Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Draft Outlook : Part Two (Granlund)

In the second part of this ongoing series (part one can be found
here), we'll take a look at the second of five prospects likely to be available at the Senators' draft spot in the 2011 NHL Draft.

Today, our potential draftee, from Helsinki of the Finnish SM-Liiga, is diminutive center Mikael Granlund. He's consistently put up a point per game or more for the last three years, with his highest point total of 57 points in 35 games coming with Karpat in the Jr. A league. He's also good in the clutch, having scored the game-winner in the WJC Under-18 bronze medal game.

The NHL's official website lists Granlund at 5'10", 180 lbs. With Spezza standing 6'3" and Fisher at 6'1", it's definitely worth considering getting a smaller center. Although he's not a speedy player by most accounts, he can make plays with the best of them, with many scouts comparing him to a young Saku Koivu.

The major downside to Granlund's game, much like Bjugstad's in the last entry, is fairly self-evident. His size is both a blessing and a curse, in that although a few feet less can make a player less easy to hit, it also kills their own ability to be a particularly physical player. That isn't Granlund's style, but the option of physicality would be a nice one to have. Still, at best it's not a hindrance, and at worse it will limit his potential.

Also, side note: NHL.com lists his favourite team as the Canadiens and his favourite player as Crosby. Ew.

Personally, I'm hoping for Granlund. He seems like as sure a bet as any in this draft, and if he falls to us I'll be cartwheeling down Bank Street. What do you think?

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Draft Outlook : Part One (Bjugstad)

In the first of a few segments, I'll be taking a look at some of the players the Senators could be looking at in the upcoming draft. Keeping in mind that we've got Cowen, Wiercioch, Karlsson, Gryba and Smith either already on the team or on the verge of making it, I'll assume that our first round pick will be used on a forward. Furthermore, based on our recent troubles with Russians, (Kaigorodov, Nikulin and Yashin to name a couple) I'll also assume that we'll be steering clear of guys like Kabanov, Burmistrov, Tarasenko and Kuznetsov. Lastly, I'll only be profiling the players Ottawa has any chance of drafting. If you're looking for a bio on Taylor Hall, then I'm sure there's hundreds of Bruins and Oilers blogs to assuage your desires.

Without further ado, on to our first prospect - from Blaine High School in Minnesota, Nick Bjugstad. He looks like Brian Lee and he comes from Minnesota, sure. But that's where the similarities end. Bjugstad, a big-bodied centre, is a good fit for the Sens, assuming he keeps up his current pace. According to The Hockey News, he is a "huge, talented player bound for the University of Minnesota", which is exactly the type of player we need. No, not necessarily "bound for the U of M", but someone who can play the second-line centre role behind Spezza. Bjugstad's 60 points in 25 games this season indicate to me that he could definitely slide into that role if needed, with a bit of training up. Of course, it's worth noting that those numbers were put up against high school opponents - definitely not the fiercest players. Scouts interviewed by THN seemed to think that Bjugstad suffers from consistency issues, and while this isn't exactly comforting news, it's not like he'd be the first player in Sens history to do so. He's also big enough, with a 6'4", 188 lbs. frame to throw around. He has said in interviews that he tries to model his game after Joe Thornton. Spezza is the unquestioned #1 centre on this team, that's nothing new. It would be nice to be able to ease the burden on his shoulders, though, and Bjugstad would probably be able to do so and allow Spezza to be the high-risk, high-reward player we know he can be.

The downsides are also easy enough to list. Firstly, the inconsistency issues brought up are worrying. The best case scenario would be an offensive dynamo like the aforementioned Thornton. Worst case scenario? Does Alex Daigle ring any bells? 137 points in the QMJHL didn't transfer to the NHL style of play, and Daigle was traded away to Philadelphia. The same thing could happen with Bjugstad. A lack of consistency coupled with weak opponents could result in a bigger draft bust that Lawton and Wickenheiser, or it could result in the greatest #9 overall pick since Dion Phaneuf. Only time will tell.

What do you think, Sens fans? Will Bjugstad fall to Ottawa at #16 overall?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Goaltending. Seriously, what the hell?

