Monday, March 17, 2014

5 Options Bryan Murray Has To Fix The Senators


NOTE: I’ve already had some people completely misinterpret this article as a list of things I’d wish to see happen. Not even close. If you read the intro, it should be clear that these are all just options facing Bryan Murray this summer, not some kind of misanthropic manifesto calling for Spezza and Ryan to be traded away. I thought I made great pains to convey that but clearly some people just read what they want to read. Never had to do this for an article before, but anyways....


Nobody wants to revisit the horrors of Saturday night and the historic collapse against the Canadiens. Who wants to waste words on the lousy Sunday matinee against the Avalanche? Everybody knows this season is over for the Ottawa Senators (it was over in Alberta a few weeks back) and we all just want to know what GM Bryan Murray does now.

The slow march to April 13 is on for the current roster, but Murray has work to do that will last months. The choices he has to make are among the hardest for any GM. Do you hope this year was an aberration in the rebuild or do you make drastic, risky changes to get this thing back on track?

Here are five options (among many) that face Bryan Murray this summer and every single one of them could work like a magic trick or backfire like a dirty Plymouth rolling down Carp Road. I’m not saying I advocate any of these moves (in fact I disagree with many of them), but they are possibilities when a team has played as badly as Ottawa has.

So let’s get on with it:

1. Trade Bobby Ryan at the draft or this summer: A lot of Sens fans would be aghast at this scenario but it could definitely happen. The remaining two years on Ryan’s contract that the Senators inherited was seen as a rehearsal for both sides before committing marriage on a long-term deal. Ryan, who left a better situation in Anaheim where he was unhappy, holds most of the cards because he can choose where he wants to go as a UFA in the summer of 2015. If I was a betting man, I’d wager Ryan hasn’t found happiness in Ottawa just yet.

He told reporters he was excited to get a chance to play with Jason Spezza but coach Paul MacLean barely gave that combo a chance. Ryan found success with Kyle Turris early on but has faded badly since being snubbed for Team USA. He has two goals since the beginning of February and just one since the Olympic break, which happened to coincide with the most important games the Senators played all year. His linemates and ice-time have fluctuated and has never seemed like a go-to player for MacLean. Ryan is on pace for the worst full-season goal totals of his career. That won’t make for a happy player or a happy GM. And on the basis of that, the two sides must come to a contract agreement in a short-time frame. This may be headed for a separation.

If Murray doesn’t believe or knows he can’t get Ryan to sign long-term in Ottawa, he may have to move him as early as this summer. I don’t think Ryan’s value has diminished that much, but if Murray waits until his back is against the wall next season, other GM’s will know he’s desperate to get an asset back. If this isn’t going to work out – and my suspicion is that it won’t and Ryan already knows this in the back of his head – it would make sense for both sides to move on right away. Murray can get a lot for Ryan, even after a bad season. Murray can't lose Ryan for nothing considering what he gave up to get him.

If I’m wrong, and Ryan decides he likes his situation here, all the better. Guys who can score like Ryan don’t come around very often, especially to Ottawa. But if it’s not working, both sides will agree to quickly move on. To me, this is the biggest story heading into the off-season.

2. Trade Jason Spezza: This is a less likely scenario than a trade of Ryan, but it’s still a possibility. Again, it’s an expiring contract in the summer of 2015 that will force Murray’s hand one way or the other, but the value that Spezza would bring back could be tempting.

The problems with dealing Spezza are two-fold. One, he’s your captain and has been here a long-time. The fallout from losing the last player in that situation was hardly a win for the organization. Two, Turris and Mika Zibanejad don’t score enough to justify dealing your number one centre. There may be a time when Turris and Zibanejad can be a 1-2 punch down the middle but do the Senators really want to gamble a much needed-playoff berth next season on an unknown like that? No way. Getting a number one centre in return for Spezza is very unlikely. Murray, even if he is unhappy with Spezza’s first year as captain, will have to sit down and make a long-term deal with his number-one centre or pull off a magical trade that somehow doesn’t weaken this team down the middle. Good luck with that.

