29 January 2014

Playing the rookies and the Sens' line combos

Even though Ottawa’s been one of the luckiest teams this season in regards to injuries, it still feels as though we’re playing too many rookies every game. This is mostly true on the back end, where only two players out of six any game are older than twenty-five years of age; among the forwards, the invasion of Rookie Noobness varies widely depending on how high Paul MacLean has set his blender on, along with the degree of blindness to which he’s turned to certain With Or Without You statistics for certain forwards.

Probably the biggest change among the rookie line-up is the pre-emptive (non-literal) demise of Mark Stone. The hole on Jason Spezza’s wing was starting to resemble player #61 somewhat clearly, complete with glittery intangible “chemistry” and all, before Stone was hurt in practise. (Sigh.) The once-again vacant hole in the lines got St├ęphane Da Costa called up, but not to play with Spezza; instead, MacLean decided to utilize another centre by plopping him in with Neil.

Now, it’s pretty much a ritual by now for AHL players to pass through the horrible rites of Surviving Being On A Line with Chris Neil. But Da Costa is probably a lot farther than most call-ups from the grinding purpose of the fourth line given his stature and reputed skill set; it’s impossible to imagine that the organization envisions that as his permanent role.

There seems to be two possibilities for Da Costa right now: either the Sens are showcasing him in hopes of moving him as a piece in a trade, or he’s been called up to plug a temporary hole and will most likely be back in Binghamton much sooner than later. His two goals last night showed he can be somewhat effective when playing with actually good hockey players, which aids his case in the former situation but makes the latter harder. Regardless, at the moment it’s possible that he might be good enough to enable some line-shuffling and get Colin Greening off Spezza’s wing.

(Greening is by no means a rookie, considering his previous two full seasons. But his WOWY numbers with Captain Jason are the lowest of a rather dismal set of figures when it comes to Spezza, and looking at his average possession numbers, it’s more and more clear that he is unable to drive possession the way his same-age, same-#-of-games-played teammate Erik Condra does. Putting Condra on Spezza’s wing might actually give us more goals, just from the ability to stay out of the defensive zone and in the offensive zone which Condra will give Spezza.)

So it’s official for Cody Ceci: he’s staying with the big club. Congrats to him! …Except his numbers haven’t been exactly better than Wiercioch's or Corvo's, either of which is sitting any night to make room for Ceci. Granted, he’s been playing with Chris Phillips (a crazy 60.8% of the time), who is 18 years older than him. At this point, though, there’s no one else on the team that can make Ceci better, not while Methot and Corvo remain the only other veterans. Wiercioch and Gryba round out the Youthfully Chubby Cheekfest going on at the blueline, and there are actually no three-pair D combinations available to the Sens right now that won’t make you squirm uncomfortably unless you sit Cowen:

Karlsson – Methot / Wiercioch – Phillips / Ceci – Corvo

That’s the rookie-veteran pairing structure right there, but I don't think there will be much disagreement if I say that the only true top-4 defenceman is EK65. Our rookies are young, and the only real way to average out the inexperience is by trade, which is always a more cumbersome solution pathway than letting the rookies develop themselves.

To end on an upbeat note: Mika Zibanejad is basically Boy Wonder at this point. Though he's only in his second season as well, his game seems to have evolved perfectly for the NHL level. He seems comfortable playing any kind of role, from Spezza's wing to an "energy" third line with Michalek and Conacher, bringing a startling balance of physicality and puck skill to whatever line he's put on. A year ago, I would not have imagined Zibanejad becoming the player he is today. And it's a very good thing.


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