Monday, December 30, 2013

Anderson Still Hanging In There After Terminal Diagnosis From Fans

Fans who have been (impatiently) waiting for Robin Lehner to supplant Craig Anderson as this team’s number one goalie are likely to be waiting a little longer than they thought.

It’s not happening just yet.

Anderson still has the confidence of Coach Paul MacLean and the goalie’s recent efforts have rewarded the sometimes stubborn-to-the-brink-of-death coach.

Most of the damage to Anderson this season has been done by the Western Conference. Against the much superior West, Anderson is 1-6-2 with a 4.48 goals against average and a brutal .867 save percentage. Those games have been among the worst of Anderson’s career, giving up 6 goals to Chicago, 5 to San Jose and 4 to Los Angeles, Minnesota, Vancouver and Phoenix respectively. That means out of 11 games against a Western Conference opponent, Anderson has given up 4 or more goals in 6 of them. That would have been enough to make Hardy Astrom retch all over his beautiful Colorado Rockies jersey.

But when Anderson faces Eastern teams, his numbers are actually quite good. In 15 games he’s 10-3-2 with a 2.56 GAA and a .921 SV%. He’s won 7 out of his last 10 against Eastern teams and that includes Boston (twice), Pittsburgh and Washington among others. His biggest pain in the East has been the Philadelphia Flyers who racked up 9 goals on Anderson in only 2 games. Yet Anderson still came out on top in one of those via the shootout.

The good news is Anderson is getting better as the team improves defensively in front of him. The bad news is Ottawa faces Western teams in 4 out of their next 6 games. Yet none of those are the elites. They see Winnipeg on Thursday and go out on a 3 game swing into Denver, Nashville and Minnesota. Keep in mind all of those teams have more points than Ottawa with the exception of the Preds who sit with 38 points to Ottawa’s 39 (as of Monday morning).

So what does MacLean do? Don’t expect him to deviate from starting Anderson throughout most of this stretch unless things really go to hell (and that’s always a possibility with this team). Sure, Lehner has better numbers against the West but only one win to show for it (at home against St. Louis). He’s done a lot of cleanup work for Anderson in Western Conference games and may have to step in again, but I think that’s less likely to happen now.

As good as Lehner has been, the one result that matters – wins – have been elusive for Lehner. He has one win in his last 9 appearances, not long after becoming the go-to fan favourite for his 3-game winning streak in November. Many even point to MacLean going back to Anderson right after Lehner’s streak as the reason the season rolled into the ditch just as the snow started falling in the Capital.

Forgetting the math, what this probably comes down to is MacLean’s personality. It’s not carved out of marshmallows like Dustin Byfuglien’s physique. It’s weather-beaten rock, creased and chipped from many hard years in this league. People laugh at things like a “code” in today’s NHL, mostly because everyone is hyper-cynical and irrationally non-traditionalist, but coaches have a “code” as well as the players. A lot of that code has to do with loyalty and MacLean follows it religiously. And 9 out of 10 coaches would have done the same thing with Anderson and Lehner, especially when Anderson helped win you a Jack Adams one year and made you a finalist the other. There’s a belief there that a hockey player is more than just a month’s worth of stats. His whole career and what he’s capable of factor into the decision.

Losing games can change that in a hurry, but is there any coach with more security right now than Paul MacLean? Maybe only Mike Babcock in Detroit or Joel Quenneville in Chicago. Sometimes you have a little house money to play with and MacLean is spending some of it on Anderson in the belief that long-term it's the best decision for the team.

Good goalies have a tendency to work their way out of slumps and Anderson is undoubtedly a good goalie. Yet whatever steps Anderson would take, team defense would send him back a couple. Lehner has been victimized by the same giveaways and soft play that his defenseman and backchecking forwards have been providing all season and his numbers have been hurt too. Think of how good Lehner’s stats would be if he was playing behind even a reasonably better defense?

It’s all conjecture, and so is any prediction of what MacLean will or won’t do with his lineup. But if you wet your finger and put it to the wind, the breeze is still blowing Anderson’s way right now.

Stay tuned for the next disaster when all this could change in a moment.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Senators First NHL Goals - A Compendium

Watching Cody Ceci score his first NHL goal in overtime against the St. Louis Blues on Monday night was something a lot of people around here won't forget. But my memory is possibly marred by the cold ones I've had over the years, so I decided to go back and see how many clips of Senators first goals I could find. Here they are.