Another year come and gone, same goalie questions. Neither of our goalies have legitimate starter numbers. Both are maddeningly inconsistent. We have our “goalie of the future” in the system. Meanwhile, our best paid goalie, usually a benchwarmer, puts up stellar numbers in the playoffs and all of a sudden the fanbase is rabid with cries of “Leclaire for life!” and “Worth every penny!”, while collectively shunning Elliott.

I’m a Leclaire fan, so this isn’t exactly fun for me to write, although it’s so ridiculously obvious to most that follow the Sens. Leclaire isn’t the answer. When he’s on, he puts up Hasek-esque numbers. When he’s off, think Lalime in the playoffs. Unfortunately, he’s off more than on. His numbers aren’t exactly confidence-inspiring either. 34 games, 12 wins, 16 losses, two of which were in OT or shootout. 0.887 save percentage, 3.20 GAA. Definitely not starter numbers, and although his 0.920 save percentage and 2.84 GAA in the playoffs is more encouraging, it’s just not enough to say he deserves the larger chunk of time in nets.

Take Elliott, now. Polar opposite of Leclaire. Lights out in the season, especially during that 11-game streak. Streaky down the stretch, invisible in the playoffs. His numbers in the season are decidedly better than Leclaire’s in the season: 55 games, 29 wins, 22 losses, 4 of which came in OT or SO, .909 save percentage, 2.57 GAA. Those numbers are somewhat similar to Leclaire’s playoff numbers, but Elliott’s playoff .853 save percentage and 4.14 GAA are a lot closer to Leclaire’s season numbers, which are the kind of numbers you just can’t win regularly with, especially not in the playoffs. Both goaltenders had win-loss records of 1-2, but those numbers are misleading. One of Leclaire’s losses should be attributed to Elliott, since the team really only woke up once Ells was pulled after allowing 4 goals on 19 shots.

What of our goalie of the future, Robin Lehner? Past goalies of the future range from disastrous (Mathieu Chouinard, a two-time Sens draft pick who only ever started one game in the NHL with the Ducks), to adequate (Jani Hurme was a solid, if unspectacular backup) to pretty good (Ray Emery…say what you want about his attitude, but he could stop a puck). The jury’s still out on past goalie of the future and current goalie of the present, Brian Elliott. Sens fans beating themselves up over our less than stellar goaltending point to Lehner as a bright spot. I’d love to believe that he’ll become the next incarnation of Patrick Roy and steal games left, right and center. But I’m a cynical person. I’ve heard of enough Matt Chouinards, Jim Careys, Justin Pogges, Al Montoyas and Rick DiPietros to know better. I think it’s more likely that Lehner turns into a serviceable goalie, like any number of goalies that have come through our system. I just don’t see him being the long-term answer.

As a general rule, the players who are paid the highest are also given more opportunity to succeed, so it’s a fair bet that Leclaire will initially be appointed starter next season. If he can stay healthy, great for him, and I look forward to a productive season from him. If not, Elliott can hold down the fort, but I wouldn’t expect a finish any better than the one we got this year. At this point, there’s really only three options for a bright future at goaltender, and only the last one has the possibility of happening this year: pick up another via trade or free agency; hope that Lehner is the secret lovechild of Brodeur and Roy; or pray to the almighty hockey Gods that Elliott and Leclaire put up decent numbers this year.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Hennessy gone

According to the official website of HC Lugano, Josh Hennessy has signed a one year deal overseas. With this signing, Patrick Wiercoch is the only leftover of the Martin Havlat trade...so no pressure, Pat.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Left, Right and Center

The bottom six forwards in place, it's time to turn our attention to the top-6. I think it's fairly obvious who goes in there, but chemistry is even more important on the first two lines than the last two. Sure, you could put Kovalev, Michalek and Spezza together, but all you get out of that is a trio that passes the puck too much. There's just not much firepower there. And you could put Regin, Alfredsson and Cullen (should he re-sign) together, but Regin needs someone to get him the puck. I don't have a doubt in my mind that Cullen can get it done, but if the playoffs showed us anything, it's that Regin and Spezza just clicked. For what it's worth, I think either you put Spezza and Regin together, or you drop Regin to the third line. Regin's a solid player, but take away his playmaking center and you're left with a grinder-type player, something Ottawa doesn't need.

