Thursday, November 24, 2011

A Healthy Carkner Could Make Lee A Healthy Scratch

It would have been interesting to see the kind of start Matt Carkner might have had this season if he hadn’t wrecked his knee in a training accident. By all accounts, the big man was going hard this summer – obviously too hard – and might have had some extra jump much like Chris Neil, who looked extra-lean and hungry in the early going before hurting his ankle.

A large part of Neil’s early success comes from having a coach behind the bench who not only treats him like an important player on this team, but who generally likes the “type” of player Neil is. One gets the feeling that Paul MacLean is going to appreciate having Carkner around to clear the crease for Craig Anderson and to act as that nuclear threat in case someone like Milan Lucic or Wojtek Wolski decides to take liberties with Ottawa’s best players.

In short, when Carkner is ready, if that’s a week or two from now or even tomorrow, he’s going in and somebody is coming out.

You could try to start some kind of debate about who’s going to get the short straw, but you’d just be fooling yourself. If everyone’s healthy (and that’s a big qualifier), Brian Lee must be the guy MacLean has pegged to take a seat.

For one, Lee plays on Carkner’s side. Two, there’s no reason to sit Jared Cowen. Ottawa desperately needs more muscle on their blueline and substituting Carkner for Cowen is one step forward, one step back. Plus, Cowen has been as steady as they come nearly every time he steps on the ice.

Lee has been serviceable, with not too many lows or highs. If you read Lee’s generous press clippings, his “wonderful attitude” makes Mahatma Gandhi look like Al Capone (and which leaves you the impression that Lee is the only healthy scratch in the NHL who “works hard” and “doesn’t complain” – something that has inexplicably given Lee a cult-like following amongst some Ottawa fans).

Lee is a nice fill-in player who never seems to find that extra gear to do anything more than just be average on the ice. He’s still young, but as Bob Dylan said, “It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.”

On the other side, Carkner and Cowen both have a defining characteristic – toughness – which makes them more valuable, even if they may lag behind Lee in the skating department (an element that the Ottawa defense is not lacking in).

A Carkner-Cowen pairing has the potential to be a nasty duo as long as Carkner can get his feel for the game back in a hurry. Guys coming off knee surgery can be tentative in the early going and that’s a real disadvantage for a guy like Carkner who can’t hesitate to be physical if he’s going to be a help to the team. Some are saying Carkner will get a conditioning assignment in Bingo once he’s ready to play. If that holds true, he might burn off a few expected bad games where it won’t hurt the big club while Lee and rookie David Rundblad continue to swap in and out.

Rundblad is an interesting case because it was clear MacLean preferred the dynamic young Swede over Lee but was forced to sit him after a few tough errors that cost the Senators some goals. Rundblad seems so close to being a regular because of the things he can do with the puck but it’s going to be even harder for him to get in the lineup with Carkner providing the Senators a much needed bulldozer on the back end.

It’s tempting to say the Senators would be better off if they had Rundblad as the only spare, playing when he can and continuing to learn in NHL practices instead of languishing behind Lee on the depth chart. Rundblad may end up going down to Bingo for a while and that may even be the best thing for him in the end, although he’d benefit Ottawa more by running the second power-play unit. But he has to get in the lineup to do that first.

There are a lot of questions and only Paul MacLean has the answers. We just have to eat our popcorn and watch the show.


Brochenski said...

I'll be surprised if Lee isn't waived. He just doesn't really fill a specific role. His offense is below average and his d is just above average. As much as I LOVE Rundblad, I'd love to see a Carkner/Cowen d pair

Anonymous said...

However things play out on the back end, I hope that it's done based on merit.

I'm a believer in Lee.

I think that Rundblad offers the most offense, Carkner offers the most toughness, and Lee offers the most versatility.

If one of our top four goes down, I think Lee is the guy that would be the best fill in due to the fact that he can do a bit of everything.

He's young, cheap, and solid. I hope that the organization sticks with him.