Monday, November 12, 2007

Mid-November Report

5 weeks - time flies when you're having fun, eh? The Ottawa Senators are off to one of the best starts in NHL history and sit at 14-2 heading into the five day break in mid-November. Taking the idea that it is always best to go on a break on a winning note, the Sens took down division rival Montreal on Saturday before hosting the Sabres in Ottawa next Thursday.

It seems like a natural time to start to really evaluate the state of the team at this point of the fresh season. Enough games have been played for fans and management to get a better idea of how the lines will roll, which forwards are finding the twine, and which defenceman are ready to put bruises ahead of beauty. Here's a quick breakdown from the eyes of this beholder:

Let's be honest here - there are the first three guys and then there are the rest of them. Without a doubt, Daniel Alfredsson has been the best player on the team, and quite possibly the conference, showing that there might be some benefits of a short summer after all. Spezza, though out with a groin injury right now, and Heatley are continuing their love affair and put it on paper for the world to see with their 7- and 6-year contract extensions, respectively. Spezza hasn't found the back of the net as much, but he continues to feed it to that other guy that can, as Heatley continues to develop into one of the top two-way players in hockey.

As for the rest of the forwards, it has really been a case of the "different guy each night" cliché. One day it is Fisher, the next it is Vermette, then newcomer Randy Robitaille, and the list goes on. Secondary scoring was a question mark for a couple of reasons: one, because the Anaheim Ducks showed what can happen if the top line gets shut down, and two, because Bryan Murray said repeatedly that he wanted another top-six forward to balance out the lines. He is fully aware of the potential in the secondary forwards, but he's also fully aware that it is easy for them to lay back and rely on the pizza line to deliver the wins.

If Ottawa is to continue its torrid pace into the postseason, which is still months and months away, it will need Fisher, Vermette, and Eaves to chase that 20-goal plateau. Todd White once had 60 points centering Alfredsson in Ottawa - Fisher doesn't have the luxury of having the captain on his right, but he also gets to bypass the opponent's top defensive pairing so he needs to chase the 60-65 point mark this year to take the next step.

Much like where the top pair left off, Phillips and Volchenkov continue their monstrous efforts on the blue line. Volchenkov took the early NHL shot block lead and will likely not give it up, and Phillips has the city completely forgetting that big guy that used to play for us a couple of years ago. Perhaps most refreshing, though, is the rebound performances of Meszaros and Redden to date. While they still won't lay one solid bodycheck and will continue to get hammered by forecheckers, the two of them have rediscovered their communication and poise and are far better at clearing pucks out from the paint. Both players are due for contracts next summer, one looking for a raise and the other looking for a paycut. Whatever offer Murray tenders to Redden will directly affect half of the third pairing. Perhaps the biggest loser of the summer, Joe Corvo had his +/- leading defensive partner, Tom Preissing, replaced by aging cold-cock afficionado, Luke Richardson. Richardson has definitely held his own back there, but paired with Corvo, these guys will see limited ice time all season long. If Corvo was looking to build off his solid postseason last year with more minutes and a more important role, he can think again. Truth be told, Happy Feet looks a bit lost back there and might be trying to overcompensate in the massive change in speed in his partner - Richo doesn't get up and down the pad quite as fast as Preissing could. If Redden signs, it is because Corvo is on his way out. Simple as that.

Who would have thought this would even be a topic a few months ago? Not me. Ironically, I supported Gerber indefinitely last year and was constantly ripped on by other media outlets and fans alike. Emery stole the job, saved our fall, and rode on the coattails of a possessed captain all the way to the Finals. Job secure, right? Wrong. A surgery recovery that dragged on has now cost Emery his icetime and possibly his job in Ottawa altogether. Rumours are abound that management is tired of his poor work ethic and debbie downer attitude around the room - there is talk of a deal to LA. Meanwhile, Gerber has made the necessary saves and is showing us all why he was given that $11M contract a couple of years ago. His rebounds are still out of control and he has been a true beneficiary of the defensive system in place in Ottawa, but that doesn't take away from his performance to open the season. He will make Emery earn every single minute he plays, and that is all you can ask of your supposed backup goalie. The only question is if Emery will push him back for the time, or just let him take the job.

Special Teams:
Really quick here - powerplay is trying to be too fancy. Get the puck down low to Spezza, let him find Alfredsson in the slot of Heatley on the goal mouth and end it. Our inability to score on every single 5-on-3 makes me sick. Penalty kill is lights out and leads the league in shorties, to boot.

All in all, I don't think Ottawa is playing its best hockey yet but they certainly look fantastic. Their passes are crisp and while it often goes unmentioned, their neutral zone play has been downright scary. Other teams' fans think that their boys aren't playing well against Ottawa when this is merely a testament to the Sens' ability to govern between the blue lines and exploit every single mistake made by the opponent. This group reminds me a lot of Detroit in 2003 - just a well-oiled machine who can only lose because of a lack of focus and effort. There isn't a more talented team in the Conference, and possibly the league. That being said, no trophies are handed out in mid-November. If the season ended this time last year, we'd finish in 12th place! Let's push the guys to maintain this focus and intensity for, what, another 8 months or so?