Mika Zibanejad - Jan. 30 2013 vs Montreal

Jean-Gabriel Pageau - Apr. 12 2013 @ New Jersey

Erik Karlsson - Dec. 19 2009 vs Minnesota

Nick Foligno - Oct. 18 2007 vs Montreal

Jakob Silfverberg - Jan. 21 2013 vs Florida

Kaspars Daugavins - Oct. 30 2011 vs Toronto

Patrick Wiercioch - Mar. 3 2013 @ Long Island

Jared Cowen - Nov. 1 2011 @ Boston

Eric Gryba - Mar. 23 2013 vs Tampa Bay

Andre Benoit - Feb. 19 2013 vs Long Island

Colin Greening - Mar. 3 2011 @ Atlanta

Here's the skinny on some more notable Senators first goals (if you can find good video of any of these, please send me a link).

Daniel Alfredsson - Oct. 13 1995 @ Florida
Alexei Yashin - Oct. 14 1993 @ Florida
Marian Hossa - Dec. 9 1998 @ Florida
Chris Phillips - Oct. 30 1997 @ Florida

Radek Bonk - Jan. 27 1995 @ Pittsburgh

Alexandre Daigle - Oct. 9 1993 @ St. Louis
Pavol Demitra - Oct. 9 1993 @ St. Louis

Mike Fisher - Oct. 31 1999 @ Atlanta
Chris Neil - Oct. 30 2001 @ Atlanta

Jason Spezza - Oct. 29 2002 @ Philadelphia
Erik Condra - Feb. 26 2011 vs Philadelphia

Wade Redden - Oct. 5 1996 @ Montreal
Zack Smith Jan. 16 2010 @ Montreal
Andreas Dackell - Oct. 5 1996 @ Montreal

Chris Kelly - Oct. 29 2005 @ Toronto

Monday, December 16, 2013

It’s Time Spezza And MacLean Start Helping Each Other Out If Season Is To Be Saved

It’s been a tough season for Paul MacLean, hasn’t it?

The Jack Adams award winner for 2012-13 is more often than not standing in front of reporters that want answers after yet another loss, many of them at home, and his words seem more clipped and brief by the day. We’re not talking John Tortorella brief yet, but for MacLean, a guy who likes to kid around with the “ink-stained wretches” occasionally if things are going well, there’s been little time for jokes in a season gone almost irreversibly sour.

And for the first time, fans are slowly turning on a guy who was actually this team’s biggest hero in last April’s first-round series against the rival Montreal Canadiens. Sure, fans are fickle, especially the brand that stalk Twitter looking to complain about everything even mildly associated with the NHL (“with fans like these…”) but MacLean was sort of a folk hero around these parts with that iconic moustache and old-school attitude, turning this Senators team around after some disastrous seasons under the Little Napolean, Cory Clouston.

The seeming domination of Habs coach Michel Therrien in last year’s playoffs – on the ice and off – cemented his status in this town. You’d see the phrase everywhere on Twitter – “Trust the ‘stache”. Team loses Alfie? “Trust the ‘stache”. Team decimated by injuries to Erik Karlsson and Jason Spezza? “Trust the ‘stache”. Twitter accounts were created for his upper lip. A lookalike of Mac became a minor celebrity.

Just having him walk into a room seemed to fix things immediately. But behind it all, MacLean never claimed that status. In fact, he’s said multiple times over his two and a half seasons here that he and his coaching staff are “scared to death” of this team falling off and the possibilities ahead. Finally, those fears have come home in a very real way.

Right from the beginning of this campaign, nothing seemed right. Of course, two of the main reasons for the Senators struggles were out of his control. Losing Daniel Alfredsson and Sergei Gonchar, two future Hall Of Famers, was a blow. Sure, they replaced Alfie with Bobby Ryan, at least stats-wise (intangibles from his presence were not replaced), but the Gonchar loss was never really addressed, forcing other defenseman to play minutes they obviously weren’t ready for.

It’s also not MacLean’s fault that Craig Anderson has come in this season and fallen off a cliff.

Understandably loyal to a goaltender that had a lot to do with him winning the Jack Adams, MacLean has probably now stuck too long with Anderson while Robin Lehner, having played better so far, has been sitting on the bench for important games. The fans complained immediately about Anderson getting starts over Lehner, but you can see why Mac kept going back to him. Simply, Anderson was that good last year. He’s a leader on this team and in the prime of his career. 9 out of 10 coaches would have done the same. It’s almost a “code” for coaches.

But sometimes it just doesn't work. Sometimes that goalie spends a whole year floundering. Tim Thomas once lost his starting job to Tuukka Rask but came back the next year and won a Stanley Cup. Roberto Luongo was once on his way out of Vancouver, now he’s playing incredible again. Goalies can disappear for a while. The trouble is figuring out when they’ll come back. If you get it wrong, a whole season can go down the toilet.

