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.