Friday, October 31, 2008

October Player of the Month

With honourable mentions to Jason Spezza and Alex Auld, who brought their A-games to most matches this past month, my consideration for the best Senator in the month of October goes to recently acquired blueliner Filip Kuba. Traded to Ottawa along with fellow defenseman Alexandre Picard and San Jose's first round pick in exchange for young rearguard Andrej Meszaros, Kuba was regarded as a warm body and not much more. He was accepted as a competent blueliner, who could play a handful of minutes and not embarrass himself, but there the expectations ended. However, Kuba has established himself as Ottawa's most consistent and versatile defenseman ten games into the young season.

Kuba has averaged just a second short of 25:00 per night, in the range of players like Nik Lidstrom and Chris Pronger (and Meszaros). He leads Ottawa by a significant margin, playing almost 3 minutes more per night than the next closest Senator, Chris Phillips. His 6:13 powerplay time per game is good for fourth in the NHL. Kuba eats up minutes like a #1 defenseman, and doesn't show cracks in his game, poor decisionmaking, lazy shifts or third period lethargy as a result of his heavy workload.

He has suprisingly established himself as an effective powerplay quarterback. Though he does not have the notable tools of the elite defensemen of the game - inspired creativity, a cannon shot or pin-point accurate passing, his displays a knack for making the simple, effective plays which breed results. Rather than looking to unload a laser from the point, he lobs low, heavy shots on net which can be deflected or kicked out by the goalie to create rebounds. Unlike previous Senators defensemen (namely Joe Corvo and Meszaros), he doesn't look to be the star of the power play but rather a tool at the disposal of Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley. So far, it's been succesful - Kuba recorded 11 points, all assists, in the first seven games of the NHL season to break an NHL record set by Brad Park in 1982. He currently leads the NHL is assists and points for a blueliner, and is within 2 points from 5th in the Art Ross race.

It hasn't been all roses, of course. Kuba has received crticism for his lack of physicality, despite his ample stature - he has recorded just 3 hits through ten games. However, he has shown a commitment to making sacrifices elsewhere - his 22 blocked shots are good for 3rd on the team. Kuba is also at fault for some of the defensive struggles of the Senators so far his season, however he has been far and away the most effective defenseman at clearing the zone, distributing the puck to the forwards, and has been the least exposed by the opposition. Through ten games, he carries a +3 rating, one of only five players presently on the team with a positive rating (defenseman Brian Lee is a +1 but is currently in the AHL).

Still, on a team that is struggling to find consistency at both ends of the rink, Filip Kuba has been one of few reliable shining lights. While he is not flashy or awe-inspiring, he plays a simple effective game, eats up minutes without wearing down, and sets a good example for the younger players on the team. For that, Filip Kuba earns my player of the month honours.

Honour mentions to Jason Spezza, Alex Auld and Shean Donovan, who performed admirably this month and whose efforts should not go unnoticed.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Alfredsson Signs Extension

In a wholly anticipated move, the Ottawa Senators locked up captain Daniel Alfredsson to a four-year contract which will likely see him play out his final days in the same uniform he has worn through the entirety of his NHL career. Taking in $21.6 million, for a cap hit of $5.4 million, Alfredsson will remain the third highest paid player on the team, after linemates Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza. The actual structure of the deal is a little complicated as it includes signing bonuses and payoff for old bonus clauses, but he will essentially make $9.1 million the first year, $7 million the next, then $4.5 million, followed by $1 million in the final deal. [late edit: numerous sources are now reporting the bonus payoff might not count against the cap, so the tentative cap hit is now in the region of $4.8 million]. The deal also includes a no-movement clause, which not only prevents the Senators from trading him, but also from placing Alfredsson on waivers or in the minors. Effectively, unless Alfredsson says otherwise he will remain an Ottawa Senator through his fourtieth birthday (at the minimum).

Alfredsson and his agent J.P. Barrie had been in negotiations with Bryan Murray since September, with both sides agreeing a deal would get done, the delay was simply a matter of determing how long Alfredsson wanted to continue playing, and how to manage the cap hit to best serve the team. In the end, Alfredsson's cap hit will be just $1.1 million more than his current one, when it kicks in at the beginning of the 2009-10 season.