What’s clear now is Anderson needs to give way to Lehner in a hail-Mary attempt to save this season. MacLean spent yesterday “pondering” who was going to start against St. Louis on Monday night, but it’s hard to believe he won’t go with Lehner after Anderson’s two soft goals got him yanked against Los Angeles Saturday afternoon. Mac may be loyal to a fault, but the fault lines are turning into chasms.

The defense. Let’s not talk about the defense…

Now MacLean is raising eyebrows with the sudden decrease in leading scorer Bobby Ryan’s ice-time over the past two games. Ryan played a season-low 11:53 in a win against Buffalo last Thursday, and MacLean liked the effect so much he kept Ryan to 14:38 against Los Angeles, a team Ryan knows intimately from his days with the Ducks and has had a lot of success against. It also bewildered fans because the Senators were behind early in that game but MacLean played Colin Greening and Zack Smith almost two minutes more. Of course, Ryan doesn’t kill penalties and those two minutes of short-handed time make up almost all the extra minutes Smith and Greening played. Still, the notion is out there now that somehow there’s a possible rift between Ryan and MacLean.

Or, more to the point, fans are asking “Has MacLean lost his mind?” Don’t bet on it, but he might have lost a bit of a handle on this season.

More frustrating, from my view, is the fact that he continues to yo-yo wingers around this team’s best centre, Jason Spezza. He refuses to try Ryan there for more than a game or even a few shifts, which means we’ll likely never know if this summertime match made in heaven could even come close to the lethal power of the Spezza-Dany Heatley duo that almost won this team a Stanley Cup in 2007.

Putting Clarke MacArthur with Spezza last week was a strong move and it seemed to work, giving the team two lines that could score. Yet against L.A., MacArthur was moved back with Kyle Turris and Ryan as the mishmash continued. Erik Condra spent time with Spezza again and every time MacLean puts Mika Zibanejad in that spot, Spezza comes alive and the duo have the puck for long stretches.

Who Spezza actually starts with tonight against St. Louis (unknown at the time of writing) will likely not be there by the end of the game and Spezza must be quietly wondering what it all means. He can’t complain, because team captains are supposed to be in lock-step with their coach, even if they don’t agree with everything. Spezza cares more about winning than he does personal stats at this point – he’s said it and I fully believe him – but he must be worried that he can’t help this team win when MacLean doesn’t give him the best tools. I don’t buy that Turris is now this team’s number one centre anymore than I bought Patrick Wiercioch as an immediate replacement for Gonchar.

Spezza needs some stability around him, the same stability that Turris was afforded, but so far MacLean has shown more impatience than a Black Friday shopper looking for a cheap television. Some will say it’s more a story about how Zibanejad has been moved around despite playing some great hockey, but the torch hasn’t been passed yet on Spezza. This is still his team and it will sit on his shoulders just as much as it does MacLean’s.

Somehow, the coach has to get all these mini-controversies ironed out but that’s not going to be easy. I don’t know if he’s “lost his touch”, as many are claiming, but something has gone wrong in that room that we’re not privy to. Even the players probably don’t know what it is. Maybe this is just a mediocre team who overvalued their players, or maybe it was fan expectations that ballooned too quick in what is still a rebuilding effort.

But we’re used to seeing MacLean pull this thing out of the fire. When we don’t see him do it, suddenly he’s more human than we like.

For what it’s worth, I think MacLean will get this thing right again. But as I hear the chorus of panic all around me, it’s getting harder to defend some of his decisions right now.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Sometimes The Chase Is Better Than The Catch

If most fans had their way, winning would be easy. Their teams would cruise through the regular season without drama, knocking off opponents one by one with precision and confidence.

Not me.

I like the rocky roads along the way. I like the struggle, as long as it’s a true struggle and not a white-flag waving surrender. I like the theatrics, the blood, the frustrations, the crisis moments and the last-minute heroics that force columnists to rewrite entire columns half an hour before deadline. Who likes watching movies where the good guys cruise around unscathed? Rocky even lost in the first one, right?

As a regular watcher of these Ottawa Senators, last night’s up and down affair with the Flyers was exactly what I was looking for in a hockey game. Most of that was personified in embattled goalie Craig Anderson.

Not many fans have his back anymore. In fact, most have knives to it. That’s natural of course. Goalies take the most heat when things go badly and take the most praises when it’s going well. Anderson is going through a stretch where everything seems to be broken and the fans suddenly think he’s not good enough to play for the Cornwall Aces.

Just watching the body language on Anderson the past few weeks has been intriguing. He’s not stupid. He knows that people are crying for Robin Lehner to take over in net, the hockey equivalent of unblemished, fresh fruit. Anderson has a Twitter account and he likely gets the odd tweet from an expert telling him to go for a skate on the canal - in October. You can tell he’s fighting everybody in his head, as every goalie has to do their whole career. It’s the curse of the profession.

