Sunday, November 25, 2007

Quarter-Pole Grades

I've tried doing different formats before, but this time I'll keep it simple, with letter grades.

Daniel Alfredsson - A+
Hopefully I made my thoughts quite clear in the article entitled "Daniel Alfredsson is the best player in the NHL". Accordingly, he's also the best player on the best line on the best team in hockey. Alfredsson is unequivocally the most valuable player on the Senators, the heart and soul of this team, and his contributions are irreplaceable. Powerplay, penalty kill, even strength, playmaking, sniping, defending, leading his team - he does it all, and he does it better than anybody else in the league. Alfredsson has been on a tear for nearly a full calendar year now, and though the recent groin injury kept him out of a game, he seems cleared for Wednesday and should be all systems go to lead his team back to invincibility.

Dany Heatley - A
Alfredsson aside, Heatley has been Ottawa's most consistent and reliable forward by far. He seems determined this year to flesh out his game, to evolve beyond his limited role as Spezza's triggerman. While he's hardly perfect, and there is still room for improvement, he has shown improved skating, physical play, take-charge leadership on the ice, and playmaking. His defensive game at even strength has lacked focus, but he has adapted well to a newfound role on the penalty kill. Often overlooked is that he is in the top tier of leaders in ice time, and that he can play 26 minutes or more per night without wearing down. Without really understanding Heatley's game, he can look a little indolent on the ice, but his offensive contributions are incomparable. The sniper, playmaker, or simply the body on the ice who draws attention and creates room for his linemates - Heatley's role on this team is underestimated and I think we'd have almost as difficult a time finding wins without him as we do without Alfredsson and Redden. Fortunately, Heatley has not missed a game since early 2004, so it's not a plight the Senators are familiar with.

Spezza - A-
Unfortunately, the world-beating Spezza we saw in preseason downgraded to the merely elite Spezza once the season began. He's had a journey of a season to start, beginning with his seemingly endless quest to find a goal, then an ever extending injury, then something of a slump (2 mediocre games is a slump for Spezza, isn't it?), then a seemingly endless quest to find his second goal (the third one didn't take quite as long to obtain, it turns out). There hasn't been much development on the Spezza front, sadly. The improvements he displayed in the preseason - improved skating, speed and agility - seem to have fallen by the wayside, though it's still early days and the groin injury surely had an impact. Even the commitments from late last season - better defensive awareness, a pride in being reliable in his own zone, a willingness to shoot and keep defenders honest, avoiding the pass-only mentality- have not been present in his game of late, at least not to the degree I'd find favourable. However, this takes nothing away from what he is bringing to the table. After a couple games adjustment upon return from injury, Spezza began to make his impact. The anemic powerplay began not only generating momentum, but offense (finally!). Heatley ended his scoring drought, conveniently, when Spezza returned. Spezza and his linemates singlehandedly won us a game against Montreal; he and his linemates also kept us in games against Buffalo, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. It is no secret that the team has learnt to function without Spezza, but no one can replace his offensive zone wizardry.

Fisher - B
Inevitably I'll feel I'm being unfairly harsh, but here goes. Fisher is our second line centre. Who cannot generate offense unless he has one of the best players in the NHL on his line. What gives? I'm all for spreading offense, and love the chemistry Fisher has with Alfredsson, and with Heatley, going so far as to advocate he play with the latter full-time. But all the players mentioned but Fisher can generate on their own. Even Vermette and Kelly have had the majority of their goals come either through individual effort, or opportunities with fellow third liners. We can't really say the same about Fisher. He is on pace for 18 goals. The other stuff - the intensity, physical and defensive play, it's usually there on a consistent basis, and that's why he's receiving a favourable grade. But for our second line pivot to be practically incapable of generating offense on his own accord - it's slightly worrying.

Vermette - B
Most of my issues with Vermette are merely with his use. He is perhaps our most creative forward outside of the big three. He is defensive responsible, almost to fault in the eyes of the coaching staff, apparently. He can play any forward position, can slide in on any line, though he has made it clear he would like more offensive responsibility. And yet Paddock sees fit to play Robitaille in Vermette's stead on the second power play unit. Paddock is enough a fan of Vermette's offensive abilities that he is the team's first choice shootout option, but he won't allow Vermette to work that creativity on the powerplay. Eaves, Fisher, Robitaille, Neil, and McAmmond have all received first unit power play time with Heatley and Spezza at some point over the past season. Why not Vermette?

Kelly - B
The hands of stone make my nights awfully frustrating with infuriating regularity, but other than that, Kelly is money. Kelly plays smart, safe, and effective.

Neil - C
Robitaille - C
Donovan - B
McAmmond - B
McGrattan - B
Schubert - C

Phillips - A
Volchenkov - A
Redden - B+
Meszaros - B+
Corvo - C
Richardson - C

Gerber - A
Emery - C-

Explanations to follow.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Daniel Alfredsson is the best player in the NHL

To preface, there are plenty of NHLers who could lay a very legitimate claim to being the best player in the league at present. A player like Mats Sundin defies age and an inadequate supporting cast to slot among the league's leaders; Ilya Kovalchuk has reclaimed his position as the league's top goalscorer and is currently carrying a hopeless team back to respectability, even as his teammates don't seem to be that interested. Sidney Crosby, of course, has refound his offensive touch and it can't be argued last season's Hart winner and Art Ross recipient has lost any of his passion or creativity. Joe Sakic, while not burning up the stats sheet like others, provides the leadership and clutch play required of any superior player. Henrik Zetterberg, perhaps the greatest competition of all, has supplemented scoring dominance with some of the best defensive play in the league, continuing his torrid pace from last season.

And while all of the above might be superior to Ottawa Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson on the stats sheet (if only by a measly point or two), it is hard to think of a player in the league who possesses all the qualities required of a great player, more than Alfredsson. Kovalchuk might be a better sniper, Sakic might be far more experienced, Sundin might be a more effective physical presence, but no one at present embodies all attributes more fully and completely than the Senators captain.

At the time of writing, Daniel Alfredsson is second in the league in goalscoring, and tied for third in points. He is third in the league in ice time among forwards. He leads the league in several statistical categories, including shorthanded goals and points. He leads the Ottawa Senators in every quantifiable fashion, from goals to post-game 3 star selections. While he began last season sluggishly, recording only one goal in his first month of play, it is no surprise that his revival coincided with the end of his team's slump. By the time of the Spezza injury in late 2006, Alfredsson was back on track and quickly earned player of the week honours, the start of a resurgence that would see his team recorded the best record for the second half of the season. He lead the Stanley Cup playoffs in goals and points, and was the odds on favourite to win the Conn Smythe should his team have won. In the 78 games he has played in 2007 (including playoffs), Alfredsson has recorded 46 goals and 55 assists for 101 points. If the preseason were included, the numbers jump to 51 goals, 57 assists, 108 points, in 81 games. He is on pace to finish in the top 10 in NHL scoring for the third time in four seasons, and to not only crack the 50 goal mark for the first time but obliterate it.

Offensively, there is simply little to criticize about Alfredsson this season. Even on a team with elite superstars like Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza, it is Alfredsson who leads the attack, who organises the entry into the opposition zone, who quaterbacks the powerplay from the point, the half-wall, the hashmarks - really, anywhere the coach wants him to be. It is he, not elite sniper in Dany Heatley or star playmaker Jason Spezza, who is counted on for the tying or go-ahead goal. More importantly, he provides it. When the team needs a spark, a clutch goal there isn't just a hope and a prayer that Alfredsson could, maybe, possibly provide it. He does it, and he's done it from the first drop of the puck October 3rd in Toronto to the final buzzer at Scotiabank Place this afternoon. And he'll do it again, and again, and again.

If offense were all that Alfredsson could provide, perhaps the argument might end there. Instead, he is also among the league's elite defensive players. If the Selke consideration year after year isn't convincing, his play this year certainly should be. At even-strength, he is the first forward back in the zone, and never stops hustling. Senators coach John Paddock matches strength against strength, and as such Alfredsson is expected to defend the league's best, matching up against the Ovechkins and Jagrs and Kovalchuks. While you might expect a poor +/- because of the dangerous (some might even say, unstoppable) stars he is forced to face, Alfredsson instead was second in the league in plus/minus last season, and is +8 so far this year. He plays a pivotal role on a top 10 penalty kill, turning it from a nail-biting opportunity for the opposition to capitalise, into an advantage from the Senators. Even if he doesn't score shorthanded (which he often does, by the way - he leads the league in short handed goals with 3 so far), he's being aggressive, putting the opposition on their heels, making them look over their shoulder, hesitate. He generates momentum just by stepping on the ice. Alfredsson is the first-choice forward to defend 5-on-3s, even though he is not a centreman, even though the team boasts Kelly and Vermette and Fisher and McAmmond, all peerless penalty killers in their own right.

Not only does Alfredsson play in all three situations, he does it more often then all but two forwards in the league. After Tampa Bay forwards Martin St. Louis and Brad Richards, Alfredsson leads all attackers in ice time, averaging 23:27 per game. Early in the season he was relied upon more heavily; while his ice time lowered as the team sorted out its line combinations enough to roll four with regularity, in the absence of #1 pivot Jason Spezza, Alfredsson has stepped up further. Against the Canadiens, Alfredsson logged almost 27 minutes; a handful for a defenseman, let alone a 34-year old forward. Still, it's no surprise. Alfredsson has consistently been among the top 10 in forwards for icetime, a fact that is routinely overlooked when assessing his impact on each and every Senators result (which, lately, has been a whole whack of victories).

