Friday, March 06, 2009

Senators' play no surprise

(Originally posted on DG's Rants, February 24, 2009)

The stats are hard to ignore- following today’s 5-3 loss to the Montreal Canadiens on “Hockey Day In Canada”, the Ottawa Senators had a 22-27-4-5 record, good for 53 points and 11th place in the Eastern Conference and, despite a season-high five-game winning streak, the Senators remain 13 points behind the Buffalo Sabres for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. With 24 games to play, Ottawa essentially needs 41 points (the equivalent of 20 wins and one overtime loss) to reach 93 points (the amount the Boston Bruins needed to nail the eighth playoff spot last season), meaning that playoff participation for a 13th consecutive season is highly unlikely. Many across the hockey universe- who, like The Score in their “Hockey Forecaster” (my favourite hockey preview book) predicted a return to prominence after the ’07-’08 disaster- were surprised at the Senators’ play this season, wondering how a team that displayed remarkably consistent excellence could bottom out so quickly.

Well, I was not one of those who were surprised.

Back in September, I wrote a preview for the NHL season, just like the rest of the hockey writers. Then, The Score thought Ottawa would finish third in the East, thinking that Ottawa’s signings of Jason Smith and Alex Auld would address their defensive and goaltending issues respectively. I, however, predicted that Ottawa would finish 11th in the East, exactly where they are now (that position is fluid- from 11th down I figured those teams are essentially interchangeable and they are). Then, I saw that the Senators ended the 2007-08 season playing like an expansion team and that was with their two offensive defencemen in Wade Redden and Andrei Meszaros. The Senators would lose both, Redden to free agency to the New York Rangers and Meszaros in a trade to the Tampa Bay Lightning), replacing them with Jason Smith (free agency from the Philadelphia Flyers) and Filip Kuba (from Tampa Bay for Meszaros). The rest of the team was essentially and the same and, considering that Smith doesn’t have an offensive pedigree and Kuba- despite having talent- has never been much of an offensive force- it meant that Ottawa’s sole offensive threats would be the “Big Three”, Dany Heatley, Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson, displaying an eerie resemblance to the post-lockout Lightning (who only had Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards and Martin St. Louis as offensive threats). Not only that, but I saw that Auld, who, at best, could only be described as “above average” (like his tandem-mate Martin Gerber and the goaltender he replaced, Ray Emery), so Ottawa really wasn’t getting any better in net. So, if Ottawa could play like an expansion team with Redden and Meszaros and no elite goaltender, how would they play without him? Back in September, that was a no-brainer- out of the playoffs after 12 seasons, and with barely a whimper.

I hate to say “I told you so”, but, “I told you so.” I’m beginning to like the sound of my own horn.

So how has my prediction played out? Let’s see, looking at the two keys to that prediction- a compressed offence and a lack of game-stealing goaltending.

OFFENCE

Back when I wrote my preview, my assessment of Ottawa’s season was that they would feature a “compressed” offence, meaning that all their offence would come from its forward corps with nothing coming from the defence. This means that teams defending the Senators need to just collapse in front of the net, because they know that the Sens’ meagre defence corps won’t be a threat all night. Watching the Canadiens against the Senators, Montreal did precisely that, daring the Sens’ defencemen to beat them and they couldn’t. The only goal Ottawa managed in the third (down 5-2) was on a power play when the Canadiens’ defence was lazy and allowed a cross-crease pass- other than that, Montreal stayed in front of the net, preventing the Big Three from receiving any dangerous passes down low and allowing the Sens’ defencemen to simply miss the net. The loss against the Avalanche followed a similar refrain.

Of course, those are just two games and two games do not a season make. Looking at the statistics and you’ll see that is precisely how it is playing out. Of Ottawa’s 144 goals for following the game against Montreal, only 22 (15.3%) came from their defencemen. To put that in perspective, Washington Capitals defenceman Mike Green (who leads all NHL defencemen in goals) has that many all by himself. The closest player to Green on the Senators is youngster Alexandre Picard with six, followed by Chris Phillips with five. Chris Campoli, furthermore, comes from the inept New York Islanders with six goals of his own, automatically tying him for the lead in goals on the Senators. The story isn’t all terrible- Kuba has 27 assists and 28 points- but Kuba’s single goal means that he’s just been great at passing the puck, easy to do when you’re playing with the Big Three. Until Ottawa’s defencemen learn to score with greater consistency, teams are not going to respect the shot from the point.