Only the hockey gods were to blame for the two quick goals he let in during the second period that allowed the Flyers to both tie and then take the lead when it seemed Ottawa was finally getting it all together – offensively, defensively, physically. Both were deflected through a series of black and orange sweaters and Anderson looked like he wanted to throw down his stick, take the net, turn it around and push it flat against the boards, daring anyone to try and score on that.

Suddenly it seemed like the whole season was finally slipping away. That’s not hyperbole but a real statistical fact when you looked at the standings. Things looked bleak before the Flyers game but another loss at home would have been too much, especially one in which they were playing well and had the lead.

Philadelphia came on even stronger in the third with 11 shots and Anderson was again battling himself. Ottawa took back the lead but Kimmo Timonen’s floater from the point went by Anderson undeflected. It was almost too much for some people to handle. They were writing Anderson’s epitaph on Twitter. I’m sure some columnists were too. They’d seen enough.

It was then that the best moments of Anderson’s season happened. He started it by making a Statue Of Liberty save on Jakub Voracek to keep the game tied. Then with about 45 seconds left in the period, he almost impossibly turned back two Claude Giroux shots, the first with a darting pad save and the second with a dive across the crease like Dominik Hasek playing for Teddy Nolan in 1997.

The crowd was out of beer but they were standing and putting their hands on their face in disbelief. The narrative was starting to skew. But then the shootout loomed and the naysayers came out again with force. A sense of doom hung over the proceedings because everyone knew the Senators couldn’t score and Anderson couldn’t save a beachball bouncing from centre ice if it was the shootout.

Anderson stopped the first two and Coach MacLean changed up the shooters on his side but both Bobby Ryan and Clarke MacArthur couldn’t get it done either. What it essentially boiled down to, just like all of this year’s failed attempts to win the shootout, was Anderson and Jason Spezza.

The pressure on Spezza was enormous as well, because as captain, he’s expected to do something with the game on the line. He looked terrible in past shootouts this year but this one felt different the moment he took the puck at centre. He went straight in but pulled out every deke in his black book and slid it calmly by Steve Mason. It was a big moment for the captain but Anderson absolutely had to stop Sean Couturier from scoring. Again, it felt like something big depended on it. Not just the game, but his reputation. Those brilliant saves in the third period would have been forgotten if Anderson folded in the ultimate moment.

What happened was Couturier hit the post. That was unexpected. In my head I was thinking either a massive save or heartbreaking goal. You could hear the clang so clearly because nobody in the building was breathing. Even Anderson seemed shocked. He looked back, as if the clang wasn’t enough to convince him he just survived another tightrope walk. Then he half-jumped, half-fist pumped like a guy who forgot how to celebrate.

For drama, it was right up there with any game this season so far, excepting the Daniel Alfredsson games of course. A clanging goal post isn’t exactly a season defining or Hollywood moment, and in twenty games it may mean nothing anyways, but for one night, one hockey game, we got exactly what we came for.

As Lemmy once said, “The chase is better than the catch.”

Friday, December 6, 2013

How I Scored The Greatest Goal You’ve Never Heard Of

Yes, that’s me. It was 1986 and I thought I was Mark Messier or Steve Yzerman out there.

My poor coach.

Those ridiculous glasses (which my father picked out for me because they were the cheapest ones on the shelf, not the prettiest) used to get fogged up under my cage during shifts and I would sometimes have trouble finding the bench to get off the ice.

I can still hear a coffee addled Coach Munro screaming “Milks, Milks, you’re going to the wrong bench!”

Stopping on the ice was also a problem. I could only stop on one side – my right - which meant that no matter where the play was headed or what direction I needed to go, I had to dig on my right side and then adjust afterwards. Often I would just crash into the boards to stop my momentum because that was easier. I was like a pinball out there, a really slow rolling pinball.

No one wiped out harder than I did. I can still remember the crowd of parents in the stands going “Oooohhhh” really loudly a few times when I went crashing into the boards (which were anchored in cement and felt like titanium). Hockey equipment would be everywhere. My mother said she thought I had killed myself a few times and used to cover her eyes whenever I started to go for a puck in the corner. Sometimes I would get that puck but it was usually under my body as I lay on the ice trying to breathe properly again.

Those moments brought back bad memories for my mother, who used to sit in the stands watching my old man playing Junior B in the early 70’s who would get into a lot of fights he could rarely win. My old man was what they called “a bleeder” and a “goer”, which meant that he never turned down a fight but usually looked a lot worse than the other guy when it was all over. Sort of like Brandon Prust, I guess. My mom would sit in the stands every night, sobbing until after the game when he would emerge stitched up, wearing his prized team jacket and smiling. “Kim, I’m fine. Let’s go get a hamburger.”

