Friday, February 28, 2014

Fans Want Youth But Can’t Live With The Mistakes

You can’t have it both ways. You just can’t.

Fans gush over prospects and young players the way teenage girls used to scream about The Beatles in 1964. They’re just so new and exciting. Then they play a year or two, and suddenly the new guys aren’t so fresh anymore, and a little too human for our liking.

Bring on the new batch of kids, most of whom have benefitted from the NHL Entry Draft hype machine and haven’t had the chance to disappoint anybody yet.

Too often, fans embrace the fresh face but don’t have the patience to watch them grow into veteran hockey players. And in order to become vets, they have to make mistakes and figure out how to play against players that rarely do. Sometimes that takes years. In the case of defenseman, it almost always takes four or five years, unless you’re a phenom like Erik Karlsson, and even he went through some nights where fans were calling for his pretty little head.

Now you see it every night on Twitter (that institution of sober second thought) with Jared Cowen. Fans are prepared to throw a 23-year old 1st round pick defenseman with under 150 games NHL experience on the garbage heap. On to the next guy.

Not that I want to turn this into an argument about Jared Cowen. I want to talk about young players in general.

If you like your hockey team young and exciting, that’s often what you’re going to get, although you might not fully understand the term “exciting”. That can cut both ways. Exciting sometimes means watching a rookie dash up the ice with unexpected speed, only to lose the puck at the blueline with a blind drop-pass and watch the other team go back the other way at 100 mph and pop the water bottle.

Exciting” has never implied a certainty of outcome. What’s exciting about that?

If you want youth, you have to learn to live with their sometimes moronic, unintelligible blunders. There’s no way around it.

My son once dumped his entire cup of milk onto his plate of food that I’d spent an hour making, and just looked at me innocently for a moment and then said "Dad, can I get more milk?". (Naturally, I went right to Twitter and put him on blast.)

It’s a brutal fact that young, inexperienced hockey players are going to make mistakes at crucial times. Over 100 years of hockey should have taught us that. Forget hockey history ... common sense tells you that.

Look at last night’s game against Detroit. The Senators are controlling the play early in the first period until 20-year old rookie Cody Ceci makes a bad pass in his own zone that’s picked off by Riley Sheahan and rifled past a stunned Robin Lehner. The Wings never looked back and put a further five pucks past the rattled 22-year old netminder.

It was a must-win game for Ottawa with all sorts of pressure and the players who made the critical early errors for the Sens were all young guys with little NHL experience in this sort of situation.

Cowen was -3 on the night, continuing his horrid play that dates back to the Sens last game before the Olympic break against Boston, a veteran-laden team. Eric Gryba, who’s 25 but has only played 68 NHL games was also -3 as Cowen’s partner. We saw what happened to Lehner and Ceci.

Mike Hoffman, with 7 career games going into last night, was probably Ottawa’s best player because of his energy and skating, but he’s already failed to crack this lineup on multiple occasions. A handful of rookies and prospects have failed to make a dent this year, including Stephane Da Costa, Mark Stone, Derek Grant and Mark Borowiecki. All had their good moments but all were sent down just the same. For most of those guys, it’s going to take a lot more time. And for the guys already here, like Ceci, Gryba and Mika Zibanejad, there have been many times where Coach Paul MacLean has limited their ice time to protect them and the team itself in certain situations.

The Senators currently have 11 players (not including call-up Andrew Hammond) that are 25 or younger on their roster. Is it really a surprise that this team occasionally falters in meaningful games and are life and death to make the playoffs?

It’s a process that takes years and the failure rate is unbelievably high, especially for young defensemen. It’s hard to watch as a fan when Cowen or Ceci cough up pucks or Lehner gives up 4 goals in less than 8 minutes, but if you fall in love with these players at their first training-camp, you have to be prepared to tolerate their growing pains, even when it causes your team to lose important hockey games. Somewhere down the road, these same guys are going to win you the big games. At least that’s the plan.

It doesn’t mean you have to be happy about it. You just have to be tolerant and understanding.


Tuesday, February 25, 2014

23 Games Remaining That Will Test The Sanity Of Every Sens Fan

One thing we can say for sure about this Ottawa Senators team is that they have the God-given ability to confound and frustrate even the most hardcore hockey watchers this side of Toronto. Gentle souls have been lobotomized as far back as November, and they now walk around town like Clint Eastwood in The Unforgiven … scarred, angry, hopelessly darkened.

