Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Post-Montreal Thoughts

The Senators are nearing a potential crossroads in the season, as frustration boils over. Players are snipping at the media (Heatley), bickering with each other (Heatley and Kelly), being torn apart by the coach and media (Spezza), glumly shuffling through the daily routines (Gerber), being suspended for in-game antics (Ruutu), and, at the point of culmination today, smashing arena glass after a failed practice drill (Alfredsson). Despite a 4-0-1 streak that ran through Thursday night's game against the Philadelphia Flyers and seemed to breathe life into a see-saw start to the early season, the Senators are again suffering from anemic offense and scattered defensive zone play which leaves the goaltender helpless and the coach dumbfounded.

All is not lost, of course. As witnessed with this team in the past, sometimes all it takes is a good kick when down to remind the team of its abilities. As the cliche goes, it is always darkest before light. But was last night's 4-0 steamrolling by the Canadiens the final straw or merely an early reminder of the listlessness and inconsistency that will define the 2008-09 Ottawa Senators season? Despite the tough loss, it is hard not to still see signs of hope. The power play was horrendous; 5-on-5 play was probably worse. The Senators were confused in their own zone and lacked chemistry offensively. Even sniper Dany Heatley failed to score on a third period breakaway, hitting the post.

Over the past few days, there have been panicked proposals recommending benching, trading or waiving over nearly half the roster. Bearing the most noticeable brunt of criticism are Antoine Vermette and Jason Spezza two thirds of a top line that has produced little (other than two called-back goals) even when the Senators were having team success. The Vermette criticisms range from confounding to justifiable - yes, he has clamoured for a significant offensive role for years now, and yes he has done little with the opportunity. But no, the make-shift winger should not shoulder the blame for the Senators poor start, nor has he failed to live up to his earth-shattering $2.76 million salary. Spezza's role as the Senators whipping boy was wholly forseeable, however misguided most criticisms levelled at the star have been. People claim they would gladly sacrifice 20 or so points of his offense in exchange for simpler and more responsible play - only to turn around and cry foul about his lack of production when he follows through on the wishes of his coach (and fans). It is possible to be a defensive stalwart, physical beast and 100 point producer? It certainly is for about two or three NHLers, but it was not an easy nor a quick path to reach that point for any. Any problems with the failure of Spezza to become the singlemost dominant and versatile player in the history of professional sports rests solely in the hands of those creating the expectation, not Spezza. He is playing the rudimentary dump-and-chase game that everyone demanded - stellar offensive results will not come immediately for a player who has spent his entire career playing a different style.

This doesn't mean that criticism of players is inappropriate or unhelpful. The team played a horrible game against Montreal, blew a win against Carolina on Thursday and had stretches of poor play even in their victories early last week against Washington and Philadelphia. Singleling out players with rough games is easy, as is crying out about the need for a #1 puck-moving defenseman or elite goaltender. It's a lot harder to support the players when they are most in need of our confidence. The team has two ways to go right now - they can either feed into the frustration and play a frentically impatient game which erases their strengths, as they cede points and games to the opposition, or they can recommit to the ethics preached so vocally at the beginning of the season - structure, accountability and contributions at both ends of the ice from every player. Last night's Montreal game will be a lynchpin in either direction.