So let's try it this way:
Regin - Spezza - Kovalev
Michalek - XXXXX - Alfredsson

I can already hear both my readers complaining that Kovalev hasn't played like a first line player. And hey, no argument here, you're spot on. But if Regin stays as dynamic with Spezza feeding him the puck, can you imagine how explosive he'll be if he's taking pucks from Kovalev AND Spezza? Think about the positive impact Regin's hard-nosed backchecking could have on Ottawa's favourite whipping boy, Spezza. Think of how dangerous this line would be to contain, especially if Spezza and Kovalev gel.

Second line... Michalek is fast. We know this. Alfredsson's losing a step, partly because of injuries, partly because of age. Pairing these two together is a high-risk, high-reward duo. Either you get an offensive force with a defensive touch, or you get a disjointed crew of misfits. The Xs, of course, are placeholders. Ideally, I'd like to see the Sens re-sign Cullen and move some money around (maybe by dealing Kelly, who I've never really cared for), but in the Cap world, that's not always doable. An M-C-A line would definitely be a speedy line with a fair amount of defence. The question is, can Murray pull it off?

And, more importantly, what if he can't? That leaves a pretty gaping hole at center. Fisher, a good player by reputation and historically, has proven that he's not a number two center-type player. He's best suited to the third line where he can play his style of game. If NEEDED, of course he'll take this spot. A glance at the depth chart on
Hockey's Future, combined with the info from my last post, tell me that, while we have Silfverberg, Caporusso and Greening on their way, there's not much in terms of immediate help. Zubov crawled off to Russia after he didn't get his way. At the rate they're playing, O'Brien and Bass look unlikely to crack the roster anytime soon. And I'll admit I don't know much about Derek Grant, but that's not a good thing.

Where do we go from here? Do we make a trade for a top-6 guy, shedding unwanted cap bucks in the process? Do we re-sign Cullen and hope we can replace Volchenkov on the cheap? Do we roll with lines anchored by Spezza-Fisher-Kelly-Winchester? Or do we play a winger at center to see if they can successfully transition? There's definitely no lack of fringe NHL talent on this team, but when the chips are down, our second line is as identity-less as Stephen Harper. Too soon to be cracking politics jokes? Fair enough. But it's never too soon to think about how we're going to balance our lineup this season to get the most competitiveness out of this team.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Depth perception

Ottawa was once touted as a 'one-line team' not too long ago. Since the trade of Dany Heatley, winner of the Douchebag of the Year award, and Murray's signings of cheap college students and veteran grinders, this previously one-dimensional team can now boast its depth, one that is nearly unparalleled in the entire NHL--among the bottom six forwards, at any rate. Murray's drafting, free agent pickups and remnants of the Muckler era have left our bottom two lines looking fairly solid, if not spectacular.

The lines and pairings are always subjective, but the way I see it, our bottom two lines as they stand are:

Foligno-Fisher-Z. Smith
Ruutu - Kelly - Neil

The 3rd line above is a gritty one that can definitely provide a spark of energy in any system. All three guys on the line aren't afraid to go into corners or get aggressive. The major downfall of this line, though, is the lack of finishers. Most of the goals scored by this line will be garbage goals, rebounds and the like. In short, don't expect the finesse you'd get from the top line.

The RKN line, meanwhile, is the very definition of a 4th line: Ruutu agitates, Neil enforces and Kelly dumps the puck into the offensive zone. All three are decent defensively, and there's no real liability to speak of in putting these three on the ice, beyond a lack of firepower. Then again, the 4th line isn't typically a high-scoring unit.

Beyond the aforementioned lines, other players that aren't listed include Shean Donovan, Ryan Shannon, Jesse Winchester, Jonathan Cheechoo, Bobby Butler, Martin St. Pierre, Kaspar Daugavins, Ryan Keller, Cody Bass and Josh Hennessy. We've seen all these players, with the exception of Bass and Hennessy, log some minutes with the Sens this season. Some were good (Donovan), some were average and unnoticeable (Daugavins, Keller) and some were disastrous (Shannon, Cheechoo). The fact reamins, however, that we have enough depth players to form three more lines of bottom six pairings.