3. Move out second-tier, soft, underachieving forwards: To me, a huge problem with this team is that aside from the 3rd line of Chris Neil, Zack Smith and (when he feels like it) Colin Greening, this team is way too easy to play against. Spezza and Turris aren’t going to turn into Ryan Getzlaf or Mike Richards over the summer, but there are second-tier guys that Murray can possibly switch out for more competitive, gritty players. At this point, Greening is never going to be the guy that Murray or MacLean wanted him to become. He just doesn’t have a mean-streak in him despite having all the physical tools to dominate down low. He’s a serviceable third liner, but when your top offensive guys are of the more gentle nature, it doesn’t make sense to surround them with equally gentle giants. You need a mix of both types, and Greening doesn’t add anything unique to this team with the way he plays most of the time. If Murray could swap out Greening for someone with size and grit, this team would be better served.

The same goes for Milan Michalek. You have to love his speed and competitiveness but he’s not scoring anymore and doesn’t create much physical room out there for skill guys like Spezza and Ales Hemsky. He’s UFA this summer (like Hemsky) and is unlikely to be back anyways, so the Senators would love to have a big, physical winger in his spot next season. Easier said than done, but Murray will try to get bigger up front this summer.

Erik Condra is a little trickier because he’s a good penalty-killer, but the PK has been terrible all year, weakening his status on the team. Again, with a lot of smaller players ending up on the 4th line this year, like Condra, J.G. Pageau and Stephane Da Costa, it doesn’t seem to make sense in a league that rewards size. I like Condra, but I wonder if he'll be a casualty of change. I wouldn’t say this team is getting pushed around the way they were before they had to acquire the behemoth Matt Kassian, but they are getting outmuscled and outcompeted in both the defensive and offensive zones which comes down to compete level. This has to change but without sacrificing this team’s offensive wealth. Not easy to do.

4. Change the defense core: Of all the options I’ve gone over, I think this would be the most difficult to do. The Sens set themselves up nicely with their top-4 thanks to the draft and trading Nick Foligno for Marc Methot a few years ago, but this year has been a disaster defensively.

Jared Cowen has taken most of the heat but giving up on a guy like that would be a poor decision after just one lousy season. You can see the faith this team has in Cowen to eventually turn it around and they have to stick to that plan now or watch him develop into a shut-down defender with another team. Cody Ceci has come in and shown he can provide secondary offense to Erik Karlsson. Methot has had a tough season but he’s still the most reliable defender they have, along with the retained Chris Phillips. On paper, this is a defense core that can grow together for the next five seasons and become elite. On the ice right now, they can’t pull their heads out of their asses for five minutes at a time.

It’s frustrating but I can’t see Murray moving any of the core players back there. There’s just too much potential in them as a group. Rather, look for Patrick Wiercioch to be moved because Ceci has stolen his spot, and for Mark Borowiecki to challenge Eric Gryba as this team’s most physical defenseman. Gryba gets a lot of rope from the coaching staff because they don’t have much meanness or size back there, but Borowiecki will be gunning for his spot next October. I would be surprised to see a major move back there but you never know.

Which brings us to the nuclear option:

5. Change the coaching staff: Don’t believe for a second that MacLean is going anywhere. He just signed a new deal, has a Jack Adams from a year ago and works for a GM that had to fire 3 coaches in a span of a few years. MacLean’s job is safe, no matter how you think he performed this season (and there are some very harsh opinions on that as you all know).

The more likely change could come in the assistant’s chairs. Against Colorado on Sunday, some astute observers noted that Dave Cameron was now working with the defensemen and Mark Reeds was working with the forwards. I don’t remember seeing that mid-season before, but when MacLean was asked after the game about the role switching, he muttered a terse “No comment.”

Now rumours are going to start about the safety of both Reeds and Cameron. It might be a positive change to shakeup the staff and would avoid the organizational trauma of changing the head man. The players would have a fresh voice in their ears and that might be all that’s needed. There’s lots of great coaches out there without a gig (how about former Sens assistants Perry Pearn or Craig Ramsey?) and a guy in Binghamton, Luke Richardson, who already has the respect of a lot of young players and old alike on this team. Some might call this move “tinkering” but assistants have a lot more responsibility and say than they did even 10 years ago. The effect they have can’t be trivialized just because they work without much scrutiny by the media and fans.