That 1986-1987 Almonte Centennials Atom team was a good one. We went 18-1-1 during the regular season according to the little newspaper clipping I saved from the Almonte Gazette. I played left-wing and didn’t score a single goal until the last game of the season in Stittsville against the Redmen. In that same clipping, which read like it was written by Slaphshot’s Dickie Dunn (in which he tried to “capture the spirit of the thing”), every player got a descriptive sentence or two so the parents could be proud and show it to the rest of the family at the summer barbeques. My sentence said “Jeremy Milks; what he lacks in size, he more than makes up for in hustle.”

Which essentially meant “this kid was brutal (and blind) but his parents paid the 500 bucks so we had to play him”.

A kid named Mike Hand and I were the two smallest guys on the team and we usually played on the same line. Those shifts were when the other team would get their goals. Both Hand and I were goalless after the 15 game mark and time was running out. Coach Munro started playing us with the best guys on the team just praying a puck would bounce in the net off our ass so he wouldn’t be getting any dirty looks from our parents at the year-end banquet.

Then one night Hand scored a goal and I was the only guy left on the team with a zero beside my name. I still remember Coach Munro leaning over my shoulder as the team celebrated and saying “Now it’s your turn Milks”. I remember it because I had never smelled breath that bad before. It was a potent mix of cigarettes and coffee which fogged my glasses up with brown steam.

I had to score a goal or I’d go through life like a hockey leper.

Then it happened. It was at the Stittsville arena and we were coasting to a blowout win in the third period. Coach Munro put me on the ice with our captain and best player Marty Killeen (whose nickname was “Cool” – I’m serious). I remember it in slow motion. Killeen, who was actually a defenseman but spent most of his time on breakaways, chased a puck into the Redmen corner and I just dumbly went to the net like I always did, praying I could stop before running into the goalie. Killeen blindly threw the puck in my direction and I was all alone… somehow.

The puck hit my tape and just died there. I had all the time in the world. My old man, who had come on as an assistant coach partway through the year so he could get out of the house and away from my mom, screamed “Shooooooot!” but I heard it in slow motion so it sounded deep and evil. The Stittsville goalie stared at me. We could have shook hands in the time it took.

Finally I shot the puck and it was a holy roller. It dipped, it shook, it flipped – it even levitated for a moment. But it went in and I still remember standing there, just staring at it in the back of the ratty looking net. I looked over and Marty Killeen was roaring towards me with a huge smile on his face. Everybody swarmed me and my glasses fogged up again.

Coach Munro was waiting at the bench beside my old man and he was pumping his fists in the air like a madman. I got a speed wobble on the way back and fell into the open door at his feet. But I had scored and everything was going to be all right.

I played a few more years, scored a few more goals and even learned how to stop on my left-side. But then I discovered heavy metal, girls and contact lenses and my hockey playing days were over.

And every once in a while, I drive over to that Stittsville Arena in the middle of the night and stand on the darkened ice and raise my arms in the air, with heroic tears streaming down my face. Actually, I don’t do that. That would be crazy. But I should do that.

At least once.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Black Aces Vintage - Chris Phillips Goes 1st in 1996 Entry Draft

With Chris Phillips having just played in his 1100th game for the Ottawa Senators, and inching closer to surpassing Daniel Alfredsson's 1178 games for the franchise lead, here's a quick look back at his draft day via some TSN footage when he pulls on a Senators sweater for the first time. I have no doubt Phillips will sign another deal to avoid free agency this summer and end up being the games played leader. I'm sure the franchise is also anxious to have someone other than Alfredsson to celebrate as a "legacy player". Preferably someone still employed with the team.

But then again, Alfie didn't rule out playing next year...

The photo above shows Phillips with his late father, Garth Phillips on that day in St. Louis in 1996. Here's a nice piece on the Phillips family by Don Brennan last year via Fort McMurray Today.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Not Much Left After Alfie Circus Leaves Town

If you’re a fan of the Ottawa Senators, you probably woke up today with the nagging feeling that the most important moment of the season has already come and gone with the return of Daniel Alfredsson yesterday.

Sure, there are diehards out there who are convinced this team is about to turn it around any day now and storm their way into the playoffs, possibly winning a round or two against the Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, or, enticingly, the Detroit Red Wings. Dreams die hard.

Yet for many fans, I’m guessing there’s a strange feeling in the air, an almost unnameable dread that today is the start of a long conclusion to what is shaping up to be a humbling season for this franchise.

