Monday, November 17, 2008

Reunited and It Feels So Meh

With the Senators marred in a four game slide marked by inconsistent offense (to put it gently) and lackadaisical play, head coach Craig Hartsburg is opting to reunite the big line of Dany Heatley, Jason Spezza, and Daniel Alfredsson in anticipation of tonight's tilt against the New York Rangers. Though, like Bryan Murray and John Paddock before him, Hartsburg came into this season with a view to spread offense by rotating Alfredsson to the second line, like his predecessors he found the split ineffective. Heatley and Spezza have yet to generate any offense of note over the four game slide that began in Carolina on November 7th, and Alfredsson, though an assist machine, has yet to score a goal since October 24th against the Anaheim Ducks. And so, 17 games and 6 wins into the season, Hartsburg is trying his luck with a line that is never impotent for long, if ever.

And still, the potential of improved offense merely by way of reshuffling is not as alluring as it should be to a team that celebrated an eventuallly meaningless third period goal against the NYI like an OT winner. Because, while we know the capabilities of the pizza line when together, the league's most dominant line at its best, it doesn't put the team in the greatest position for long term success. The arguments for the reuniting are simple, and to most points rational. The Senators will score more; more goals means (ideally) more wins. Offensive pressure, goals, and wins all generate confidence, which will trickle down the lineup. Alex Auld won't play with the worry that he needs a shutout just to keep his team in the game; Mike Fisher and Antoine Vermette won't be gripping their sticks trying to live up to their new contracts and new roles. A weight of pressure will be lifted off the shoulders of all involved, including the big three, whose positioning, quick reaction, passing ability, cycling pressure and all-around battle level is always highest with each other.

But there are legitimate concerns to be addressed whenever the three are put together, which all go back to the reason they were split apart in the first place. The first, is that Heatley and Spezza should be able to produce on their own, with or without each other and certainly with or without Alfredsson. With the personnel the Senators have, there is no reason Hartsburg can't find two equal offensive lines with which to work. The second reason follows: without splitting up the big three, the Senators are a one-dimensonal threat which, if neutralised by a strong defensive centre or a couple tough blueliners, will make the team uncompetitive at every turn except against the weakest or most injury-riddled club. By placing Alfredsson on the second line, they force the opposition to defend against two equal threats, either splitting their defensive effectiveness, or still ganging up on the top line and allowing the second some freedom. Then there is the matter of allowing the Senators' secondary producers (Fisher, Vermette, Kelly, Foligno) the opportunity to play with a decent playmaker, something they lack in their own abilities.

Unfortunately, when the Senators are playing the way they currently are, with the big three snake-bitten and ineffective offensive, neither option seems particularly appealing. Reunite them, and you are only playing into the belief that the Senators cannot possible function without loading up the big guns, and that Heatley and Spezza cannot generate anything without Alfredsson there to guide them. And even if the reuniting is successful, once they meet punishing opposition and Hartsburg attempts to split them up, the panic and uninspired play will return, because everybody believes this team can only succeed with Alfredsson on the top line. But keep them apart, when everyone is failing offensively, and the lack of confidence breeds all the same, along with frustration which rarely seems to be a motivator for this team, only a roadblock.

Clearly, the situation is not an easy one for Hartsburg to address. More concerning still, is what will happen if the big three do not immediately show results upon being reunited. This third scenario is more alarming that anything, but fortunately history shows the opposite. If Heatley, Spezza and Alfredsson can begin to generate some even-strength offense, it will be the first step in getting this wayward season back on track.