Drafted in the sixth round of the 1994 NHL entry draft, Alfredsson fell far down the priority list of prospects with a nascent NHL franchise whose hopes initially rested on Alexei Yashin and Alexandre Daigle. While the former enjoyed extended success in his early years with the Senators, culminating in a Hart trophy nomination in 1998-99, it was Alfredsson who emerged as the heart of the franchise, even in the shadow of two far more talented players. Alfredsson was awarded the Calder trophy in 1995-96 as the rookie of the year, leading the last-placed Senators in scoring. The following year, Alfredsson recorded 71 points in co-leading the Senators to a seventh place finish and their first playoff berth in franchise history. In the playoffs, he recorded a remarkable 5 goals and 2 assists in a 7 game defeat at the hands of the Buffalo Sabres.

The mid-nineties saw Alfredsson struggle with injuries, missing 100 games over a 4 year stretch, and despite his solid post-season production he was unable to lead the Senators to any playoff success, as the Senators won just one series over the time.

In 1999-00, following a heated contract dispute with captain Yashin, the Ottawa Senators named Daniel Alfredsson the fifth captain of the young franchise, officially handing the reigns of the team to the 27-year old Swede.

Years of playoff disappointment followed, with the Senators unable to defeat the rival Toronto Maple Leafs despite excelling against other teams, most notably the Philadelphia Flyers. The Senators seemed to finallly make their mark when, amid bankruptcy, relocation uncertainty and an ailing Roger Neilson, they won the President's Trophy as top team in the league and advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2002-03. The team was eventually defeated in the 7th game by the eventual Stanley Cup Champion New Jersey Devils. The team, and Alfredsson, returned ignited in 2003-04, but were again defeated in the first round by Toronto.

Following a lockout season in 2004-05, Alfredsson and the Senators became the hottest post-lockout team, thanks to the acquisition of Dany Heatley and the emergence of Jason Spezza. Despite Alfredsson's advancing age, the trio excelled and earn countless nicknames, the most popular of which were the "Cash line" and the "Pizza line". Despite missing five games to a rib injury, Alfredsson cracked the 100 point mark for the first time in his career, and recorded a career high 43 goals, and lead the Senators to first place in the Eastern Conference. He also enjoyed international success, leading the Swedes in scoring as they triumphed with a gold medal at the 2006 Olympics. However, the Senators season would not end so jubilantly, as they were defeated in the second round by the Buffalo Sabres.

The 2006-07 season began difficultly for Alfredsson. He recorded a single goal in the first month of play, into an empty net no less. As the Senators struggled with offense, defense and goaltending, rumours swirled about potential moves. One particularly egrerious suggestion, begun by a Montreal radio station and picked up by the Toronto media, had Alfredsson all but signed, sealed and delivered to the Los Angeles Kings in exchange for Craig Conroy. Thankfully, no such insanity ensued, Alfredsson eventually picked up pace and, after a meeting with the team leaders, began a mad dash toward the playoffs. He was far and away the best Senator from Christmas on, ending the season with 29 goals and 87 points. His hot streak continued in the playoffs, recording 14 goals and 8 assists as the Senators demolished the Eastern Conference before meeting the end against the Anaheim Ducks in the Stanley Cup Final. Despite the unfortuante end, Alfredsson established himself as one of the premier all-around players in the NHL, capable breaking up a highlight reel play in his own zone, storming up the ice with the puck, and completing the play at the other end.

The Senators did not miss a beat at the beginning of the 2007-08 season, recording the best start in NHL history. Though they faltered as the season wore on, it was no fault of Alfredsson, who lead the NHL in scoring at the all-star break and despite playing through injuries that would hospitalise a mortal, finished the season with 40 goals and 89 points. His legend was only increased when, after suffering a 3rd grade torn MCL just two weeks prior, Alfredsson took the ice in game 3 of a first round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, trying in vain to save the Ottawa Senators season. From January on, Alfredsson played through a tweaked hip flexor, cracked vertebrae, torn MCL, whiplash, and a probable concussion. On one notable shift, his leg split open while blocking a shot on the penalty kill; Alfredsson shook it off, went to the dressing room for "repairs" and returned minutes later to kill off another penalty.