The hardier minds toughed it out past Christmas (with the help of alcohol) and they were rewarded with a sunny January, when the team suddenly looked like a playoff contender again, showing speed, grit, goaltending and finding a little bit of luck where they once found disaster.

Yet look where they sit now. 23 games to go, surrounded by teams playing as good, if not better. Stuck in a division with a top three that’s basically been decided already, with only a wild-card spot in reach. The pundits say they’ll need 93 or 94 points to make it, which means they can only lose 6 or 7 games the rest of the season, depending on how the wind blows. Wonderful.

It’s going to go down to the last rotten week in April when a lot of horrific nightmares can come true. The Senators face the Leafs the last weekend of the regular season. That could be the game that decides their season, and, as fate would have it, probably the season of the Red Wings and Daniel Alfredsson as well.

As I talked about before on this blog, it seems like the door to the playoffs is going to be guarded by Alfie, a situation nobody wants to think about right now, especially in the middle of the day with no recourse to tranquilizers at hand.

They can take one step to avoiding that horrible fate by beating the Red Wings on Thursday in the first game after the break, and hope that Henrik Zetterberg (now out for the season after back surgery) was the one guy the Wings couldn’t afford to lose. Then there’s the specter of the Leafs on that last Saturday, who may even be eye-to-eye at that point with the Senators (at least that’s what the advanced stats gurus predict). It’s all speeding towards a bloody conclusion.

Do the Senators have what it takes to survive the gauntlet they now have to run?.

We’ll start at the top.

Paul MacLean has pissed off more fans this year than Cory Clouston did in his “Little Napolean” prime, but the stubborn coach has slowly gotten his way after a near-disastrous start. Fans seem to think that only the top two lines should play and scream bloody murder on Twitter when Chris Neil gets a second more ice-time than anybody else, but MacLean comes from a Red Wings franchise that once used Sergei Fedorov as a defenseman and always ran four lines to win Stanley Cups. That’s the type of team MacLean is trying to mould here in Ottawa, and eventually it’s going to pay off. If it takes humbling one of his star players, he won’t hesitate for a second.

A lot of early anger seemed to stem from the fact that he’s been trying to make Mika Zibanejad earn his role rather than handing it to him as many fans expected. He’s had a leash on the kid and sometimes he’s pulling back on it, despite Zibanejad showing he should have more ice-time. He won’t waver down the stretch so expect a few more decisions that will send Twitter into a panic spiral. When you see him smirking under that moustache, you know that somewhere deep down inside he enjoys tormenting people who think they know more about hockey than he does – namely bloggers, reporters, Twitter.

You can even imagine him giving the same speech to his team that Coach Lou Brown does in 1989’s Major League: “The local press seems to think that we'd save everyone the time and trouble if we just went out and shot ourselves. Me, I'm for wasting sportswriters' time. So I figured we ought to hang around for a while and see if we can give 'em all a nice big shitburger to eat!

Jason Spezza seems to be putting it back together at the right time after a strange few months. If this team is going to make it, he’s going to be the most important guy other than Craig Anderson. He went 15 games, from December 10 to January 21st , where he didn’t record any mult-point games. That’s just unlike Spezza. In the 9 games since then, he’s recorded multiple points in 5 of those and had a 3-pointer against the St. Louis Blues in a huge win for the Senators. To me, he’s far from washed up and will be scoring 75-90 points a year for this team if they make the smart move to resign him. Give him a real winger (Bobby Ryan) and watch the points pile up. He looks determined not to miss the playoffs in his first year as team captain.

Erik Karlsson is the best hockey player to ever wear a Senators uniform and will likely one day be captain of this team. There’s nobody else like him in the NHL and the Olympics just proved that to those who don’t watch him on a regular basis. But you can tell he’s still a kid. From breaking sticks in frustration, to his “silver medal on Ebay” joke, Karlsson doesn’t always project coolness under pressure. There’s that thought in the back of my head that says he wouldn’t be showing these public frustrations if he still had Alfie in town as a mentor. That departure was probably as hard on Karlsson as it was on the fans. Look for MacLean to lean on Karlsson even more down the stretch. He’s too young to get tired, so you might as well keep him running the treadmill.

