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.


Anonymous said...

The thing that frustrates me the most with Cowen is he far too often sacrifices his positioning in front of the net to throw a hit in the corner on a guy who just passed away the puck. It's almost as if teams know that they can bait him out of position in the offensive zone because they know he'll always go for a hit.

Anonymous said...

Nobody's getting in anyone's face after the whistle. Not that it's completely integral to the game, but show a backbone now and again.

Cory Conacher's like the only guy I've seen take a jab at someone...

They're gonna turn it around, but you're right - I don't see a ton of passion yet.

Anonymous said...

Colin Grenning has been a monumental disappointment so far this year. He plays the softest game in the NHL relative to his size.

Anonymous said...

If Michalek needs to play off the rush, with a speedier center, drop him down a line. There have been thoughts on the various forums that the team needs lines consisting of 2 main players, and a third complimentary player. How about;
Spezza/Ryan + Greening
Turris/Michalek + Conacher
Zibanejad/MacArthur + Condra
Smith/Neil + Grant