Alfredsson's legend continued in 2008-09, as the Senators faced off against the Pittsburgh Penguins in his native Sweden, but first journeyed through the captain's hometown of Gothenburg for a tilt against the Frolunda Indians. Before the home opener against the Detroit Red Wings, Alfredsson announced he would miss the game to undergo arthoscopic knee surgery, as a result of a hit suffered late in the second Sweden game. He was expected to be out two weeks, though some sources predicted as much as a month. Instead, Alfredsson missed a mere six days and one hockey game. He returned October 17th against the Phoenix Coyotes and recorded two assists; through the young season, he has 9 points in 8 games, and is just 5 points shy of a point per game average over his career. As of today, his career numbers are 861 games, 334 goals, 522 assists, 856 points, and one city and team who could not wish for a better, more dedicated or more exemplary captain.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Thoughts on Spezza

To say I have sympathy for Jason Spezza and his treatment by the fans and media would be more than an overstatement. He is a professional athlete who is being more than fairly recompensed for his abilities. He is expected to conduct himself with maturity and decorum in interviews and on the town, play flawless shift after flawless shift and answer for himself and his teammates when things do not proceed according to immense expectation. All the above is well and good, and Spezza himself understands better than anyone the level of scrutiny, judgement and expectation that follows a superstar in a one-team city. But while the criticism levelled at Spezza is fair to a point, certain accusations about his character and commitment often reach such absurdity that I feel compelled to defend the Senators offensive catalyst.

Jason Spezza is a weak player who avoids contact and plays like a pussy. 
Spezza is not a physical player and will never be one. He will drive a player when given the opportunity, but he will not openly search to physically punish a player when a better option is out there, such as taking the puck and steaming up the ice to relieve pressure, or taking the puck and burying it. He has blocked shots in the past, broken up 2-on-1s as the lone man back, scored shorthanded goals, stripped star players on the backcheck and dropped the gloves when prompted. He will never block 200 shots or leave an opponent lying in a pool of his own blood and vomit. I can't speak for others - I don't want all five of our players on the ice flailing around like dying fish trying to play goalie. I don't want my star forward forgoing a prime offensive chance to deliver a late hit on an irrelevant opposition player. I don't want my first line centre in the box because of a manly, heroic fight when the guy he took on was a fourth line scrapper. I want Spezza to lead my offensive charge, not be Volchenkov. 

Spezza giggling in interviews signals immaturity and lack of character.
I take particular issue with this claim. First off, I don't believe off-ice behaviour has a major impact on a player's on-ice abilities. For example, players like Jaarko Ruutu and Mike Fisher project as a bookish intellectual and a pretty boy off the ice, respectively, but one is a dirty pest the other a ferocious battler on the ice. At times it seems like Senators fans would rather have Spezza be a third line checker who spouts cliches than a first line forward who has a little personality. Spezza giggles when asked a playful question about visiting Melnyk on the back of a win, not when asked why he turned the puck over in overtime. Follow Spezza on the ice and realise he is one of the most intense, focused players on the ice. How he responds to a question after a game has absolutely no impact on what happened before nor on what will follow. 

Spezza is a defensive liability.
This is commonly heard from casual fans, or fans of teams other than the Senators. They hear criticisms of Spezza's play and translate it into him being a defensive nightmare who the Senators can't trust in their own end. This is not remotely true; Spezza's biggest issue is with offensive or neutral zone turnovers, which not only negate an offensive opportunity for the Senators but provide the opposition with a chance toward the Senators end. It is understandable to chalk up this offensive error as a defensive mistake, but it is far from the misconception that he is lost in his own zone. As for his actual defensive play, Spezza has shown great progress over the seasons. He is relied upon to take crucial faceoffs, including late in the game and in the latter half of a penalty kill. He tracks his man well through the zone, and has shown increased positional awarness over the years. He is also a deceptively effective stick-lifter and routinely uses his long reach to poke the puck out of danger. He does not have the aggressive or hyperintelligent defensive abilities of his teammate Daniel Alfredsson, but Jason Spezza is absolutely not a defensive liablity. 

Spezza has shown no commitment to improvement - he is the same player he ever was and will never get better.
Again, not remotely true but often spouted. When Spezza was drafted second overall in 2001, he was a one-dimensional offensive forward with limited speed, weak faceoff ability and no defensive acumen. After five NHL seasons, he has one of the strongest skating strides among one of the speediest forward groups in the league, improves his faceoff abilities yearly, continues to perfect a deceptively hard and accurate shot, has become one of the league's most proficient puck deflecters, and is routinely relied upon as a defensive forward to protect leads late in the game. Each season he has come into camp noticeably better, faster, stronger and more fit than the previous time around, and shows no sign of lessening this commitment to improvement. Spezza is a cocky player who has every ambition to be the greatest Senator of all time, a Stanley Cup champion, Hart winner and HHOF member; those who think he is not committed to yearly improvement to make these goals attainable, is sincerely mistaken.