Fans endured the losing stretches of October and November with hopes that this was just an underachieving bunch of young players learning to adjust to bigger roles. The buildup to Alfredsson’s return on Sunday was immense and suddenly this town felt important again, hosting the marquee matchup of the early season. Everyone had those great Senators moments running through their heads, the building was alive and it felt just like old times when Alfredsson wore the “C” and the Senators were occasionally talked about just as much as the Canadiens and the Maple Leafs.

Now it’s Monday morning and the circus has left town. I’m not saying there’s empty popcorn bags and streamers blowing down the desolate avenues of Kanata, but there does seem to be a hangover lingering in the winter air.

With the way things have been going for the Senators, there doesn’t seem to be any more big games on the horizon, just numbers and stats to be compiled for the books. Truthfully, that’s the way it is for a lot of teams season after season, but in Ottawa we’ve been spoiled by drama and occasionally exciting hockey for years now. If it wasn’t one, it was the other. There have been very few boring campaigns in the Capital, no matter the standings.

Yet never before has a season seemed to have peaked so early in this town.

What’s left is an Ottawa Senators team who’s most valued and loved player now skates for a division rival, and the prospect of a long winter with no playoffs now seems like a certainty, even if you’re a “half-full” kind of fan.

The good thing about December 1st being behind us is that maybe now this team and fanbase can start to get over the “trauma” of losing their most beloved personality. The columns have been written and the emotions have been expressed. It’s over and now it’s time to play hockey. But what kind of hockey are we going to get? What kind of drama can we anticipate that will make bad (or worse, boring) hockey tolerable?

When this Senators team bottomed out a few years ago under Cory Clouston, we at least witnessed a flurry of trades that kept everyone invested in the process. Last year we saw half the team, including most of their best players, go down with major injuries and a scrappy group of kids and lunch-bucket fourth-liners take over and carry this team to the playoffs. It was almost movie-good.

This year?

It wouldn’t make any sense for GM Bryan Murray to start blindly trading everybody just to make a belated run to the finish line. There are so many good building blocks in place that the only logical thing to do is wait it out and let them develop. Even the contract status of guys like Jason Spezza and Bobby Ryan don’t add to the intrigue too much because they don’t have their UFA status coming up this summer. Everything can be delayed and probably will be.

We might see a few moves here and there, and Milan Michalek is one player to watch in that regard, but anyone hoping for compelling storylines outside of the expected goalie controversy may be in for a disappointment. How exciting is a goalie controversy on a bad team anyways?

What fans may have to accept is that not every year is going to be the stuff of legend, good or bad. Sometimes a team is just mediocre, on the ice and in the columns. It doesn’t mean something can’t happen here to turn this into riveting drama, but as Eugene Melnyk said the other day about retiring Alfredsson’s jersey one day, “it’s not a gimme.”

If that seems like an uncharacteristically doom and gloom article for Black Aces, you’re probably right. Tomorrow I may be writing about the blockbuster trade that just blew all our minds.

But even hack blog writers get a hangover once in a while. I’m just like you, waiting for the next curveball in what promised to be a fun season turned …. ordinary.

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.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Senators Playing Small In A Big League

What’s our identity?”

When your head coach says that in public, maybe it’s time to start worrying. Just a little.

Those were Senators coach Paul MacLean’s words after Sunday’s loss to arguably the league’s best team, the San Jose Sharks. It’s been a hellish October schedule for Ottawa but that can’t account for everything that’s going wrong.

Where’s the intensity from Erik Karlsson? He played one of his strongest games of the season against San Jose but there were still times where he looked to be in cruise mode like he has for most of the first month. He’s skating as fine as he ever has (and putting up points) but his body language is all too obvious. He’s banging his stick on the ice after goals against, shaking his head, yapping at the refs and looking very much like the young player he is. There just seems to be a little poise and focus missing, but you could say that about a lot of players on this Senators team that’s lost 3 of the last 4 with all those losses being on home ice.

They’re getting killed in their own end and they’re getting killed with sloppy starts to games and periods. They look soft in front of their net despite having two big defenseman in Jared Cowen and Eric Gryba that have the size to actually prevent Craig Anderson from being rattled. It doesn’t help that Gryba is in and out of the lineup due to being inconsistent and Cowen doesn’t seem to be as aggressive in his own zone as he was in the past. Marc Methot is as steady as they come and has been the defensive conscience of this team along with Chris Phillips, both of whom have showed up to play so far.

For the most part, the veterans have done their jobs but there’s a few struggling. Milan Michalek only has 2 goals in 11 games and just 1 in his past 8, despite playing regularly with one of the best playmakers in the game, Jason Spezza.

