting buy-out, I presume), the Sens have more than enough penalty minutes-in-waiting. Much like Smith following last season, before the end of the first year of his new contract, Neil will be on the trade block.

PS: How was Canada Day for everyone? Jeez, I wish they would get a rock band to play on Parliament Hill. Sarah McLaughlin? She hasn't been on the radio in 10 years! Bah!
Blog Widget by LinkWithin