Equally overlooked when assessing Alfredsson is his ability to be a catalyst. When Alfredsson is shuffled down to the second line, it is to provide a more balanced attack, as Fisher tends to score more when placed with Alfredsson. In fact, most players do. When the team is trailing and the top line is not clicking, it is Alfredsson who is moved around, not Heatley or Spezza. This is not a punishment to Alfredsson, or an approval of Heatley/Spezza's play. Quite the opposite. The coach simply knows that his other lines need a boost, and Alfredsson will inevitably provide it. Place Alfredsson on Heatley and Spezza's wing, and you have the best line in hockey. Place Alfredsson with Chris Kelly, and you've got yourself a 140 point player. Put Alfredsson with Vermette, or McAmmond, and you find instant chemistry. Put Alfredsson with Todd White, or Bryan Smolinski, or Magnus Arvedson, and you can fool yourself into thinking you've got more than scrubs. He makes poor offensive players competent; he makes star players elite. Alfredsson is the heart of the Senators offense, whatever line he's on, whoever he plays with.

Then there is leadership. While Alfredsson has had his knocks over the years, well documented, his leadership in 2007 is unquestionable, and anybody who opposes is simply misinformed. In late 2006, with his underperforming Senators reeling, Alfredsson rallied the troops. He identified his leadership core, assembled them, and laid it out bare - if the Senators did not improve their play on the ice, their commitment to team defense specifically, this team would not make the playoffs. Past accolades, pre-season projections, talent, none of it matter a lick. And he made another thing quite clear to his peers Heatley, Phillips, Fisher and Redden - if those five, Alfredsson included, weren't the ones to pick up the team by the bootstraps, nothing would improve. And so, following Alfredsson's lead both on the ice and off, the team rallied to a dominant second half, before storming through the Eastern Conference playoffs on the back of the captain. In game 5 against Anaheim, as the Cup drifted ever further out of reach, Alfredsson refused to give up, notching a marker. Even as Senators defenseman Chris Phillips responded by knocking the puck into his own net to put the Senators further behind, Alfredsson let his effort on the ice speak for itself. Shorthanded, Alfredsson fought through a mauling Ryan Getzlaf the length of the ice to pocket a goal over JS Giguere's shoulder. The look on his face afterward said it all - win or lose, Alfredsson was not going to go down without fighting, and he wouldn't accept his team to do otherwise.

Early in the 2007-08 season, as Senators GM Bryan Murray painlessly locked up his future core, all three of the major signings (Fisher, Heatley, and Spezza) identified the presence of Alfredsson, for the next few seasons at least, as a key reason why they were committed to remaining in Ottawa. The little things Alfredsson does as a leader are rarely noticeable. According to reputation, he's not one for pre-game speeches or intermission rallying cries. He acts by example on the ice, never giving a drop less than complete effort. While there have been criticisms of a too-quiet Senators locker room in the past (accurate or not? we fans will never know), but there have been revelations of late that indicate Alfredsson is getting vocal. With the Senators coming out flat in 2 consecutive games for the first time all season, and only a period remaining to wrest control of a still in reach game against Montreal, Alfredsson stood up in the Senators room and demanded more effort from his players. They delivered, of course, but it was mostly the effort of Alfredsson that made the difference. He is measured with his words, perhaps, but Daniel Alfredsson's on-ice leadership speaks for itself.

I pretend no lack of bias. I've seen every Senators game for the last number of years, and much as I try to pay attention to the other teams in the league, I won't pretend for an instance I watch enough of their games to truly notice the immeasurable contributions of all players league-wide. Like all passionate hockey fans, I have a place in my heart for the captain of my team, and it no doubt colours my viewpoint. But I see what I see, and in 2007, there is no better all-around player in my estimation than Daniel Alfredsson.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Heatley should play with Fisher

First off, besides maybe St. Louis and Lecavalier or Cheechoo and Thornton, it can hardly be argued that any duo in the league has better chemistry than Heatley and Spezza. Spezza is a #2 or #3 set-up man, and Heatley is a #1 and #2 sniper. They feed off each other like no other, and probably put up better numbers than either player ever will playing with any other player. But Heatley is a player who adapts to his linemates. We all know that when he plays with Spezza, he floats and disappears, then appears out of nowhere to strike. From an offensive perspective, there is perhaps no better strategy - witness him leading the league in goals since the lockout, and coming fourth in points. Including the playoffs, only Joe Thornton has scored more points than Dany Heatley over the past three seasons.

But as we witnessed in the Finals, perhaps we need a bit more versatility, physicality and visible competitiveness from a player who will be our highest paid man and go-to guy over the next half-decade. Can he bring this added edge with Spezza? Possibly, but the only time he's ever done it consistently was during Spezza's injury last season. During that time, he adjusted to playing without Spezza and became the catalyst on his line, instead of a passenger.

So far in 2007-08, he's only played two games without Spezza, and I can't say he's been any more dominant or noticeable than usual outside of his offensive numbers. But offensively, with Robitaille and Fisher as his centres, he's marked 1 goal and 3 assists over that time.

The thing is, Heatley has a tendency to mimick the style of his linemates. Spezza plays a finesse, pass-heavy, offensive-minded style that looks for the perfect goal. Fisher plays a physical, speedy, forecheck-minded game that's more intent on maintaining pressure and possession than making the highlight reels, and is equally content to drive the net and get garbage goals. With our mind this season, not so much on obliterating the opposition offensively, but instead preparing for the hard work, pressure and physical presence that will be required for the post-season, I think it's in everyone's best interest if, perhaps, Heatley is centered by Fisher at ES. They're already 4-on-4 partners, and have shown great chemistry in the limited time they've had together. Playing with Fisher this season, Heatley netted the OT goal against Toronto, the PP goal tonight against Boston (Fisher was a distraction in front of the net), and set up Fisher's game-winner tonight. Last season, Fisher was stellar in the two games he played centering Heatley and Alfredsson against the Isles and Flyers around Christmas, before going down to injury.

Heatley just seems to have a different mindset when he plays without Spezza. More hustle, more relentless at both ends of the ice, a better playmaker, and just generally more involved in the game. He could still play with Spezza on the PP (although, even with a small sample size, perhaps he's better suited to play with Fisher there too, considering the team's poor PP to start the season!), but maybe it's finally time to fully investigate whether splitting up the duo is not in the best interest of the team. It's been talked about, it's even been done for a period in February and a game in June, but maybe it's time to get Heatley in the playoff mindset and have him focused, not on the hat-trick, not on the Rocket Richard, but on mimicking the intensity of a centreman like Fisher and bringing that all-around, two-way, ferocious-on-the-forecheck game we've only seen glimpses of in the past.

Heatley is going to be one of the highest paid players in the league, and the highest paid in the league. We can settle for him being a "mere" one-way forward who leads the league in goals and competes for the Art Ross. This is hardly a bad thing. But we've got a guy who has potential to be a beast, so let's groom him to be just that. Put him into the full-time PK rotation, change his ES mentality by putting him with a player like Fisher, and give him the opportunity to be a Hart challenger and the guy who will lead us to a Cup, instead of merely an amazing, but secondary, contributor.

The impact this will have on Fisher should be considered as well. Fisher is now our second line centre in all manners now, even if he has been our #4 forward in terms of ice-time over the last few seasons, he is expected to increase his offensive output with his increased paycheck. However, without providing him with superior players to those who he has played with over the years, where is this extra offense magically supposed to come from? If he gets to play with a guy like Heatley, who will alter his focus to become a playmaker instead of simply a sniper, Fisher doesn't have to be the primary set-up man on his line. Heatley can set him up for his great shot unlike any player (beside Alfredsson) who Fisher will have the opportunity to play with. You want Fisher to get 30 goals, 60-70 points, putting him with a Heatley-calibre player will give him a far better shot than Foligno and Neil.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Re: Ottawa Sun Design Contest

The Ottawa Sun ran a contest over the past couple weeks encouraging entrants to conjure up new and improved designs for the Senators jerseys. The contest itself seemed pretty silly, but I had seen a few fantastic designs floating around the internet at sites like, so I had high hopes. Unfortunately you had to pick up a paper to see the winning design along with the runners up and the honourable mentions, but suffice it to say, I would definitely support a team that had a hand-drawn Spartacat (aka the hobo lion) as its main logo. Others were just as, um, interesting.

Just wanted to put that out there. Hopefully someone can scan a copy.

Friday, October 19, 2007

With Emery expected to, finally, make his first start of the young NHL season tomorrow night against the Florida Panthers, it seemed an opportune time to weigh in on the Senators' goaltending situation. Note I fail to use the terms controversy, or dilemma, or problem, for presence of two capable Senators netminders is hardly something to fret over. But while the situation is nothing but win-win from a fan's perspective, regardless of whether one goaltender gets the majority of the starts, they platoon, or one is traded, these possibilities do present some interesting consequences.