Don’t blame Michalek’s struggles on Spezza. The captain has been one of the better Senators this season, but he’s never really had great chemistry with Michalek. I get that MacLean likes Michalek’s speed combined with Spezza’s slower, more cerebral game, but Michalek is not the type of winger who hangs back and gets into prime scoring areas for a pass. Michalek is hell on wheels and scores his goals on the rush going top speed or banging in rebounds in the midst of chaos.

On the other hand, Bobby Ryan is the type of player who should be able to complement and read Spezza’s playmaking abilities, but a slow start on that line and some early success with Kyle Turris doomed the Spezza/Ryan partnership prematurely. Some would even say that combination hasn’t been given the chance to blossom like it should but I’m not in the habit of telling the Jack Adams award winner what lines he should play together. It’s hard to argue against the success of Ryan and Turris together, but it must be tempting to reunite Spezza with Ryan just to see if it sparks something.

Yet, it’s not goal-scoring that’s losing this team games. It just seems like they’re small out there all the time, and it has nothing to do with actual physical size. Colin Greening isn’t winning puck battles. Zack Smith is being yanked from centre to wing, sometimes shift to shift and it’s not working. He’s being physical but he hasn’t settled into a role as a centreman as he should, mostly because Ottawa went with younger, smaller players in that role, namely Stephane Da Costa and J.G. Pageau and it hasn’t worked out. At all.

All these Western teams have certainly made Ottawa look small, but if the Senators start slow and only bring the intensity and physicality when they’re behind in games, the Eastern conference teams aren’t going to be any easier.

The Senators built an identity the past two seasons under MacLean by being tough and relentless. It’s hard to deny that. They spent all of last season playing that way with most of the talent on the injured reserve. Somehow they’ve lost that mentality in the early going here and they have to get it back. If it takes someone getting in a fight that usually doesn’t fight, so be it. If it takes someone like Turris paying the price in front of the net to score a goal, that might do it. Something has to spark this team back to life and just scoring goals from outside the faceoff circle isn’t going to do it.

This Senators team is a little too nice right now. The pacifists will roll their eyes and get their hackles up, but this team wins when they play mean. Two first-round series wins were accomplished with that style. It has to come back, and come back soon.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

"Black Aces" Now A Song - Check It Out

One of the readers of this blog, Matt Gower, pointed out to me recently that his local Ottawa band, Capital Grass and the No Men, have recorded a song, "Black Aces", (click on link to hear) and have entered it into a CBC contest called Song Quest, which seeks to find "Canada's next great hockey song". Matt mentions the title of this blog gave him an idea for the song, and I have to say it's a pretty strong entry, especially if you're a fan of Americana roots or Appalachian music as I am.

Matt says, "Ever since I started reading Black Aces, in the back of my mind, I've thought to myself, that would make for a great hockey song. Plus, being a Canadian songwriter, I know that it's required to have at least one hockey tune on the set list."

Anyways, I thought this was too cool not to share with the rest of the readers and wish the best of luck to Matt and the rest of the boys in Capital Grass and the No Men in the contest. Here's a link to their website. They play fairly regularly around town and have also taken the stage at Bluesfest.

The first song my old band, The Hitmakers, ever wrote was a joke called "Hockey Tonk". It wasn't very funny, nor was it very good. Luckily no recordings exist of this trashterpiece, so you've been spared.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Spezza Steps Over Alfredsson In Biggest Test Of His Captaincy So Far

Watching last night’s game in Detroit, you got the feeling Jason Spezza was a little sick of talking about Daniel Alfredsson. After two goals and one much needed trouncing of a division rival, we’re now talking about the new captain, not the departed one.

From the day he was given the captain’s “C”, Spezza probably hasn’t gone 48 hours without answering a question about Alfredsson and how he plans to fill those shoes. Then there was the Olympic summer camp snub, which would have been painful for a proud guy like Spezza who only fell off the radar because of injuries that destroyed his previous season. It would be enough to make a man want to go out and prove something to everybody on the biggest stage of the campaign so far.

And that’s what this game was. Media were swarming Joe Louis Arena for the Alfredsson angle while the game was nationally broadcast on TSN with as much hype as your average Toronto Maple Leafs game. That’s a lot of hype, by the way.

Imagine the mood if Alfredsson had scored a couple of goals against his old team and Ottawa limped away with their second consecutive loss. Luckily for Senators fans, Spezza made sure that didn’t happen.

