26 February 2014

Back from the Olympics: an EK update.

As items on a how-to-have-a-good-time checklist, "Hang out with Daniel Alfredsson twenty-four-seven" and "Play with a defence partner who isn't Cowen-calibre" do very nicely. Erik Karlsson seemed entirely jubilant during the length of his Sochi sojourn, and even his eBay comment on his silver medal could be taken in a potentially joking interpretation. Almost in tandem with that, he was named best defenceman of the tournament. If there was ever a tangible way to measure whether predictions of EK soaring on the big ice came true, this would be good enough.

The focus now shifts back home. Questions of transitioning and trades begin to cascade once again, loosened from behind the dam that was the Olympics, and Karlsson's standout play and subsequent recognition make him a natural centrepiece for these questions. It's too far a stretch to believe that our dear Eugen Melnyk had a brainwave watching him play and suddenly understood the importance of pairing centrepiece flowers with similar blooms of complementary colours, but we still have one more day during which to fervently hope that our defence combinations have somehow magically ameliorated before our first game after the break. (It's against Alfredsson's Detroit mobster gang Red Wings, no less.)

If we all acknowledge and agree that Jared Cowen is not a suitable defence partner for Erik Karlsson, the issue becomes one of deciding what to do with Cowen, and what to do with Karlsson. There are rather specific duties that come with playing alongside Karlsson, namely covering for EK's rushes and pinches and recovering the puck securely enough to allow Karlsson to launch out of the defensive zone. It isn't the most fun or most glamourous job, as Marc Methot (who did it pretty well, too) can attest.

The Sochi experiment that put Karlsson with promising Coyotes defenceman Oliver Ekman-Larsson ended bizarrely after a productive first game; Karlsson ended the tournament with the second-most icetime overall on the team, while Ekman-Larsson wound up with the least amount of icetime among defenders save Henrik Talinder, who was in and out of the line-up. That tiny sample size does not dispute or support the idea that a similary mobile, free-wheeling defender could work with Karlsson, but unfortunately, now that he's back in Ottawa, the idea fades to a near impossibility.

At least, it's an impossibility if we turn internally, and so it makes sense that the trade speculation is rising high like a muggy fog on a highway. However, perhaps "trade wish fulfillment fantasies" is a somewhat more accurate term. It's next to impossible that Ekman-Larsson is up for grabs, considering his 6-year contract with the Phoenix Coyotes. Quality top 4 defencemen aren't available in the NHL simply because they would be playing for their teams as long as the team isn't about to embark on a fire sale. As such, there could be no other possibility than to turn internally for a few pieces to complement our Norris Trophy winner.

It's at this point that I suggest pairing Cody Ceci with Karlsson. In reality, Cowen has only about half a year to a year's worth more of experience than Ceci, given the former's injuries, and Ceci is also less hindered with franchise expectations and a loaded contract hanging over his head. Furthermore, Ceci has seen only slightly easier zone starts than Cowen, with O/Dzst percentages of 52.3% versus 50.1%. And given that Karlsson gets the easiest zone starts of all defenders except for Wiercioch, pairing Ceci with Karlsson would likely not worsen the defence overall.

But then what about Cowen? Putting him with Phillips would probably result in a penalty kill situation where pointing at a man to cover becomes the name of the game. Ideally we would have a second-pairing player, the role Sergei Gonchar played last year, who could take care of the still-growing youngsters. This prompts the suggestion of trading for a second-pair blueliner who is at least semi-competent and not over, let's say, 32 years old. (Once again I ask: exactly how did the Senators organization expect Joe Corvo to fit in?)

We might have the best defenceman in the league, but unless Bryan Murray makes a surprise move, it seems as though our D-corps may be stagnated before it hit its prime. This isn't the kind of defence a playoff-contending team would want, and Erik Karlsson can only do so much. This is all yet speculative, but once the Senators are back in the swing of the season and charging full steam ahead, it could be you-are-what-you-are time for our defence.


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