This depth was tested during the playoffs, with the loss of Alex Kovalev and Milan Michalek. Both big guns went down due to injuries, making Coach Clouston put Cheechoo, Shannon and Donovan in the lineup at varying points in the series. Donovan played effectively in his few games, while Cheechoo was average and uninspired, and Shannon proved he is too small to be a factor in a playoff series. In an ideal world, none of these three would have drawn into the lineup, but desperate times call for desperate measures.

Depth is key to any kind of success, and the Senators aren't lacking in that sense. A good aspect of having such a deep prospect pool is the advantage of being able to rotate roster spots to put in, say, a small forward against a fast team, or a grinder against a tougher team. The upshot of the situation, though: would you have confidence in a 4th line of Shannon-Winchester-Cheechoo? Didn't think so. Depth is nice, but only if you can be sure that it won't lose you games. There's a reason these guys aren't full-time NHLers.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

On the defensive

Most elite teams in the League have
at least one all-star defenseman. Detroit has Lidstrom, San Jose has Boyle, Pittsburgh has Gonchar, Washington has Green, Chicago has Keith...the list really goes on. Ottawa will one day have Karlsson as our elite, go-to guy, but he's not quite there yet. For now, our anchor in the back end is Anton Volchenkov, a shot-blocking machine and probably the best goalie, let alone defenseman, Ottawa has ever had.

The sad truth is that we've probably already seen the A-Train's last game in a Senators jersey. Since rejecting a 5-year, $20M offer shortly after the Olympics, negotiations haven't looked too promising from an outsider's perspective. It's rumoured that he's looking for $5M a season, definitely a hefty price tag for a one-dimensional defensive defenseman, albeit one of the best in the League.

Comparing numbers between Volchenkov and defensemen with similar stats:

--Anton Volchenkov: 64 games, 153 hits, 172 blocked shots, UFA (made 2.5M in 2009/10)

--Stephane Robidas:82 games, 269 hits, 177 blocked shots, 3.3M

--Andy Sutton: 72 games, 197 hits, 204 blocked shots, UFA (made 3M in 2009/10)

--Dennis Seidenberg: 79 games, 166 hits, 215 blocked shots, UFA (made 2.2M in 2009/10)

--Brett Clark: 64 games, 55 hits, 162 blocked shots, UFA (made 3.5M in 2009/10)

--Zbynek Michalek: 72 games, 80 hits, 156 blocked shots, UFA (made 1.2M in 2009/10)

Considering the amount of games he's played, it's pretty impressive that Volchenkov finished 8th in the league in blocked shots this season, behind Seidenberg, Sutton, Keith Ballard, Greg Zanon, Chris Pronger, Dan Girardi and Robidas. The list above clearly shows that the market for shot-blocking defensemen is very rich this year. Volchenkov is an important part of our blue-line, obviously, but we really can't afford him if he wants anything more than 4.5M, and I'd be willing to bet that if he doesn't, one of the UFAs with similar numbers will.

As for Andy Sutton, we all saw him completely devour Leopold's soul in the playoffs. That's the exception to the rule, though. Aside from his occasional big hit, he's looked slow and out of the play quite often. I wouldn't mind keeping him on, but nothing more than $2M a season, a figure that I doubt he'll take.

So where does that leave our defense? Ideally, we could sign both Sutton and Volchenkov for $6M and be set in terms of shut-down guys. But that's just a pipe dream. Realistically, I think both Volchenkov and Andy "Are you an expert?" Sutton will walk, freeing up some cash to go after a similar defenseman. It wouldn't surprise me to see BM go after Michalek, in the hopes that having his brother, Milan, here will make Ottawa an easier sell. I wouldn't want him to go after Seidenberg, the price will be way too high. Paul Martin from New Jersey would also be worth considering, and since he's coming off an injury-reduced season, the price would probably be a bit cheaper. The question that has to be asked, though, is whether or not he's damaged goods. The last name I'll throw out is Dan Hamhuis, who Nashville has not yet re-signed and who could probably be had for a bit cheaper than the others.

The same names will be thrown out countless times before July 1st and/or Ottawa's re-signing of Volchenkov/Sutton. But count on Murray to try for one of them. Every team with high aspirations has a high-level defenseman. If we hope to stay competitive for the next few years, we'll need a guy who can inspire confidence back there. God knows the goalies aren't doing it for us.