It is impossible to know which solution is best, of course, until Emery suits up for his first full game since game five of the Stanley Cup Final, a game which is distant in the memories of some but far too clear in the minds of others. And for still others, the 50-some preceding games in which Emery lifted this team from its worst slump in reason memory to the best second-half record in the NHL, matters far more. And so it should.

But with only a period of action in the near-five months since that final game, due to recuperation from an off-season surgery to repair a wrist he injured just prior to his rescuing of the team, Martin Gerber was offered the opportunity to step up in Emery's absence, and did not disappoint. Even rookie netminder Brian Elliott, fresh out of college, shone in his NHL debut against Atlanta, putting to rest any fears about the state of the Senators goaltending future.

Instead, it is the goaltending present that is far more unclear. Elliott was the evident odd-man out, and was demoted to Binghamton upon Emery's decision to make himself available to the Senators again last week. While the Senators have seen little action since the decision was announced, the little time to display results on the ice has left plenty of time to analyse potential results. While Gerber started last night's game against Montreal and it is only logical that Emery start tomorrow against Florida, how the starts play out afterward is anyone's guess. And so, an outline of potential solutions, evidently working off the assumption that both goaltenders play at their expected level:

Ray Emery gets the majority of the starts; Gerber is the backup.

Returning to status quo, the status quo which earned the Senators a 105-point season and the franchise's first ever berth in the Stanley Cup Finals. This solution is certainly the easiest to accept. Emery earned his starter's position by leading this team from an uncharacteristic early season slump, to a strong finish. The Senators' rise can be tracked to the exact moment that Ray Emery became this team's starting goaltender - November 15, 2006, in a win against the Buffalo Sabres. He earned the position with his 15-game march to the Stanley Cup finals. While he was rarely our best player, he was never our worst, and turned in at least one jaw-dropping game per round to secure the team a quick pass to the finals. He was stellar in the first two games against Anaheim, and while his performance in the final games left much to be desired, evidently the coaching staff felt he was more suited to the task than Gerber. Emery has the confidence of Senators GM Bryan Murray, who opted to play him from that November 15th marker onward, at every possible opportunity. He was re-upped with a three year contract this summer by Murray at market value, a clear indication that Murray saw Emery in the future plans of the team. It is an unspoken rule that you should never lose your position due to injury, regardless of how well your replacement plays. If this holds true and Emery performs at the level of last season, he will be the starter, despite how well (or poorly) Gerber may play.

While Gerber has played exceptionally to start the season, he lost his starting job in the Fall of 2006 and, until Emery does something to lose it, he cannot gain it back. Still, his contract does not present a problem until next season, and Gerber has far more experience than Glass, therefore the best solution may be to keep him on the bench in case of further injury to Emery. Gerber may take exception with being sidelined without consideration to his play, of course, but has traditionally been willing to take one for the team, as it were, even if he is personally unsatisfied.

Emery and Gerber split the starts, more or less 50/50.

In some senses this is the most logical, yet it might leave both netminders disgruntled. Neither is interested in being a backup, of course, but both might see a platoon system as equally unsatisfactory. While Senators coach John Paddock will likely run with this strategy for at least the next few games, leading us into the first week or two of February, a favourite will emerge and we will see one of the other solutions begin to take hold.

Martin Gerber gets the majority of the starts; Emery is the backup.

Evidently Emery's absence makes this statement a bit hairy, but the facts are simple - the Senators are the best team in the league at present. They have been lead to a 7-1 start by a consistently stellar Martin Gerber, who has lost a sole game in regulation in all of 2007. Gerber leads the NHL in wins, and is among the leaders in goals against average and save percentage. According to Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson, Gerber has been the best player on the team so far this season (his majesty excluded, we assume). While it may not be particularly "fair" for Emery to lose his starting job because of injury, the fact remains, hockey is about wins. And no goaltender is more reliable in securing wins at present, than Martin Gerber. With the absence of Emery and Gerber's shaky reputation gained from his poor start last season, it would have been entirely understandable if Gerber had yet again crumbled under the pressure of being "the man" in a hockey city. It wouldn't have been acceptable or tolerable, of course, but it would be, on some level, expected. Instead, he took the opportunity given to him and seems to have put the April 2006-December 2006 stretch of injury, illness, lack of confidence, bad luck, and downright mediocrity behind him. He is finally performing like the goaltender the Senators expected when they signed him to a 3-year deal in the summer of 2006, and, in some roundabout way, is simply reclaiming the starter's job that was his in the first place.

Start Emery, trade Gerber

If Emery performs well over the next few weeks, this could very well come to pass. Since Murray makes the decisions on team management, and not Paddock, his preference of Emery over Gerber will play a huge role. While teams will give their current netminding solutions a little more time to work themselves out, a particularly bad slump or perhaps an injury could lead to a market for Gerber opening up. He has performed well enough as an audition of sorts, to prove his worth as an NHL starter again. He might even be acquired for a valuable asset, if he maintains his standard of play in the starts he will get. While there is no rush on this solution, it would not be at all surprising to see it come to pass.

Start Gerber, trade Emery

The real argument to be made here is simply that Emery commands more trade value than Gerber. He is seven years younger, and has not even approached his potential. He has three years remaining on his contract. He has shown consistency at the NHL level and is not prone to streakiness like Gerber. He might even draw some fans in, presenting value as a marketing tool. This will likely never happen mind, with the relationships Emery has with Ottawa stars, and with the unpredictabililty of Gerber as a long-term netminding solution.

While it's interesting to mull over the possibilities, the real solution is quite simple - whoever plays best, will be the starter. Whoever gives the team the best chance to win, he will be given the opportunity to do so. And unless one of them does a 180, both Emery and Gerber are up to the task. No, it isn't a controversy. It's a godsend.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Preseason Recap

After the Ottawa Senators unbeaten preseason came to a close with a 2-1 victory over the Washington Capitals Sunday evening, Senators coach John Paddock whittled down the roster to a final 22 players, bringing to a close a training camp which saw the anticipation of new beginnings withered down to a hope of "maybe next season". Though Nick Foligno's impressive camp earned him a spot on the Senators roster - a formidable achievement for the 29th-overall pick straight out of junior - other hopefuls did not sway Paddock. Among the highly touted prospects making their way to the Senators' farm team at Binghamton on the last day of cuts were defenseman Brian Lee and forwards Ilya Zubov and Alexander Nikulin, in addition to forwards Danny Bois, Denis Hamel, and blueliner Lawrence Nycholat.

While the preseason is mostly about assessing the development of the younger players and experimenting with different line combinations among the veterans, every player enters with expectations from themselves, their coaches, the management, and the fans. I hope to give a outlay of my expectations for each player entering training camp, a brief summary of my impression of their play, and both a prediction of what role I expect them to play this season, as well as what role I think they should play. They will be grouped in three categories: exceeded, met, and fell below my expectations. I will not discuss the play of AHL-only players such as Tyler Donati and Denis Hamel.

Exceeded Expectations

Shean Donovan -
While I was initially skeptical of the trade that brought Donovan to Ottawa in exchange for inconsistent forward Peter Schaefer, he seems likely to prove to be a valuable addition at a reasonable cost. Much like Senators every-men Dean McAmmond and Chris Kelly, while he may not have the offensive instincts of a star player, he can sub in on any line in any situation, and find instant chemistry with his linemates. His speed and grit will be an asset, to be sure, but I think it will be his versatility and flexibility which will prove most valuable to the team over the course of the season. With many comparing the acquistion of Donovan to the seemingly inconsequential signing of McAmmond summer, a move that paid out in spades, before the season has even started the move looks to have been a wise one on Murray's part. In ditching an inconsistent forward who expressed disinterest at being in Ottawa, for a forward to epitomises the playing style and character Murray has been preaching, it appears a no-loss situation for all involved parties.
Donovan should play on the fourth line. He will be a key penalty killing forward and played as a defensive conscience on a higher line when the situation calls for it.
Donovan will start on the third line in place of McAmmond; his play in McAmmond's absence will determine whether he will remain there or be demoted to the fourth line when McAmmond returns. He could see time on the first line right wing as part of the revolving door of wingers to play with Spezza and Heatley.
Projection: 82GP 7G 11A 18P

Patrick Eaves - Shrugged off by many as a one-trick pony, incapable of replicating his 20-goal rookie season let alone besting it, Eaves proved many doubters wrong this preseason. He looked equally strong playing with the best offensive players the team has to offer, as he did playing with AHL callups. Invariably, Eaves was a key part of the Senators' strongest line of the night - regardless of whether the other members of the line were Donati, Kelly or Heatley. While I did expect him to make a reasonable case for a permanent role in the Senators' top six, the manner in which he asserted himself was wholly unexpected. Eaves scored goals against all four teams the Senators faced in the preseason, including overtime powerplay winners against Ottawa's biggest rivals in Toronto and Montreal. While the players who assisted those winners had a lot to do with the results - Eaves had little to do but call for the puck or, in the case of the Toronto goal, keep his stick on the ice while Spezza deflected a shot off it - his unabated presence in front of the net was what really drew the attention of observers. I've long praised Eaves for the fearless manner in which is drives to the net, digs in the corners and buzzes around the offensive zone, with little regard for his own safety or health (as attested to, perhaps, by the concussion-inducing hit he suffered at the hands of Colby Armstrong in "death valley" during the 2007 playoffs). While his style of play may lead to many more injuries of a similar ilk, and perhaps a regrettably short career to follow if he continues in the reckless manner, the intensity and enthusiasm with which he plays cannot be belittled. While Eaves lacks the stature or bulk to be a threatening force in the offensive zone, he is, in a word, "buzzy", and provides an infectious forecheck and tireless dedication to creating traffic that we can only dream some of our more talented forwards would learn from.
Eaves should be given an opportunity to start with Heatley and Spezza. After a 10-15 game tryout, if things have not progressed as expected, he should be dropped to the second line - note, I did not say the fourth line to play six minutes a night. And, regardless of who he plays with at even strength, Eaves should feature on the power play as our body in front of the net. Heatley and Spezza (and Alfredsson) have obvious chemistry with Eaves, let them play it out.
Eaves will start on the second line with Vermette and Fisher. While he will probably be given an opportunity to play on the top line (read: two shifts on October 14th), it is probably more likely we will see him (undeservedly) on the fourth line sharing duties with Schubert and McGrattan than it is we will see him score 25+ goals playing with Spezza.
Projection: 77GP 23G 23A 46P