You can argue that Spezza scored the two most important goals of the game. Eric Gryba’s opener set the tone but a 1-0 lead in Detroit is nothing to dance about. When Spezza scored 5 minutes later to make it 2-0, that’s when people started to believe Ottawa had a chance of winning this thing. Sure, the true believers would still pick Ottawa against the 1984 Oilers but just look at yesterday’s Citizen Prediction Panel. Only one of eight, Steve Lloyd, picked Ottawa to squeak out a win. Wayne Scanlan, who only seems to miss when he’s feeling merciful, picked Detroit. I picked Detroit. Mothers of Senators players probably picked Detroit.

When Bobby Ryan made it 3-0, the faithful were moonwalking on Elgin Street but Todd Bertuzzi’s late goal before the end of the first, on a power-play no less, could have easily swung the momentum back in Detroit’s favour, and with guys like Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Alfredsson, a two-goal deficit isn’t the end of the world.

That’s when Spezza put it away with his biggest goal of the year so far. He went straight down the middle at Datsyuk in the Detroit zone and buried his own rebound off the lively Joe Louis Arena boards. That was pretty goddamn impressive if you ask me.

A lot of guys would have hooked left or right and tried to feed someone coming in with more speed, especially facing two red sweaters, one of whom happened to be a 3-time Selke award winner. Maybe they expected Spezza to do just that but he went right at them, shot the puck, and kept going to the net. Simply put, Spezza was the hungriest player on the ice at that moment and Datsyuk could only swing at him as he blew by.

At 4-1, the captain had taken the spirit out of the building and probably a lot out of Alfredsson as well, who only days ago commented that he caught a replay of a Senators game, saw the “C” on Spezza and thought it was himself for a brief moment. The cameras continually focused on Alfie as he sat on the bench, with everyone sitting at home dying to know exactly what he was thinking as the whole scene played out. Was he regretting everything? Was he stoic, knowing that there’s a long way to go and many chances for revenge?

I was thinking about Senators owner Eugene Melnyk, who had settled his vendetta with Dany Heatley only the day before, and was probably watching the Detroit game from Barbados or Toronto, relishing the moment. I joked on Twitter that he was likely drunk with power at the moment, but like games in October, that too will fade with time.

But for Jason Spezza and the Senators, this is one game, one memorable performance, that can lead to bigger and better things, and just maybe bury some old skeletons that had been haunting them for too long.

And that captain’s “C” on Spezza looks a little sharper today than it did yesterday. What a game.

Black Aces Senators 3 Stars

1. Jason Spezza
2. Bobby Ryan
3. Kyle Turris

Honorable Mentions: Eric Gryba, Craig Anderson, Jared Cowen, Mika Zibanejad

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Timing Is Right For Zibanejad Re-call

Pretty good timing by Bryan Murray.

With all the attention on Ottawa’s upcoming game in Detroit against ex-captain Daniel Alfredsson, Murray felt the time was right to bring Mika Zibanejad back to the NHL today.

Makes sense on a couple of fronts. First, the Senators can use his size and skill to try and energize a team that didn’t look overly inspired against Edmonton on Saturday. No matter how you look at it, Zibanejad is an upgrade on J.G. Pageau and Derek Grant. Hell, he’s an upgrade on most of the players in the bottom-six, especially if he comes in a little ornery from his surprising training camp demotion.

Going into Detroit is a quagmire, and that’s before you even get to the rink. If you get into the Joe Louis Arena with your shirt still on your back, you have Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg waiting for you, and worse, they’ve stolen your best hockey player and, by all reports, he couldn’t be happier wearing the red and white (without the black).

And that’s the second point here. It won’t alter the media’s interpretation of this game much – it’s still Alfie vs. the Sens, but parachuting Zibanejad into the game changes the feel a little bit for the fans. If Zibanejad, who is a clear favourite around town, can manage to have a strong game, it will take some of the focus away from Alfredsson and maybe ease the pain a little. Of course, if Bobby Ryan gets a couple of goals, that would be more significant considering how the two will always be linked from that fateful day in July, but Mika has become a bit of a cause célèbre on Twitter with the #FreeMika hashtags and his stint as DJZbad in the summer. They love their young players here. Erik Karlsson is a rockstar and Zibanejad isn’t far behind. What better way to say goodbye to an old legend like Alfredsson with a win featuring his former Swedish students.

Think of it this way – imagine Ottawa went into Detroit with the same lineup that lost to Edmonton and ended up getting creamed. Fans would start to hit the panic button, especially with Anaheim, San Jose and Chicago next on the schedule and calls for Zibanejad, who’s had a strong start in Binghamton, would have been deafening.

The time was right for an infusion of energy on the ice and a welcome respite from the Alfredsson narrative. Murray managed all that with the call-up of Zibanejad.

Now comes the hard part. Actually beating Detroit in Detroit.

They have more of a chance to do that with Zibanejad here instead of in Binghamton.