NOTE: To correct the record, it was revealed today that assistant coach Mark Reeds will be undergoing a medical procedure in the coming days. Clearly, the shuffling of coaching roles was related to this health issue. Our thoughts are with Mark Reeds and his family as he gets through this ordeal. ***

We could probably find 10 more big options Murray has this summer but I’ve already committed too many words to this team that can hardly find the commitment to play 60 hard minutes a night.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

On Jason Spezza ... And Other Underdogs

Someone I was talking to recently said, rather matter-of-factly, that the Senators should have traded Jason Spezza at the deadline and gotten him out of town. When I politely disagreed, he seemed shocked.

Not that someone would disagree with him, but that I disagreed with him.

“But I thought you only liked tough guys?”

For some reason I’ve gotten that reputation in the Sens small but fiercely opinionated online community and maybe that’s my own fault. When someone slags Chris Neil or Matt Kassian (and that happens about once every 2.7 seconds according to Stats Can), I’m sometimes the only one with anything contrary to say. In a way it’s made me a pariah, or a bit of a black sheep, but I’m fine with that.

Many take the leap of logic that because I see value in a player like Chris Neil, I must dislike skilled hockey players, which is ridiculous if you know me. I grew up in the 80’s worshipping the Edmonton Oilers and Steve Yzerman. Jason Spezza and Erik Karlsson are part of a small handful of players I’d pay to see.

My vision of great hockey is high-scoring, end-to-end play with tiny goalie equipment and a harsh crackdown on obstruction.

I love the shootout for crissakes.

But I also love the hits and the fights and the drama that a little violence brings to the game. To me, hockey at its best is an opera of speed, skill and violence that hearkens back to a less sensitive age, when people could separate entertainment from moral hang-ups and just enjoy the tradition of the game. I realize those days are over, but I cling to it stubbornly because I can.

It’s the same with rock ‘n’ roll. I prefer the danger of Iggy and the Stooges in the 70’s to the corporate, nice-kids feel of Arcade Fire in 2014 (although I’ll be at that show this Friday - not in formal wear as the ticket suggests). The NHL is moving into safe indie-rock territory where it strives to offend no-one.

But that’s a terrible, uncalled-for digression. Let’s get back to Jason Spezza.

Just look at the title of this blog.

It was symbolic to me when I started this thing back in 2007 that the title Black Aces represented the underdog. That underdog label over the years has, to me at least, covered a wide range of players, from stars to 4th-liners.

When the whole city was intent on running Ray Emery out of town with a sort of indignant hysteria, I was on here defending him. When Dany Heatley was being excoriated, I took his side over Cory Clouston and got nothing but daggers for it. I don’t want any medals here, but when that many fans get onto one side of an argument, it creates a herd-mentality and that basically precludes any rational thought on the subject.

Even if I’m wrong sometimes, I take satisfaction in defending a player that gets almost unanimous scorn. Twitter is a big playground full of anonymous bullies who can say vile, moronic things and not be held accountable, mostly because everyone tends to agree with the person saying the most jaded, mean-spirited and post-ironic things disguised as “analysis”.

Which brings us to Jason Spezza, easily the most divisive player in Sens history.

He’s a throwback to an earlier time when offensive players were allowed to try plays seemed to have been concocted by a group of drunk coaches trying to one-up each other. He’s got an “aw-shucks” demeanour and a teenager’s laugh. His hunched over skating style makes him look slow when he's trying to backcheck.

In short, he doesn’t fit any kind of prototype in the modern NHL. Yet here he is at 30 years old with 674 points in 671 career games, wearing the captain’s C for your Ottawa Senators, the same team that has made the playoffs in 8 out of the 11 years he’s been here.

And still, all fans can say is they “want more”. Some call him the “second-line centre”. He’s in trade rumours all the time. You’d think this guy was a bum if your entire hockey education was based on post-game call-in shows.

Yet, I like the guy.

I don’t want to turn this into another stats argument and point to a bunch of numbers. We all know they’re good.

It’s something more indefinable. I just like his strange ways, the fact that no coach has ever been able to fully marginalize his thinking or bend him into something he’s not. Spezza is a guy who likes to play hockey the way he did as a kid, and to me that’s more entertaining than almost anyone in the NHL.