Brian Elliott -
the list of NCAA achievements reads like a lifetime of accomplishments rather than the result of a remarkable four-year career at one of the most reputed hockey programmes in the US, at the University of Wisconsin (alma mater of Dany Heatley and Mike Eaves, father to Patrick). After four years of college hockey, the 22-year old Canadian finds himself the most promising goaltending prospect the Senators have had in the history of their system (not shabby, for a 9th round pick in a system that includes current Senators starter Ray Emery). Elliott is a remarkable technical goaltender who also possesses tremendous athletic ability. Though he was not called upon much this preseason, with Martin Gerber shouldering much of the load, Elliott's lone start was an impressive 2-1 victory over the Washington Capitals Sunday evening, where Elliott undoubtedly stole the game for an undeserving Senators club and earned first star honours for his work. In his only other action this preseason, near two weeks ago against the same Capitals in Ottawa, Elliott let in only one goal and made 14 saves in just a period of action to preserve a 5-4 victory for the Senators. While I had expected Elliott to be solid, his game-stealing performance on Sunday far exceeded any expectations.
Elliott will start the season in Binghamton, and should be their starting goaltender. While the development of Jeff Glass might take priority over Elliott shouldering the majority of the load in Binghamton, there should be no doubt as to who is the starter.
Projection: I don't want to be cruel.

Nick Foligno - Before the preseason began, some of the more optimistic observers were penciling in Foligno for a starting role on the Senators. While I considered him a promising mid-season injury call-up, I thought it far more likely that Hennessy would grab the lone open forward spot without incident. While it seemed my conservative prediction could prove right early in training camp, when Paddock announced himself unimpressed with Foligno's play, the former Sudbury Wolves' star responded in such a fashion that left little doubt as to his desire to make Ottawa's opening day roster. Foligno began the preseason with a bang and ended it likewise; he finished second on the Senators roster with 3 goals and 8 points, including a three point performance in the opening game of the preseason at Philadelphia, and a two point game two nights later against Washington. While his offensive game tailed in the middle of the preseason, Foligno was instead practicing the gritty, grinding playing style that Paddock emphasised Foligno would need to embody should he wish to make the club. There has been some reluctance to praise Foligno's play in the preseason, citing Brandon Bochenski as a case of counting your eggs before they hatch. Still, Foligno had a strong preseason as both an offensive force and a gritty forechecker; he'll need to bring both games night in and night out if he wants to stick with the Senators.
Foligno should start on the third line. His play in the preseason has merited such a position. If he is going to be on the fourth line, I believe he would be better served getting top line minutes in every situation in Binghamton, even if only for a month or two until he really adjusts to the pro level. Still, he could stick to the roster all year and I wouldn't be surprised.
Foligno will start on the second line on Wednesday, but will likely drop to the fourth soon enough. While it may appear at times that he is on a short leash based on comments Paddock will make in the media, it seems instead that Paddock is simply ensuring Foligno is pushed to succeed - he is clearly a player who has a future in Ottawa, and the coach wants to ensure he stays motivated.
Projection: 53GP 9G 8A 17P

Jeff Glass -
Despite a decorated junior campaign, which included winning CHL goaltender of the year and backstopping Team Canada to a junior gold medal, Glass was thrown to the wolves in 2006-07, platooning behind an absymal Binghamton Senators team with Kelly Guard (since released from the organisation). Still, Glass did nothing to garner sympathy, playing as equally poorly as his last-place team on most nights. While some would figure Glass' reputation as all but shot, and his future as a NHLer perhaps finished with the thrashing his confidence received throughout the 06-07 campaign, expectations were low for Glass coming into camp. Any thought of a look at the Senators rosters was shot, of course. Still, Glass was playing for the starting position in Binghamton, or perhaps just an extension on his contract when his entry level deal expires next summer. Though he saw limited action, Glass held on to a 2-1 lead against Montreal early in the preseason, making 12 saves and letting in no goals in one period of action against a desperate Habs team. While the twenty minutes were hardly enough to evaluate him fully, he did look poised and large in the net, giving a circling Canadiens team no hopes of a comeback, despite their best efforts. If nothing else, Glass demonstrated that the Binghamton reigns will not be handed to Elliott without a fight.
Glass should be given a fair shot at starting in Binghamton.
Glass will be the backup to Elliott, and must impress in his few starts to have any hope of remaining in the Senators organisation past this season. At this point, he has two high-potential young goaltenders standing in his way, and no amount of junior credentials are going to bump him up the depth chart.

Brian Lee -
While Lee will definitey not be ready for the NHL level on a team like the Senators in two day's time, he was more solid than I was expecting. There had been a lot of talk of his regression this year, talk which seemed mostly unfounded when I did some digging (mostly, people just recoil at the sight of non-spectacular offensive numbers). While he exhibited some of the nerves you would expect from a kid playing his first professional games, for the most part he was poised, showed good decision-making, never got caught in a bad position or with a bad pinch (though he did have a couple of whiffs that led to turnovers, it is hardly a matter of concern five exhibition games into his professional career). He was often the steadier of his pair, and when he had the confidence to carry the puck up, he looked poised and not at all uncomfortable or panicky the way an offensive player like Joe Corvo can tend to. He was solid and steady, didn't make mistakes but didn't take chances either, is the best way to describe it. I have really high hopes for him, in that he can be an eventual top 4 two-way defenseman. But I don't think he should be rushed. I think he will be ready for a top 4 role in 09-10, but he might be capable of handling bottom pairing duties next year.
Brian Lee should/will start the season in Binghamton, playing on the top pair and earning ice time in all situations. The experience and exposure will do him far more good than sheltered minutes on Ottawa's bottom pairing could ever do. Because the Senators could lose Nycholat to re-entry waivers, Lee will probably be the Senators' first call-up in case of injuries. Expect him to get between 1 and 5 games at the NHL level.
Projection AHL: 75GP 2G 22A 24P
Projection NHL: 3GP 0G 0A 0P

Brian McGrattan - McGrattan simply looked like a player who has dedicated himself to improvement. He looks quicker, lighter, and more mobile. While I still don't believe he will be an impact player at this level, his commitment to improvement shows good signs, and he no longer seemed a liability out there (though, we'll see the real story come preseason). I wasn't blown away by his game, I simply had very low expectations and was happy with what I saw.
McGrattan should/will play all or most games prior to the all-star break before slowly being phased out the lineup. He is evidently hoping to be considered a regular player (aka, one trusted enough to appear in the playoffs) - I'm not convinced he's there yet. Even if he is, there are better choices available within the organisation, nevermind by trade.
Projection: 48GP 0G 3A 3P

Alexander Nikulin -
Nikulin became something of a fan favourite thanks to his blogs (shoutout to thirtyfive and his tireless translating work), but the bigger surprise than an unheralded Russian gaining an unprecedented fanbase before he even set foot on the ice, was the fact that he earned all the attention and consideration he received once the games were on. While it took Nikulin a few games to get used to the pace and style of the North American game, by the end of the preseason his adaptation to the transition had been noticeable. However, it still wouldn't be advisable to give Nikulin a starting roster position at the point, with assignment to Binghamton to further acclimatise to the North American game being the best course of action. Still, he proved himself as being a team player who did not take unnecessary chances or endanger the team defensive; he also showed unexpected drive and battle, and great puck control on the power play. While he did not adequately assert himself at even-strength, he never looked out of place whether playing with superstars or pluggers. A near-full season in Binghamton will do wonders for his game; if he has the patience, he could play a key role in the Senators roster by next season if the contract situations prove dire enough.
Nikulin should/will start the season on Binghamton's first line, with plenty of PP time. He should be the first or second call-up in case of injury, depending on how Zubov and Hennessy shake out. Presuming he plays in NA the full season:
Projection in AHL: 76GP 14G 38A 52P
Projection in NHL: 3GP 0G 1A 1P