The Senators should trade Spezza before his NTC kicks in.
Two words: Joe Thornton. The Boston Bruins are just now recovering from the loss of their young star centre, and even then are nowhere near the team they could be with his presence. Star-for-star swaps such as the Heatley/Hossa deal are the exception rather than the rule in the NHL - is a package including borderline first line centre, flawed prospect, and a pick worth the loss of the best centre in franchise history? Spezza has his flaws, there is no doubt. As do comparable players like Getzlaf, Staal, or Crosby. Senators fans witness Spezza on a daily basis and so view his flaws with microscopic focus. But Spezza is a blossoming player who is still working to balance the creativity of his brain with the realities of the NHL, and needs help rectifying the ambition of his goals with the practical steps needed to reach them. But he also an endlessly gifted, peerlessly driven, superbly committed player who is determined to bring the Senators to glory. And no half-assed package deal could ever replicate that. 

A Return to Form

After almost a year of inactivity, I've decided to start this blog back up again. I don't think I'll be doing regular post-game updates, just random posts about my thoughts on the play of the Senators, or reposting lengthy comments I have left on the forums. 

The Senators have clearly been off to a shaky start since the return from Stockholm, but despite the rarely altered win column, have shown signs of the better structured team game fans can expect to see past the twenty game mark. It is a work in progress, and those expecting the addition of Hartsburg and the new personnel to play immediate dividends were clearly getting ahead of themselves (myself included). But when all is said and done, we can expect a Hartsburg team to battle every night, win or lose.

Some key points of anticipation: 
 Opponents will be forced to earn their victories. The Senators aren't going to win every game, not even close. But they can make the opposition earn the two points. Since the return from Sweden, this team has handed the opposition an early lead, then provided brief bursts of feigned intensity and pride, but never put the result in doubt. Worst still, they've all been on home ice. I trust he can instill it over time, but a Hartsburg team needs to be on that makes the opposition earn every possession of the puck, every entrance in our zone, every shot on net, and every goal. They must be physically bashed, offensively frustrated, and psychologically intimidated. We have Smith, Volchenkov, Ruutu, Neil, Fisher, Phillips, Schubert - there is no way Ottawa can't be a team that is painful and difficult to play against.

This team will stop being mentally weak. Far too often as Senators fans, we see that go-ahead goal by the opposition, that we know this team will simply never counter. Whether it's scored 30 seconds or 30 minutes into the game, some nights you just see this team sink at the thought of facing the improbable, overcoming a deficit. We see it all around the league - teams overcoming one, two, even five goal deficits. But with this team, Gerber lets in the opening goal and you just know - no matter how many strong shifts, no matter how many PP opportunities, no matter how many unmissable setups - this team will just not get it done. Why? There is no reason. Hartsburg can reignite the cockyness in these players. Heatley, Alfredsson and Spezza are intimidating players who can, and should, score at the drop of a hat. He needs to bring back the belief that the Senators are out of a game when the fat lady sings, not when an unfortunate goal bounces past Gerber 20 seconds in. 

As I said, I believe a Hartsburg team can provide these elements, and I believe we have the personnel to deliver it. While, as with any team, there are areas of weakness that can be improved upon, well-coached teams can rise above unideal rosters and get results. The Senators have shown a need for a more consistent and reliable goaltender, and for a fabled "puck moving defenseman" and some consistent secondary offense. However, even in the absence of these roster improvements, the players currently on the team have shown the ability to step in and play a role admirably even when they might not be the ideal candidate on paper - see Kuba, Auld, Picard and most surprisingly Donovan. 

It is still young in a long season and we have seen this team start off equally shakily and go on to the best finish in franchise history. I look around the league and see good, perhaps great teams like Anaheim and Philadelphia struggling. I see elite goaltenders like Kiprusoff and Turco playing like sieves, but were I a fan of their teams would have no panic or fear about their ability to get it on track. *As a Senator fan, I of course have much more emotional investment about our team and get far too angry about Gerber's first goal or ecstatic about Alfie's goal or depressed about Vermette's last minute attempt. But when I allow myself to step back a bit, I am less fearful. I see plenty of great elements on a team that just needs to connect the dots. 

Without being too optimistic, I will say that Hartsburg and the Senators have been provided with a great opportunity to see their flaws in full light, have ample time to fix mistakes, patch roster holes and implement an effective system. It is not game 78 and this team has not been on a 5 month slide. This team has not been winning games through luck, hot streaks and favourable opponents, masking deep problems and creating false confidence. The weaknesses are in full light, but so are the strengths. This will be a harrowing start that will require patience, temperment, and a little blind faith, but it will not be for naught.

*The main gist of this article was written almost a week ago, and we can already see that these teams and players have turned the corner.