It seems like every player makes moves on a “beat”. As a viewer you can count off two Mississippi’s from the time a winger crosses the blueline to the time he’ll take the shot or peel back to create room. Everyone knows the “beats” but it just comes down to how fast one player is over the other whether a play is ultimately successful. In Spezza’s case, he’s off the beat. It’s like he’s playing with an out-of-tune guitar but bends the strings into the right tone when he’s feeling it, or into atonal squalls when he’s not.

To me, there’s nothing better to watch in Ottawa right now than when Spezza blows some minds on a play. Maybe Erik Karlsson when he rushes up the ice like a madman, but we see that every single night. When Spezza does something truly magical, it lights up that Kanata rink with awe, the same way a huge Neil hit can, the same way Daniel Alfredsson used to with that rifle of a shot on the power-play.

There’s a way to win with big, prototype, defensively perfect players, but that’s not always as entertaining. You still need those guys who have a little personality on the ice and the ability to piss off a strategist like Ken Hitchcock. A guy who until a few years ago used a wooden stick is that kind of player ... my kind of player.

From watching so much bland, defensive hockey since the Devils won the Stanley Cup in 1995, I’ve come to appreciate entertainment just as much as winning hockey. Spezza is unique in that he can deliver both. Not all fans see it that way, but more and more I think he’s poised to lead this team to a better fate in the coming years.

If we’re talking underdogs, Spezza is the biggest of them all right now.

And that’s just the kind of player I’d like to see prove people wrong.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Black Aces vs. Trade Deadline Day... Full Sens Analysis

A busy day for the Senators that started wobbly with Cory Conacher getting picked up on waivers by the Buffalo Sabres, but things brightened up (for some) with the announcement of a new Chris Phillips contract and a trade for Alex Hemsky from the Oilers. It’s been a busy day for me as well, so let’s get right into it, move by move.

Cory Conacher Claimed On Waivers

There were a lot of upset people on Twitter yesterday with news of Conacher being on waivers, and even more anger when he was picked up by former Sens assistant-GM Tim Murray in Buffalo today at noon. The screaming is understandable from a lot of angles, especially in light of Ben Bishop dominating in Tampa Bay, but I think it’s all a little overblown.

First, does the thought of Conacher in a Sabres uniform really put a scare into Sens fans? I don’t think so. I like Conacher’s feistiness in front of the net and his courage on the ice, but the Senators aren’t losing a key player here.

If it wasn’t for the fact he was moved for Bishop, Conacher would have been out of the lineup or waived a lot faster than he was. It just didn’t work out for him here. At least GM Bryan Murray has essentially admitted his mistake and isn’t going to force the organization to pay over and over again by forcing a player who doesn’t fit on the team just because the GM’s pride is on the line. Murray blew that trade and he knows it. Now it’s time to move on. As some pointed out on Twitter today, Murray robbed Phoenix out of Kyle Turris – you win some, you lose some. The point is not to let the ones you lose distract you from going forward.

Second, there seems to be a recurring complaint that the Senators could have gotten at least a late draft pick for Conacher instead of losing him for nothing. I’d share that complaint if it was realistic. If somebody was willing to part with a pick, Murray would have gotten it. To think that Murray didn’t try to move Conacher before waiving him is nonsensical. Of course he did. Waivers are always a last-resort. The trouble is, teams like their draft picks and they also like free players. A lot of guys make it to waivers because nobody wants to part with an asset for them.

But if they’re free? Sure, a lot of teams will take a chance on a free player. That’s what Tim Murray did on Conacher and wasn’t about to part with a pick in a rebuilding situation. If Conacher was as valuable as a lot of Sens fans think he was, Murray would have had no trouble moving him.

Third, Conacher is a pending RFA next season. With his game being so up and down, mostly down, how do you determine what kind of contract he gets? His short career has been so uneven that it makes for a headache just trying to figure it out. That’s one less contract negotiation for Murray and opens the door further to players like Mark Stone, Mike Hoffman, Shane Prince, Matt Puempel and Jean-Gabriel Pageau among others. All of the above are better prospects, in my mind at least, than Cory Conacher is.

Fans feel like all young players are precious cargo and flinch when one is cast off, especially in the manner that Conacher was. Truth is, a lot of them just don’t work out. When you have so many in the system, as Ottawa does, you have to make judgements quicker in order not to stall the progress of others. When one doesn’t work out, you part ways and give their spot to the next guy. That’s what Ottawa did here with Conacher and I think it was the right move, despite how bad it looks with Bishop.