Christoph Schubert -
to emphasise - he exceeded expectations as a defenseman. While it was only one game in particular where he really impressed, Monday night against Toronto, it's near impossible to impress any more than he did on that particular night. With two goals, had it not been for heroics from Spezza and Alfredsson in other games, Schubert's performance that night might have been the highlight of the preseason. I trust the judgement of Paddock and Murray, but this is one issue on which I can't help but disagree. The facts, in my eyes, are simple. Schubert, while versatile and selfless, is not a very good forward. He is capable yes, doesn't look lost, yes, won't lose you a game playing forward, sure. I'm sure Volchenkov wouldn't lose us a game playing forward either. But does it make it the correct move? Schubert is, on the depth chart, our 5th our 6th best defenseman. Paddock himself seemed to indicate that he was pleased enough with Schubert's preseason performance to put him in the top four, quite a compliment. He is considered at best our #3 penalty killer and at worst our #5. He is our #4 power play defenseman. All this indicates that he should be in our top six, on a nightly basis. And yet.
No one can deny the value of having Schubert dressed as, essentially, our 7th defenseman (only having him play on the 4th line instead of sitting on the bench or messing up the defense pairings). The fact remains, Schubert is more valuable than a 7th defenseman or 4th line forward. It's like having Chris Phillips in 2007-08, playing on the fourth line because of the value he brings in case a defenseman gets injured. Well yes, that's a great value and all, but he is more valuable as our #1 defenseman, is he not? While the leap from Schubert to Phillips is something of a stretch, the logic remains the same. And that logic astounds me.
Schubert should be dressed as the 5th-6th defenseman, paired with Corvo.
Schubert will alternate between 4th line forward and bottom pairing defenseman, some time on the same night. He will see time on the penalty kill, and possibly on the power play. He will again remark that he has trouble making the mental transition between forward and defense. He will continue to contribute greatly to the team as a defenseman and not so much as a forward. I will continue to be annoyed.
Projection: 82GP 9G 17A 26P

Jason Spezza -
Without a doubt, the MVP of the Senators preseason. I have remarked before, how truly amazing his preseason has been. Over the past two seasons, Spezza has established himself as one of the absolute premier players in the game, a playmaking centre of the highest order and one of the bright lights of the league who makes this game fascinating to watch night in and night out. He is considered by many to be a top 5 (if not top 3) centre in the league, and among the top 20-25 players. Objectively, he has placed within the top 15 in scoring each of the last two seasons, and tied the playoffs for the lead in scoring. He showed a heretofore unseen goalscoring prowess last season, and he would have hit 40 goals were it not for injury. I could go on for hours. The point is, as much as Spezza had established himself prior to this preseason, he came in this year looking on a whole other level to the superstar who was already among the league's elite. As stellar as he was before, he's stunningly better now. He is no longer deceptively quick - he is fast, shifty, and mobile. His movements are fluid and he seemed to have been playing the game at a different pace to every other player on the ice, including his own linemates. As many have remarked, he is already in midseason form while others are just waking up. There are many things to be excited about as a new season dawns. But most of all, I find myself imagining what Spezza will dream up night after night. Challenge for the Art Ross? The bugger might just win the thing.
Spezza should start in Binghamton.
Spezza will put on some regular season fireworks. But he should know by now that matters for little, besides the entertainment factor. His job this year is not to prove he can put up points, score goals, or light the league afire. His job is to show he can hack in when the going gets tough, for as long as it takes, not just the first three rounds. Regardless, we'll enjoy the journey still.
Projection: 77GP 41G 73A 114P

Met Expectations
Daniel Alfredsson
Cody Bass
Danny Bois
Joe Corvo
Martin Gerber
Dany Heatley
Chris Kelly
Andrej Meszaros
Dean McAmmond
Chris Neil
Lawrence Nycholat
Wade Redden
Anton Volchenkov
Ilya Zubov

Fell Below
Josh Hennessy
Luke Richardson
Antoine Vermette

Niko Dimitrakos
Ray Emery
Mike Fisher

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Heatley's Contract Negotiations

As everyone in Ottawa knows, Senators owner Eugene Melnyk will be joining GM Bryan Murray at Scotiabank Place today, in order to officially set out contract negotiations prior to Heatley's impending free agency in the summer of 2008. While it likely isn't their first meeting (Murray has mentioned casual talks with Heatley's agent J. P. Barrie over the summer), it is certainly an indication that the negotiation is far more than casual at this point. What makes today's meeting particularly intruiging is Heatley's refusal to discuss his contract during the season, preferring the business-side not interfere with the chemistry in the dressing room or the performances on the ice. Heatley has set a deadline of the start of the season, October 3, after which point he will not negotiate until the end of the season. Should a contract not be hammered out in the next week, there will only be a three-week window for negotiating with Heatley before he hits the open market, should the Senators go as deep in the playoffs as they are expected.

Heatley, one of the games premier forwards and almost without doubt the best goalscorer in the game, is negotiating from a position of strength whether he wants to talk contract today, in December, or on June 30th. His back-to-back 50-goal, 100-goal seasons put him in a category with the likes of Pavel Bure and Mario Lemieux historically. He has yet to miss a game in a Senators uniform, lead the playoffs in points (alongside linemates Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson), and was named to the first all-star team as a right wing (and very nearly made it as a left wing), in addition to receiving Hart, Selke, Pearson and perhaps even Conn Smythe consideration. In just two seasons as a Senator, he holds more Senators records than anybody but Alfredsson. The statistics are all very impressive, no doubt. While they're amusing to disport in defending Heatley's elite status, they almost become troubling when it comes time for contract discussion.

The simple fact is, whatever Heatley wants, he will get. If he wants league maximum or very close to it, there are teams across the continent who will make room for him. Vancouver, Phoenix, Florida, perhaps even his childhood favourite team St. Louis - all could become instant playoff contenders (if not Stanley Cup victors, in the case of Vancouver) with the simple addition of Heatley. While he doesn't have the game-changing ability of a Sidney Crosby, he far eclipses the likes of this year's free agent crop, who earned as much or more money as the elite players of the game on the open market, even if their play on ice will be leave much to be desired when their overbloated, overlong salaries are considered. When a 13-goal scorer makes $7 million, Heatley will be given league max without the blink of an eye.

If Heatley wants to stay in Ottawa, he need only name the price, and Eugene Melnyk will ensure it happens. If Heatley wants to leave, there is not a team in the league that won't be looking over their rosters and seeing if they can't make room for him.

The question then becomes, what does Heatley want to do? This is the most intruiging part of the whole negotiating process from my perspective. The numbers have meaning from a cap perspective, of course, but it is Heatley's intentions and desires that reveal the stature of the Ottawa Senators franchise among the elite players of the hockey world.

Heatley's acquisition by the Senators came under atypical circumstances, to say the least. Without regugitating a story everyone knows, it was pure coincidence that the Senators' troubles in negotiating a cap-favourable contract with Marian Hossa occurred coincidingly with a troubled young star's request for a change of scenery from a city that had treated him with nothing but forgiveness and charity, but a city nonetheless in which Heatley seemed incapable of returning to form as both a hockey player and person. In a way, the trade fell into former Senators GM John Muckler's lap, but the consequences remained all the same. The Senators signed Hossa to a 3-year $6 million deal in the morning just minutes prior to a scheduled arbitration hearing; by afternoon, Hossa was a Thrasher and Heatley was a Senator.

Some make an argument that Heatley was "rescued" or "resurrected" by Ottawa, and as such owes the team and city something of a discount, or favour. Others argue that it was Heatley (or Waddell) who rescued the Senators - they were in a difficult financial situation, and Heatley's trade request fixed a problem. Either way, whatever the team or the player "owed" each other (as if such a system of imbalance could exist), it's been more than paid back in spades at this point. Ottawa provided Heatley with an exciting, fresh and young Stanley Cup contending team. They gave him one of the league's premier playmakers to centre him and one of the league's best two-way players and captains to anchor the other wing. They gave him a city that breathes hockey and idolises its players, but respects their privacy all the same and, aside from a few quack reporters, lets the issues of Heatley's past be simply that, issues of the past. At the same time, Heatley provided the team and the city with excitement, and probably the biggest star this city has ever seen. He burst out of the gate in the pre-season in 2005 and never looked back. He set Senators records for point streaks, goals in a season, points in a season, points in a playoff run. He represented Canada at the Olympics. He achieved the highest individual honours in Senators history, being named to the first and second all-star teams. He has brought us 8-0 victories against the Maple Leafs and hat tricks against the Buffalo Sabres and 26.3 seconds remaining goal-tying goals in the playoffs. He finished 4th in league scoring two seasons in a row. Including the playoffs, he is behind only Joe Thornton in points since the lockout. No one has more goals than him in the last two seasons. He made the pizza goal six instead of five. Even if Heatley walks away after this season, there can be no hard feelings about the entertainment he brought to this city; about the memories he provided us and the joy we experienced every time he stepped on the ice.

Heatley owes nothing to Ottawa. He is a player whose promising career very well could have been over at 23, and no one would have been surprised. Some would say that, since Ottawa was the city and team where he experienced his playing rebirth, he should show some loyalty. But can't the argument be made that he knows the fragility of a player's career? That if it wasn't the emotional scars left by the crash, that it could have been the knee injury sustained in the accident that ended his career? Or the near-blinding eye damage he suffered during the lockout? A player cannot and should not be vilified for looking out for his best interests.

