2 March 2015

Welcome back: do you recognize these Ottawa Senators?

"A break unintended is a break nonetheless." Who said these wise words? Probably no one but myself, attempting to apologize for an unintended four-month break in blogging. Fortunately, the object of your and my mutual affections has undergone quite a few changes during that course of time; there remains yet a heap-tonne of items to discuss in regards to the 2014-15 Ottawa Senators.

Take, for example, the Ottawa Senators of this past week. Is there capacity in our collective minds to grasp the sheer goodness of a team that shuts out the two better California teams on a back-to-back, one day after jet lagging their way from the East Coast, and then finishes off with a comeback win over the last California team? Take a moment to bask in the five-game winning streak that's hotter than that one day in March where almost all the snow melts and temperatures hit positive digits... because, like the day after that, the streak will likely turn cold soon. Let's look at some of the aspects that have been pushing the Sens along.

Those forward lines. Someone please check Mike Hoffman's high school report card, because he seems to know the definition of chemistry. His one million and twenty three goals (± one million) are due in some part to him being simply a good hockey player, and due in most part to being on a line with Bobby Ryan and Mika Zibanejad. The number of clean neutral-to-offensive-zone entries these three have made seem as though they should be illegal this side of the continent.

In particular, Ryan and Hoffman are similar in that both possess creativity and, by extension, a superior level of skill in puck-handling. The sheer ease with which Ryan keeps possession of the puck in the o-zone is facilitated through the usage of his body, his legs and the puck on the stick in his hands as independent, co-working parts in the machine; this allows him to almost effortlessly shy away from backcheckers, leading to self-made space on the ice and slick, slick moves that look just right on a highlights package. Hoffman's skill remains yet to be as developed as Ryan's, but can be found on display on any number of his goals scored thanks to being in the right place at the right time. As such, they end up reading off each other excellently — and this may be one of the reasons why they seem to be the few players who can accept Erik Karlsson's slap passes.

Zibanejad, as I speculated before, is much more of a north-south player who truly would rather drive through a defender rather than around. This caused trouble when he centred a line of Chiasson, who played a similar style, and Ryan; now, with Hoffman on the wing, Zibby is able to act as a more stable pivot around which Ryan and Hoffman may dance as they wish. The matching of the Erik Karlsson and Marc Methot duo with this line completes the picture-perfect line-up: Karlsson's ability to manouevre through and maximize space fits with the skill level of 68-93-6, and allows EK to optimize his offensive abilities without waste. The largely-offensive zone starts that these five are receiving signify that Coach Cameron is wise to this.

All fourth-line trios are not created equal, but if they were, it's highly probable that everyone would want theirs to look like Condra-Pageau-Lazar. If the line of Hoffman-Zibanejad-Ryan are a tip-top-shape skill trio, then 22-44-27 are the epitome of textbook checkers. They lead dump-and-chase and forecheck grinding cycle clinics in almost every shift, which nearly always translates directly into offensive zone time for the Senators. What's remarkable about them (as opposed to, say, last year's "Do you even lift?" line of Greening-Smith-Neil) is that each player can execute the textbook plays just about flawlessly. This means that:

  • cycle passes along the endboards connect, because each player is waiting in position to receive the pass;
  • pucks find their way back to the point, because the players have grinded down low long enough to allow the D to move into the zone;
  • a player is always waiting to receive the puck in the high slot, where they can then take it for another semi-circle spin below the goal line, switching spots with the original passer;
  • and, in essence, our fourth line is playing a perpetual game of "can't-touch-this" with the other team.
 You wouldn't think playing strictly by the book works, but somehow, our diminutive trio makes it so, through some of their own special chemistry — a kind of chemistry less esoteric than that of our first line, but no less effective.

The defence, good and bad. Eric Gryba may have more points than Patrick Wiercioch, but then so does Jared Cowen. And Mark Borowiecki. But wait, my point wasn't to mourn Wiercioch's lack of tangible production. The Senators have a load of bottom-four defenders whose combined weight would make for one too-large pile of manure, and their major flaw is the very one that makes up the fourth line's strength: the by-the-book plays which contribute next to nothing in advancing the puck.

There's a reason why Karlsson leads PP TOI/GP by a margin of a minute and a half (!!!) with 4:45 minutes per game next to Ryan at 3:12 per game; Wiercioch, the next defenceman on the list, is 9th at 1:57 minutes per game. With defenders relying solely on routine moves like showing off the slap shot at centre ice rather than looking for opportunity as EK does, we end up with useless or dead plays even when we do gain the offensive zone. For example, Gryba seems to have imitated Chris Phillips' (RIP) blast-in from the blue line as his go-to move (when he's not shooting the puck so failingly low off the ice that the opposing goalie doesn't see it and lets it in, obviously). Unfortunately, this kind of slap pass is futile if our forwards have not yet set up along the boards, and usually ends with a transition out of the offensive zone and straight back toward our net. Not everyone is Erik Karlsson, but surely it isn't too much to ask that our defenders learn how to wait for our forwards to set up?

Speaking of Erik Karlsson: his defensive game is inextricably linked with his offensive game, both of which run on speed, puck-/stick-handling and use of body/space. We know this. And this has been on full, glorious display in the past few games; he's been recovering his own giveaways, leading odd-man rushes and exiting his own zone multiple times on the same shift like it's no big deal. Oh, by the way, he's leading the team in icetime by a margin of five minutes and 10 seconds. Your 2014-15 Ottawa Senators: What Would We Do Without Erik Karlsson? (Let's not think about that one too hard.)

The goalie situation. With Anderson about to return and Hammond on the cusp of well-deserved super-brand-stardom (#🍔🍔🍔), the situation seems much less dire than it was a week ago. A quick note: Hammond's 1-0 shut-out over the Los Angeles Kings reminded me very strongly of three years ago, when Lehner made just his 11th NHL start against Bruins and shut them out by a score of 1-0, in Boston. It's taken young Robin over three years to stabilize, and most would argue that he's yet to reach (or find) his ceiling yet. We all know Hammond's SV% is unsustainable. So — let's think long-term. Very long-term.

Injuries. It's amazing, really, what a slew of injuries to non-important Senators like Zack Smith, Chris Neil, Jared Cowen's ego and Chris Phillips can do for your team. The Sens are currently operating in what is probably the near-optimal line-up we can get when considering the number of mediocre players inked to the franchise in the near future; even Greening fits in on the third (?) line of-slightly-inprobable-names with Chiasson and Legwand. The unfortunate sidelinings of Clarke MacArthur and Robin Lehner are, evidently, less well-boding. Has anyone a vial of Alfie essence?

One more bit: the Californian teams are incredibly physical; whilst wishing all our forwards could develop Zibanejad-esque torsos, Turris caught my eye. His capacity to skate away from checks gives one the urge to invoke a word like flow or glissade or skirr. Turris has the 4th-least amount of hits on the team; instead, what he seems to do is go with the flow. When a backchecker attempts to cross-check him to knock him off the puck, he moves in the direction of the hit, putting himself out of the would-be checker's reach, and moving the puck along with him. This not only keeps Turris from being knocked off or pinned to the board, it creates space as the backchecker collapses in and he draws in other opposing players, freeing up his linemates. Something to keep an eye on.

Are the Senators a playoff team? This blog goes on the record to say: we do not expect Ottawa to make the 2014-15 playoffs. But, as ever, we would love to be proved wrong. Do your best, Sens.


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