Ales Hemsky Trade

Great move when you consider how little Bryan Murray had to give up to get the slick winger from the Oilers. A 5th round pick in this year’s (weak) draft and a 3rd rounder in 2015, while the Oilers also pick up half of what Hemsky is owed for the remainder of this season.

For that modest sum, the Senators get a highly-skilled winger to play with Jason Spezza for at least the stretch-run as they desperately try to get back into the playoffs. Even if things don’t work out in that regard, they get a good look at what Hemsky can do, see if there’s chemistry with #19 and have first crack at contract negotiations with him before Hemsky becomes an unrestricted free agent in July.

If Ottawa likes Hemsky and can get him signed (and they’ll have the cap room and possibly the budget to do it), that allows them to avoid the summer UFA season looking to fix the same old vacancy next to Spezza. The Senators have had rental players before, but Hemsky is a little different due to his age (30) and game-breaking talent. This isn’t Matt Cullen, Mike Comrie or Peter Bondra. They can now work him with Spezza for 20 games and I’m betting Hemsky will grow to like that very quickly.

You can also think of a possible Hemsky deal as a hedge against Bobby Ryan or Clarke MacArthur possibly leaving as UFA’s in 2015. With deals for Spezza, Ryan, MacArthur, Craig Anderson and Marc Methot expiring in the summer of ‘15, there’s going to be change on the way no matter how optimistic you are. Signing Hemsky might mitigate some of that upheaval. He would also be an instant replacement for fellow Czech Milan Michalek who is expected to leave this summer as a free agent. Of course, Hemsky might have his mind set on picking a sunny locale after living through winters similar to what Norwegians call “the long dark tunnel”. Would you blame him?

On the negative side, if it doesn’t work out and they can’t get Hemsky to sign, they’ve given up very little and might be able to recoup those draft picks in other deals. Bottom line is they grabbed a top-6 forward looking for a fresh start and didn’t give up a single prospect in their system. They even got a discounted salary. Eugene Melnyk will be happy with that, as Hemsky not only gives this team a much better chance to realize some playoff revenues this season, but he’s dirt cheap during his audition.

Hemsky has been locked away in the basement of Edmonton for so long that Ottawa will seem like a new lease on life for him. That could go a long way to making him want to stay and Murray would look pretty good getting Hemsky’s signature on a contract.

Chris Phillips Re-Signs For Two Years

This was a deal that just had to get done for a number of reasons. Phillips took a little less money overall to get that 2nd year on the deal ($2.5 million per, down from his current $3m salary) but the compromise from both sides of the table will help this team in the short and long-term.

Phillips is, along with Methot, this team’s most dependable defensive D-man and is usually paired with young defensemen new to the league, whether it’s Jared Cowen, Eric Gryba or, currently, Cody Ceci. The Senators have to love what they’re seeing from Ceci so far this season, like his courage to make plays far up the ice which we saw on one of his goals in Vancouver last weekend. A lot of that confidence comes from playing with a steady figure like Phillips.

The struggles of Cowen and Patrick Wiercioch probably forced Murray’s hand with Phillips, but there’s also something telling me that Murray wanted no part of losing another community icon like “Big Rig” after what happened with Daniel Alfredsson this past summer. You can tell how popular and beloved Phillips is in that dressing room as well. Trading a guy like that would have been tough for everybody. In the end, the Senators get Phillips for a bargain compared to what he would have gotten as a free agent.

And when Phillips surpasses Alfredsson for the all-time games played as a Senator next season, the organization will have a feel-good story that will go a long way in erasing some past mistakes that may or may not have anything to do with old #11.


In a minor move, Joe Corvo, who cleared waivers today, was loaned to the Chicago Wolves of the AHL for the remainder of the season. That clears a bit of a jam on defense and now the Senators have just 7 defenseman on the roster which is a bit more comfortable for everyone. It’s tough to see two scratches every night on D, and Corvo has been the forgotten man back there. I thought Corvo was fine in his sporadic starts and could have played more, but coach Paul MacLean didn’t trust him and that’s good explanation enough for me. Corvo might have deserved a better fate, as did Conacher, but whoever said the NHL was fair?