At the same time, there is something to be said for happiness. If an extra million or two playing in a market where they don't care quite as much about you or your team, where your name doesn't get so elatedly cheered at the home arena or so viciously booed on the road, where a playoff series victory is paragraph at the back of the sports section and a regular season loss is never mentioned at all, if that would leave Heatley equally satisfied, then what can be done. If taking an extra million more than "necessary" in Ottawa equals the loss of Chris Kelly, or Patrick Eaves, or even Jason Spezza, and possibly precipitates the decline of the Senators from Stanley Cup Finalists to April-golfers, then that's unfortunate for us.

The realistic "right thing" in the eyes of a Senators fan, is a contract in the $7-8 million range, for a term of 4-6 years (the unrealistic "right thing" being that he plays for us for free out of the goodness of his heart, for ever and ever and ever). According to various reports from the likes of Darren Dreger and Bruce Garrioch, the expected starting demand from Heatley's camp is an $8.5 million offer, presumably over a six year period or more. It would be a shock if his demands did not also include a no trade or no movement clause. According to Garrioch, the Senators' expectations rest in the $7 million, 6 year range. The two sides are really not far apart, and if Heatley is really interested in staying in Ottawa, there is no reason something can't get done before Wednesday's debut against the Maple Leafs.

Still the question remains: not can the Senators afford it, not can Heatley get more elsewhere, but does Heatley want to be in Ottawa, and how much of the Senators competitiveness is he willing to sacrifice to make it happen?

Saturday, September 22, 2007

A Word on the Fisher Resigning

I know I'm late to the party on this one, but I thought it an appropriate time to offer my opinion on Fisher's new long-term contract.

To preface, it is difficult not be a huge fan of Fisher and what he brings on the ice, in the dressing room, and to the city. Many make the argument that he's the best third liner in the league, and I have trouble disagreeing. Though he has struggled with injuries for the entirety of his NHL career, never playing a full season, there is never a question that he gives every ounce of effort when on the ice, and plays through pain as much as any player in the league when the situation requires it. Were the salary cap not a consideration, were I in Bryan Murray's position I'd give the 27-year old a blank check and ask only that he do us the favour of making the contract life-long. I won't for a second pretend that I am anything but enthused at the prospect of seeing Fisher in a Senators jersey for the next five years, and I am equally happy to see such a selfless player rewarded both financially and temporally for his sacrifice over the past eight years.

However, the Senators operate in a league which has a mandatory budget in place. In such a league, the salaries allotted to the role players need to be as carefully considered as those allotted to the stars. It is excessively easy to point to the struggles of the Tampa Bay Lightning and the difficulty they have encountered in having a significant portion of their cap wrapped up in three star players, providing little room for satisfactory depth players (and the above-league-minimum contracts they require).

Still, there is an equal risk in overpaying for these vaunted role players, Mike Fisher among them, whose overinflated salaries can cause the loss of difference makers like Dany Heatley. It should be noted that Fisher's $4.2 million contract alone, will not mean the difference between keeping or losing Heatley, nor, certainly, will it mean the difference between the Senators being or not being competitive. However, it can become an awfully slippery slope. First Fisher makes $4.2 million because he has plenty of heart, and is loved in the city, and makes every night difficult for the opposition; next, Sami Pahlsson becomes the highest paid player on the Anaheim Ducks because he brings the same qualities and then some? Chris Kelly makes the same as Fisher because, despite his relative lack of physicality, he has a superior mental knack for the game to Fisher, and brings the consistency in conditioning lack Fisher lacks? Cody Bass gets a Dustin Penner-level offer sheet in three years time? You keep rewarding the thankless role players, and eventually there is no room for them in a salary cap world, nor the star players.

Fisher will be earning just under 10% of the Senators cap next season, with the expectation that he will be a second line player. He will be given the opportunity to play with Daniel Alfredsson, or perhaps a star UFA picked up should Heatley orbit out of the Senators' price range. He will inevitably miss 15 or more regular season games, and other players will be required to take his place for nearly 20% of the season. His injuries should not be held against him, as they come as a result of the fearless game he plays, but they are a factor nonetheless. Fisher has never eclipsed 50 points, however he has never had a full season of playing with capable offensive players (though, as the Senators 4th forward in terms of ice time and leader of the second power play unit, he has been given opportunities in terms of ice-time to make things happen). He is 27-years old, in his prime, and one would be overly optimistic to assume that he will explode offensively at this point, even given the opportunity to play with star linemates like Alfredsson; still, stranger things have happened and it would be unwise to suggest it impossible.

I hope that Fisher earns every penny of his contract; I hope that he shines in his role as second line center and provides the missing depth offense our team has so desperately needed in the post-season. I hope that Fisher's market level contract does not interfere with the signing of players who really make the difference on this team - the 50 goal scorers, the 100-point playmakers, the 30-minute defensemen. It probably won't. But what if we have to pay market value for a 22-year old top 4, physical, offensive defenseman capable in playing in all 3 situations? A 25-year old skilled, speedy playmaker who puts up similar goal totals to Fisher and plays a more pivotal role on the penalty kill than some of the best defensive players in the game? A 23-year old sniper who could very well hit 30 goals this season? A 27-year old defensive player who can play on any line, with any type of player, in any situation, and not look an inch out of place? Every player mentioned above is coming up for a contract next season. Many observers are banking on discounts from these players to keep the team together. If not, they're banking on poor seasons from these players to keep their values down.

It's a slippy slope, and suffice it to say, I don't envy Bryan Murray.

Senators 5 Capitals 4

Senators Goals
Alfredsson (1) from Spezza (1)
Spezza (1) from Schubert (1) and Redden (1)
Foligno (2) from Vermette (1) and Schubert (2)
Heatley (1) from Alfredsson (1) and Redden (2)
Kelly (1) from Foligno (3) and Donovan (1)

Team 1200 3 Stars:
1. Alfredsson
2. Foligno
3. Poti

My 3 Stars:
1. Alfredsson
2. Foligno
3. Spezza

I didn't get to watch Tuesday's game, so take most of these comments with a grain of salt.

- McGrattan looks like a new man. You talk about rookies showing off for spots, McGrattan was probably the hardest worker out there and is definitely making a statement that he wants to be considered a member of this team past the all-star game. I'm not a huge fan of the enforcer role in hockey, but if McGrattan can keep up this kind of play, I see no reason why Hennessy, Dimitrakos etc. should be in the lineup over him. He's obviously committed himself to improving his footspeed and endurance, and he's a whole new player because of it. He gets top marks from me so far.

- I've been weary of the expectations placed by some on Foligno, thinking he could/should make the team straight out of camp. I know he had a bright performance Tuesday after being ripped by Paddock, but seeing him tonight, gave me some confidence. However, I didn't really see him as that grinding, tireless, 100% effort player that the coach apparently wants him to be, but rather a solid playmaker and skilled player. I liked seeing him on the second unit in the second half of the game. I still think he'll start the season in Binghamton, and I agree that it will be best for his development, but I almost can't help but wonder if his demotion will be undeserved. Also, his goal was sick. I literally jumped up and down when he scored. He now has 2 goals and 5 points in 2 games, not too shabby.

- Nikulin was solid and had a couple really strong shifts, but I'd really have to see more of him. Based on what I saw tonight, he definitely won't make the team out of camp. He was solid but did not stand out.

- I was more impressed with Nycholat than Lee. Having Lee as anything but the #1 defenseman in Bingo would just be wrong, but I think if Nycholat keeps up his play he could earn the #1 slot there just as much as he could win the #6 slot here. Lee was smooth but didn't really stand out. I'll definitely need more time to evaluate him.

- Hennessy did not stand out at all, granted the lack of ice-time didn't help much. If he keeps playing like this, I don't know why he'd deserve the roster spot we've basically already penciled him into. He did have one great drive to the net which he deserved credit for, but he was far less effective at generating energy and momentum than his linemates McGrattan and Bass. He lacks the physical intensity (and intensity of any sort, really) to be a truly effective fourth liner for this team, I'm starting to think a slot on the 4th might be better served by someone else.

- Bass was solid and had a few high energy shifts, though he didn't play much. I enjoy his type of game and imagine he will be a fan favourite some day. A more physical Kelly.

- Heatley was both lazy and hot-dogging, a bad combination. I don't think I've ever seen him actually pull off a dangle, but he tries them at least 3 or 4 times a game. And yet, he scores the goal that put the game away. Ah, the Heater we know and love. He had a couple strong shifts on the PK and I hope he gets a lot of shorthanded minutes during the season. I really think it keeps his head in the game and enhances his gameplay - not that tonight was much evidence of it.

- Spezza was Spezza. I agree he looked speedier, and I look forward to seeing what other areas of his game have improved. Paddock also had him out of the PK for a full shift or two, it will be interesting to see if that was just a wacky experiment or Paddock's actually considering it. His set-up to Alfie, his set-up to Eaves... God I love watching Spezza play.

- Elliott was solid, not much else to say there.

- Alfie is God.

- Vermette's still bambi on ice as people like to say around here. But there is no doubt in my mind that he has what it takes to make it on the second line, especially if Alfie's there. Stop dicking him around Paddock and accept what is right.