I have no lingering doubts about Craig Anderson. Do you? You shouldn’t. If you’re a stats guy, his numbers have normalized after a terrible November, but beyond that you can see he’s just more confident now. He’s never going to be fully embraced by the swaths of young fans in this city, not when the rockstar Robin Lehner is behind him, but for this team right now, Anderson is the guy. Even if you don’t agree, try convincing MacLean. He’ll eat you alive on that question.

Bobby Ryan remains a little mysterious. Well, maybe that’s not the right word. There’s nothing mysterious about what he brings. He scores lots of goals (though not lately – only 4 in his last 19 games) and he’s a prototype big winger that’s so valuable in today’s NHL (when have they not been?). Yet there’s a strange unease hovering around his status on this team.

He seems sullen on the ice, yet off it he’s shown to have a good sense of humour and says he genuinely likes playing in a hockey town. Still, there’s that UFA status coming in two summers and nobody seems to know if he truly wants to stay here. Many think it’s inevitable he ends up in Philly with the Flyers near his hometown of Cherry Hill but that just may be self-defeatist Ottawa coming out of the shadows. It’s not as strong a myth as it is in Edmonton, but there’s still a feeling around here that a guy used to playing in sunny California might not want to spend the next decade shovelling snow in a small Canadian market. That’s a self-perpetuated mentality of this city but some of it is based in fact. Not many big ticket UFA’s sign with small-market Canadian teams in the prime of their career. The guys that do sign tend to have been drafted by the team, like Spezza.

Ryan is hard to read. He says the right things, but he doesn’t always look happy either. Maybe that’s just his style, or maybe it’s not. If MacLean can get him going again, and maybe give him a change of scenery with either Spezza or Zibanejad, that may pay off not just for this season, but down the road when he’s deciding where to play hockey. This team needs Ryan more than he needs Ottawa. They have to do everything they can to get him to stay, and making the playoffs is probably the most important thing they can do right now in that regard.

Kyle Turris is as consistent as any player on this team, as is Clarke MacArthur. You always know what you’re getting from Zack Smith and Chris Neil, and I expect them to be paired with Colin Greening a lot down the stretch. That line together is just too strong and plays a playoff brand of hockey at all times. When Greening is with Spezza, he seems to forget just how big and powerful he can be.

The defense has been much better since Cody Ceci was called up. Not that it’s all his doing, but his ability to play an offensive role has eased the pressure on the other guys and allowed everyone to play normal situations. He’s basically filled the role of Sergei Gonchar from last year, although I’m betting GM Bryan Murray was convinced it was going to be Patrick Wiercioch doing it instead. Ceci’s emergence has basically made Wiercioch expendable and I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s used as a piece to get a winger from another team. Eric Gryba has turned around his game playing with Marc Methot, making Ottawa’s defense both offensively dangerous and physically mean.

With the games meaning more and likely to get increasingly physical in preparation for the playoffs, Ottawa is in a good spot here. They always seem to play better when the games get a little nasty. They’re not the Boston Bruins or Los Angeles Kings, but the Senators are well suited to that style.

When this team tries to dangle and finesse the other team, they don’t come off so well. They have some of the personnel to do that, but not enough. They can ice a great first power-play unit but they can’t really dictate games offensively 5-on-5. Playing a physical style seems to even out some of the weaknesses on this team and just fits their spirit better. That’s what characterized the “Pesky Sens” and that’s what characterizes a lot of today’s elite NHL teams. The St. Louis Blues are a good representation of that.

If you want me to make a prediction right now, I’m going to say they make it.

I’ll predict they beat the Leafs or Penguins in the last weekend of the season and move past the Red Wings for that final wild-card spot. There’s a lot of heart on this team and they still have a flair for the dramatic. It’s just that there’s been too many nights (and many, many afternoons) where they come out flat and uninspired. I still think they need some kind of jolt in that dressing room (which has been described by some as “quiet”), and maybe a big trade could do that.

Maybe all they need is to come out Thursday and kick the crap out of the injury depleted Red Wings to send them on their way. Inspiration and momentum come in strange ways, but whatever form they take, the Senators could sure use both of those intangibles right about now.

They’re gonna need ‘em. Just like you're going to need Xanax.