This wouldn’t be all bad if the Sens’ forwards picked up the slack but they haven’t. Of the 122 goals the Senators’ forwards have scored, 54.9% have been scored by the Big Three- 29 by Heatley, 21 by Spezza and 17 by Alfredsson. The closest forward to them is Nick Foligno with 10, followed by Antoine Vermette with nine and Mike Fisher with eight. Those are great totals for a third line, but the fact that they’re second-liners indicates that Ottawa is a one-line team; and we all know how easy to defend one-line teams are. Of course, the Senators wouldn’t be alone as a one-line team- outside of a handful of teams, every team in the NHL has just one line (or, in some cases, just one player)- but the successful teams have goaltending success, which Ottawa doesn’t have.

GOALTENDING & DEFENCE

For all intents and purposes, the defensive problems the Senators had late in 2007-08 are largely gone. Following Saturday’s game with Montreal, Ottawa ranked 8th in the NHL in defence with 168 goals against. So it’s safe to say that team defence isn’t the source of the Senators’ problems- the problem is a lack of decidedly “game-winning” goaltending. Following Saturday, the Senators have a dismal 9-16 record in one-goal games (nine of those losses coming in overtime or the shootout), meaning that in games where the winner is decided by which goaltender flinches first, it’s almost always the Senators’ goaltender who does.

The main culprit in this category is Auld. Despite boasting decent numbers (2.47 GAA and a .911 save percentage), Auld is 4-10 in one-goal games, which is likely why he’s lately fallen out of favour as the Senators’ starter after winning the job from the horrendous Gerber early in October. If you look at Auld’s career, this kind of play isn’t unprecedented. Vancouver Canuck fans remember him best as a former can’t-miss prospect they realized they could miss, being dealt after a decent (but playoff-less) season as a starter to the Florida Panthers in the package of players that brought Roberto Luongo to Vancouver. In Florida, he formed part of a decent tandem with Ed Belfour before losing his starting job when the Panthers decided they needed Tomas Vokoun. He would then sign with the Boston Bruins where he’d eventually become the third-stringer behind Manny Fernandez and Tim Thomas, leading to his signing with the Senators. Now, after 31 appearances, Auld has lost the trust of the Senators’ brass, as youngster Brian Elliott has started 14 of the last 19 games (counting the game against Montreal that Elliott started). In The Score’s preview, Auld was hailed as dependable and thus the answer to Ottawa’s goaltending issues. The evidence clearly suggests otherwise, as he is a goaltender who may consistently display skill but also consistently never plays well enough to earn his coach’s trust. At this stage of his career, he seems more likely to become a career backup than a starter because he simply allows too many goals for anyone other than the highest scoring teams to win.

Elliott, for his part, does appear to be the goaltender capable of eventually becoming Ottawa’s starter. His winning percentage- both overall (7-4) and in one-goal games (3-3) suggests that he at least has the mentality to be a starter. The only problem is that he still giving up too many goals. Elliott is currently posting a 2.76 GAA, so if the Senators are not scoring then Elliott isn’t winning. Hopefully as he learns the NHL game he’ll better anticipate shots and cut down on his GAA, but for now he is just allowing too many goals to be the game-winner the offensively-challenged Senators desperately need. As for Gerber- formerly hailed as an elite goaltender after his ’05-’06 season with the Carolina Hurricanes- there’s not much to be said except that he looks firmly over the hill, with a dismal 4-9 record and an equally unimpressive 2.86 GAA. No doubt the Senators’ off-season priority will be finding a goaltender (again) although Ottawa will have to make sure they don’t make any rash decisions lest they end up with a Gerber again.

THE FUTURE

Being 13 points out of the playoffs with 24 games to play, it’s not likely Ottawa is going to make the playoffs. This means it’s probably the end of the road for Alfredsson, since the Senators are better served rebuilding and going with younger options; and with the trade deadline coming up, teams are definitely going to overpay there to obtain a player of Alfredsson’s calibre. The Senators should also take March 4 to stockpile draft picks, because their cupboard is bare after so many years near the top. It should also be noted that the rebuilding process isn’t going to be quick, so Sens fans shouldn’t be impatient and demand quick fixes that are just going to hurt their hockey team even more.

Lastly, while the fall from grace is surely not a sight Sens fans are warmly accepting (especially after coming so close to the Cup in 2007), it should be noted that Ottawa’s 12-season run in the post-season is unparalleled and impressive. Say what you want about how the Senators didn’t do enough with those opportunities, but with parity in a 30-team league, there’s rarely a team that can string two straight seasons in the playoffs, let alone 12. The team was due for a letdown and this was it- now, it’s important that the Senators and their fans realize that and just be patient, because that is the only way Ottawa can reclaim its status as an elite team in the NHL.

-DG

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-DG

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