- Likewise, Schubert was real solid on the backend tonight, and I actually like the pairing. There's going to be inevitable brainfarts like there were with Redden and Mez, but there's a good mix of positional/physical and defensive/offensive mindsets there. I think it could work. But then it leaves us with Mez/Corvo, and that might be an accident waiting to happen. Anyway, Schubert was very effective back there. Logged almost as much time as Phillips/Volchenkov, and was a +3 (actually, he was on the ice for no goals against). Please, please, please keep him on the backend full-time Paddock.

- Donovan was unimpressive throughout the first half, but seemed to get going about midway. The good thing is, even when things weren't really clicking, he was always skating. At best he'll be a light McAmmond; at worst, we've got a speedy hard worker who won't let bad things happen in his own zone, and I can live with that.

- Volchenkov owned Ovechkin every second of the night. He is completely awesome. Same goes for Phillips, just please shake the whole bad luck thing... broken stick, own goal - it's game 5 all over again. Come on hockey Gods, Philly deserves better.

- Kelly and Vermette were badass on draws. Why can't they both be centres?

- The jerseys look real sharp in action. I still hate the socks but to be honest I didn't even notice until I thought about it. The striped pants are still sick, I love them. Washington's jerseys are pretty nice too, I'm so glad they went back to their old colours. Some teams really downgraded (Edmonton, Florida) but Ottawa and Washington both have sweet jerseys right now, regardless of what they had in the past.

- The crowd was brutal tonight. Not one Go Sens Go chant all night. I know it's preseason, but wake up. Still, my little brother and I had a good time. I think it took until the 3-1 deficit for the big guys to wake up, and, once they did, the whole team was revived along side them. As usual, this team lives and dies by the Big Three.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Rookie Profiles Pt IV

#66 - Pierre-Luc Lessard
Defense - 6', 198 - Jan 16, 1988 - Thetford Mines, PQ

Drafted in the fourth round in 2006 (121st overall), the 19-year old two-way defenseman had his best season yet in 2006-07, after being traded from the Gatineau Olympiques to the PEI Rocket of the QMJHL. In addition to recording career highs in games played, goals and points, he developed tremendously thanks to the key role he played for the Rocket. Lessard has strong offensive skills, being a creative playmaker who can shoot as well. However, he is also solid in his own end, with good decision-making skills and strong positional play, which offsets his lack of intense physicality in shutting down the opposition. Lessard still has a while to go before he is qualified for the NHL, however his development so far has been positive, and, if he commits himself to developing physically as well as he has skill-wise, Lessard could well see himself in an NHL uniform in the future.
Projection: Lessard will very likely return to the Rocket for a final season, and is unlikely to receive an entry-level contract with the Senators this year. Unless he were to astound if invited to the Senators full-training camp (which is unlikely in and of itself), there is simply no room for Lessard in Binghamton and he would likely be sent back to the Q anyways. He will probably be offered a contract for 07-08 if his development continues to progress, however.

2006-07 Prince Edward Island QMJHL 70 12 22 34 77
7 0 2 2 0

#70 - Andrew Marshall
Defense - 5'9", 205 - Aug 7, 1986 - Niagara Falls, ON

21-year old Marshall joins the Senators camp as an undrafted amateur. Marshall played for the Barrie Colts of the OHL in 2006-07, his fourth season with the team. While he served as alternate captain, he did not have as strong a season offensively as he did in 05-06, but still marked a solid 50 points. Marshall is committed to the University of New Brunswick in 2007. Marshall is far too small to play defense effectively at the NHL-level, even if he seep

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Rookie Camp Profiles

As September has finally rolled around, so begins the first of a constant stream of training and observation leading up to the selection of the Ottawa Senators final roster and, eventually, the beginning of the 2007-08 season. The first item on the docket is the 2007 rookie camp, which began today. Included in the camp is the 2007 Rookie Tournament in Kitchener, ON, against three other teams: Florida Panthers, Pittsburgh Penguins and the Toronto Maple Leafs. With the rookie tournament beginning Friday, it seems an appropriate time to present a introduction to the players expected to participate. As the furthest thing from a scouting expert, I thank hfboards, hockeysfuture, russianprospects and the Senators official website for most information found below.

26 prospects are expected to participate, with only Cody Bass and Tomas Kudelka having previously participated in a Senators rookie camp before, back in 2005.

You'll likely notice a disproportionate amount of Kootenay Ice players invited on amateur tryouts. They have likely been invited on the advice of the new Binghamton Senators head coach Cory Clouston, who served as head coach of the Ice for a number of years and had been with the Kootenay organisation in some capacity since 1999. While none of them are particularly noteworthy prospects in my eyes, it will be interesting to see how proteges of Clouston perform and how much weight his recommendation carries.

Below are the prospects in alphabetical order. I will give a brief overview of their draft position, 2006-07 season, and a scout report. The statistics listed are for the most recent NHL season and international tournaments (if applicable). Statistics read as follows - Games Played, Goals, Assists, Points, Penalty Minutes. Goaltenders statistics: Games Played, Wins, Losses, Ties/Shootout Losses (if applicable), Minutes Played, Goals Against, Shutouts, Goals Against Average.

#61 - Kevin Baker
Center - 5'11", 185 - March 27, 1987 - Etobicoke, ON
Undrafted, Nick Foligno's teammate in Sudbury has been invited to participate in the Senators training camp. The 20-year old centre was second only to Foligno in Sudbury scoring last season, his fourth season in the OHL. He led the team with 4 shorthanded goals, and also led the team with 7 shorties the previous season. Baker is of average size, and while he is a good skater, solid playmaker and dependable two-way player, he possesses no outstanding abilities.
Projection: cut

2006-07 Sudbury OHL 64 23 35 58 18
2006-07 Playoffs OHL 21 6 9 15 4

#58 - Cody Bass
Center - 6', 211 - Jan 7, 1987 - Owen Sound, ON
Drafted in the 4th round of the 2005 NHL entry draft, 95th overall, Bass is one of the Senators' more dependable prospects and by all observers is expected to make the team within a few years. He is projected as a centre similar in style, intensity and leadership to a Mike Fisher or Chris Kelly, two players he will have the opportunity to join in training camp and is very likely that Bass will supercede one of these players in a couple years' time. He is the most experienced of the Senators forward prospects, having already played 14 games in the AHL over the last two seasons. While Bass is not reputed as the most offensively gifted prospects, he can chip in his fair share of points. However, it is his defensive acumen and physical intensity that make him valuable. Bass is a premiere penalty killer and has received invitations to junior Team Canada tryouts for the rounded game he brings. Bass is reliable on faceoffs, skates well, and has a good head for the game in general.
Projection: Spends the season in the AHL. Could very likely serve as Bingo captain in a season or two before making the jump to the big time. He is one of the Senators prospects most likely to see full-time NHL action in his career.

2006-07 Mississauga OHL 23 5 11 16 37
2006-07 Saginaw OHL 30 5 24 29 49
2006-07 Playoffs OHL 6 1 2 3 10
2006-07 Binghamton AHL 5 0 2 2 9

#64 - Clayton Bauer
Left wing - 6', 203 - Jan 31, 1987 - Kelowna, BC
Similar to Kevin Baker, Bauer joins the rookie camp on an amateur tryout. He remains undrafted after four seasons in the WHL, splitting his last season between the Kelowna Rockets and the Kootenay Ice. The 20-year old left winger attended the Vancouver Canucks' rookie camp in 2006, but was cut. While he recorded career highs in goals and points with Kootenay in 2006, I cannot find enough information to make an assessment of his playing style or potential.
Projection: cut

2006-07 Kelowna WHL 2 0 0 0 0
2006-07 Kootenay WHL 68 24 28 52 90
2006-07 Playoffs 7 1 0 1 9

#68 - Curtis Billsten
Right wing - 6'3", 213 - Sept 10, 1986 - Calgary, AB
Another undrafted forward, 21-year old right winger Billsten is committed to the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds men's hockey team, after four seasons in the WHL. 2006-07 was a banner year for Billsten, as he was named assistant captain for the Kootenay Ice, and recorded career highs in goals, assists, points and penalty minutes. Billsten has a massive frame at 6'3", 213, but appears unlikely to pursue professional hockey at a high level at this point.
Projection: While his size and experience might make him most the most attractive prospect of the tryout players recommended by Clouston, as noted above he is committed to university next season and is therefore unlikely to be signed.

2006-07 Kootenay WHL 70 24 40 64 96
2006-07 Playoffs WHL 3 0 1 1 2
#35 - Ryan Daniels
Goaltender - 6'1", 195 - June 22, 1988 - Scarborough, ON
The Senators 5th round selection in 2006 (151st overall) has some familiarity with other Senators prospects, having attended the previous two development camps. The 19-year old has spent the past three seasons as goaltender for the Saginaw Spirit of the OHL. He had a solid season in 06-07, dramatically improving his statistics from his first two years, dropping his GAA by over a full goal per game. He was the full-time starting goaltender for Saginaw and his minutes played reflected it. Additionally, he was named OHL goaltender of the month twice last season. Daniels' strength is his positional play, but he also has quick reaction and good instincts. He has a strong glove and is generally technically sound.
Projection: Daniels will very likely return to Saginaw for a fourth a final season. Binghamton is set in net with Brian Elliott, and Jeff Glass will likely be given one last opportunity to at least backup Elliott, if not platoon. There is no room for Daniels and it would be unfit for his development to have him wasting away as a third string goaltender in the AHL when he is set to get plenty of action in the OHL. Long-term, Daniels does not likely fit into the Senators' plans with Emery still young at 24 and Elliott having first-dibs on earning a backup position in the future. However the development of goaltenders is unpredictable and Daniels could find his way up the Senators' depth chart with consistently strong play.

2006-07 Saginaw OHL 60 38 18 3 3,553 174 2 2.94
2006-07 Playoffs OHL 4 1 3 239 13 0 3.26
There's the first 5 profiles, more to follow.

Rookie Camp Profiles Pt II

#67 - Steven DaSilva
Right wing - 6', 195 - Feb 10, 1987 - Saskatoon, SK

DaSilva had a breakout year in 2006-07 with the Kootenay Ice, recording 91 points and finishing second in the WHL scoring race, ahead of junior stars such as Zach Boychuk, Martin Hanzal and Peter Mueller, and behind only Zach Hamill. He led his team in every major statistical category, including goals, assists, points and penalty minutes. He is an intruiging prospect but went undrafted.
Projection: one of the most likely prospects on tryout to be offered an AHL contract.

2006-07 Kootenay Ice WHL 71 38 53 91 108
2006-07 Playoffs WHL 7 5 5 10 16

#56 - Kaspars Daugavins
Left wing - 5'11" 205 - May 18, 1988 - Riga, Latvia
One of the Senators most exciting prospects, Daugavins was drafted in the 3rd round in 2006 (91st overall), and spent the 2006-07 season with the St. Michael's Majors of the OHL. He joined the Binghamton Senators late in the season after St. Mike's had been eliminated from the playoffs, playing 11 games. Daugavins has substantial international experience, having represented Latvia in 5 tournaments over the past two seasons, including two World Junior Championships and two World Championships, a rarity for a player of his age. Stunningly, 18-year old Daugavins recorded 3 goals and 3 assists in the 2007 World Championships, playing against men over ten years his senior, from far stronger teams. He scored nearly a point per game playing as a rookie for a dismal St. Mike's club, and scored 2 goals for Binghamton later in the season. He was named to the OHL rookie first all-star team. Daugavins' best assets are his speed, skating ability, and playmaking ability. He has remarkable vision and an ability to anticipate the play. Daugavins has held his own at all levels, against peers and older players (in the AHL and WC). He is an extremely driven and determined player who doesn't coast on talent alone.
Projection: Will likely play in Binghamton last year as his play last season earned him the position, and while he is eligible to return to the OHL, it is unlikely he will do so. Daugavins appears to be one of the few forwards in the Senators prospect pool with top six potential, and as such will be given every opportunity to succeed.

2006-07 St. Michael’s Majors OHL 61 18 42 60 64
2006-07 Binghamton AHL 11 2 0 2 9
2006-07 Latvia WJC-U20 5 3 7 10 2
2006-07 Latvia WC 6 3 3 6 0
#41 - Tyler Donati
Right wing - 5'10", 190 - Oct 17, 1986 - Toronto, ON
Recently signed to a one-year AHL contract, Donati had a spectacular season with the Belleville Bulls of the OHL, finishing 3rd in the league in goals and 4th in points, behind only Patrick Kane, John Tavares (Kane was selected 1st overall in 2007; Tavares will be selected likewise 2009), and Sergei Kostitsyn - not bad company. In addition, he was named to the OHL's second all-star team, was named the top overaged player of the OHL, and participated in the OHL all-star game. Donati went undrafted, likely because of his lack of size, though with players like Martin St. Louis and Daniel Briere tearing up the league, it hardly seems an impediment this day and age. However, his remarkable season came as a 20-year old playing against kids as much as 3 or 4 years younger. Donati lacks the two-way play that would make him a likely candidate to make the big team (his AHL-only contract doesn't help matters either).
Projection: Donati is expected to make the Binghamton roster, quite possibly on a scoring line if he impresses in camp. Unlikely many of the undrafted invitees, Donati is not on a tryout and has already been signed to a contract, meaning he fits into the Binghamton Senators' plans for the next season in the eyes of General Manager Tim Murray.

2006-07 Belleville OHL 66 54 75 129 52
2006-07 Playoffs OHL 15 6 20 26 4
#30 - Brian Elliott
Goaltender - 6'2", 206 - April 9, 1985 - Newmarket, ON
Drafted in the 9th round (291st overall) of the 2003 draft, Elliott has been a slow burner but thanks to his remarkable last couple years in the CCHA, has vaulted up the Senators depth chart and is likely their top goaltending prospect at the moment. Elliott spent the full four years at the University of Wisconsin, in one of America's top hockey programmes. Coincidentally, Elliott was coached by Mike Eaves, father of Senators forward Patrick Eaves.

While his 2006-07 numbers weren't as remarkable as his record setting stats in 05-06, Elliott finished his University career with a 1.78 GAA, .931 save percentage, with 16 shutouts. Remarkably, these statistics put him in the top 6 for all-time goaltending statistics in WCHA history. Elliott collected an impressive amount of hardware, including WCHA goaltending champion two years in a row, being named a first-team All-American, NCAA Midwest Most Oustanding Player, being named to the Frozen Four All-Tournament team, and being a finalist for the Hobey Baker award as most oustanding player in collegiate hockey (all in 2005). He has some experience in Binghamton, having played 8 games with the club after his university career was completed in 2007.

Elliott is a tremendous technical goaltender, but also possesses outstanding athletic ability and huge size that allows him to cover a significant portion of the net, with the reflexes to quickly reach the areas his massive frame doesn't cover. He shows great composure in pressure-filled situations, and appears to have a solid head for the game. He has trouble with rebound control and reading the play in scramble-type situations with heavy traffic, however his keen eye and steadiness can probably help him improve in this area. His heart is in the game and it shows when he plays. Elliott should have some familiarity with other Senators prospects and players, having participated in three development camps with the team.

Projection: Elliott has made a career of exceeding expectations. He could very well supercede Jeff Glass as the Binghamton Senators starting goaltender by the time the 2007-08 season begins. It also wouldn't be a shock to see Elliott backing up Emery at the NHL level in two or three years time, though projecting the role of a goaltender is as unpredictable as anything. Still, Elliott's technical proficiency speaks well to his ability to translate his game to the NHL level.

2006-07 U. Wisconsin WCHA 36 15 17 2 2,053 72 5 2.10
2006-07 Binghamton AHL 8 3 4 0 425 30 0 4.24

#62 - Garrett Festerling
Centre - 5'9", 183 - March 3, 1986 - Quesnel, BC
A diminutive centre, Festerling is yet another undrafted player invited on a tryout to the Senators rookie camp. He lead the Regina Pats in points, and finished in the top 20 of WHL scoring. The 21-year old has an adequate offensive skillset but his size looks to be a serious impediment to any NHL aspirations. Garrett is the brother of former Vancouver Giants captain and current Anaheim Ducks property, blueliner Brett Festerling.
Projection: cut

2006-07 Regina WHL 67 22 51 73 46
2006-07 Playoffs WHL 10 5 7 12 16
2006-07 Oklahoma City (Playoffs) CHL 1 0 0 0 0

#71 - Nick Foligno
Centre - 6', 204 - Oct 31, 1987 - Buffalo, NY

Drafted in the first round of the 2006 draft (28th overall), Foligno is in the eyes of many observers, the top Senators prospect. I personally rank him around #3-4, with Hennessy, Lee, Zubov and Daugavins in the same range. The son of former NHLer Mike Foligno (who was also his coach in Sudbury), improved upon his excellent draft year in 2006-07. He lead the Sudbury Wolves in scoring for the second straight season and played a huge roll in his team's visit to the OHL Finals, also leading his team in playoff scoring. He served as Assistant Captain for the Wolves and played in the OHL all-star game.

Foligno is a heart and soul centre in the same vein as Mike Fisher (who, coincidentally, also spent his junior career with the Wolves). Foligno is strong on the forecheck and crashes the net with abandon. He doesn't avoid corners and plays a very prototypical "North American" game. He is a strong physical player even if he needs to add considerable bulk to his average frame. While he needs to improve on his consistency both in effort and execution, Foligno likely has the offensive tools to fight for a top six spot in the future, and certainly has the physical elements which will make him a valuable bottom-six player even if his offensive game does not translate at the NHL level. Still, he needs considerable work on his defensive game and as such time in the AHL is most likely a requirement at this point, before he joins a team like the Senators that relies on the defensive contributions of all of its players.

Foligno has shown a dogged determination to make the Senators roster in 2007. While it is unlikely he will do so as a full-time roster member simply because of the Senators depth, and his inexperience at the highest level, Foligno's determination is admirable and will likely result in a role as an injury call-up should his effort remain consistent. His father was an NHLer and Foligno's long-time coach and this should speak to good bloodlines; however, it will interesting to see how the younger Foligno performs without the guidance (or perhaps helping hand) of his father.

Projection: Foligno still has a year of junior eligibility, but it is unlikely he will return. The most likely scenario is a first or second line spot in Binghamton, with opportunity to serve as an injury callup should his play dictate it. Foligno still needs to bulk up considerably and there is no rush to get him into the Senators lineup, much as he may desire it.
2006-07 Sudbury OHL 66 31 57 88 135
2006-07 Sudbury OHL 21 12 17 29 36