Friday, October 30, 2009

How Deep is our Depth?

Our first true test of the season isn't a certain opponent or a difficult road trip. It is battling the injury bug. These things are inevitable over the course of a long season, especially with the lunchpail style that Clouston has us playing. Each team battles the bug and so I'm happy to see the team isn't using it as an excuse for the complete bush league effort they put forth in Tampa on Thursday.

The test that will be presented to the team will be to see if our depth is just as good as we all think it is. The Michalek trade brought us two forwards (though only one of them has actually played so far this season...). Add this to the Kovalev signing and the emergence of Peter Regin as a decent player and we're advertising ourselves as a 4-line team that isn't nearly as top heavy as in the past.

Well, a pair of injuries are going to test just how deep we are. First, Jason Spezza is out (day-to-day) with what is believed to be a re-aggravated back injury. These things can be tricky and Clouston has eluded that this has been nagging Spezza since before the season. He has been ruled out for the Atlanta game Saturday and we aren't sure when he'll return. That means Ryan Shannon is pressed back into duty. After watching Thursday's game, it didn't feel like our 'depth' was quite where we thought it would be. Taking away one player, even if it is our most talented skater, shouldn't mean that the offence shuts down. I know it is one game and they travelled the night before, rah rah rah, so let's see how this goes in the next week.

When you take out Spezza, Kovalev floats all night, and Cheechoo has proven useless, the forward ranks seem to lack the depth we're praising. Fisher, Alfie, and Michalek have all looked solid all year long. Foligno really needs to step into a full-time role right now. Shannon needs to earn his icetime. Kovalev...ahhh, I have nothing to say about him. And Cheechoo, we're just hoping for any sign of life.

But the issues run back to the blueline, too. Anton Volchenkov is out a few weeks and not only does it mean we're missing our best shutdown player, it changes the makeup on the ice. First, the pairings get skewed and Campoli gets stuck playing with Brian Lee, who looked awful Thursday (full disclosure: I'm pulling for Lee, but he wasted a big opportunity in Tampa and stunk it up). It also means the forwards have to backcheck even harder because we don't have a warrior blocking the shots. Don't underestimate what A-Train does for the transition, as forwards don't all have to crash their own net and can focus on breaking out, knowing that the Russian will stick his body in front of anything.

The Volchenkov injury can expose a major weakness on the blueline. Phillips and Kuba isn't really a shutdown pair or a transition pair. I was hoping Carkner would get that spot with Big Rig so Kuba could stay with Campoli and spread out the task list. Instead, Campoli babysits Lee out there while Picard and Carkner hold their own in the third pairing (dare I say anything bad about Picard and risk feeling the wrath of canucnik).

Hey, I think we've got more depth than in years past. We roll four lines better than ever before. Our defencemen aren't quite up to snuff as we start leaning on four guys in the last 15 minutes, but they're getting by. But as long as Spezza and Volchenkov are out, our depth is tested. First assignment - facing a Thrashers team going through the same problem with Kovalchuk being out with the foot thingy. If the Sens are really capable of beating an opponent with all four lines, Saturday afternoon would be a nice time to show it off. Table is set. My guess is that Murray reaffirms his need for a better defenceman and realizes the forwards are good enough so long as they all show up to play.


Sacul said...

Depth doesn't mean you have another guy just as good who can step in when there's an injury. If that was the case, he'd already be in that role. Depth just means you have NHL quality players you can call upon.
For the Sens, they have excellent forward depth most other teams would dream of. Of course missing Spezza is a loss and there isn't another Spezza waiting in the wings. It's the same thing for guys around the league like Savard, Gaborik, Sedin, etc.
Productive forwards won't be the issue with the Sens, even with a floating Kovalev and Cheechoo doing exactly what anyone observant said he would do.
The team made a decision to spend some money on the fourth line, which left the roster hole on D. When everyone is healthy, the Sens have a good top 3. They don't have one of those elite guys (Chara, Markov, Lidstrom, etc.) that can play in all situations and they're quite rare...unless one is drafted there isn't one coming soon. Phillips, Volenchkov and Kuba is a nice top 3. Kuba is very underrated because he doesn't hit a lot. He's very steady and consistent with his point production. He can play in all situations and doesn't panic. Using one of Campoli, Picard, Carkner or Lee (and Karlsson before) in the top 4 is a challenge, because none of those guys is at that level. When one of the top 3 is hurt, it's pretty scary...the Sens are basically playing with 4 D-Men that are "bottom pairing" guys.
With the cap, that is where the team decided to leave the hole. Many other teams decided to leave it on their 3rd and 4th lines, or in goal. I think Bryan Murray looked at what is out there and made the right call. He got his team a "Grade A" goalie and a good young backup. He spread things out with the forwards, giving the Sens the best 4th line in the league. He knows he's stuck with Cheechoo (thanks Whinypants) and that Kovalev is part-time...nothing unexpected here. He couldn't afford another Top 4 D before the season and nothing good was available anyways. I'm sure he's looking around the league, and hoping to hell Volchy comes back soon and the other 2 stay healthy. Clouston has been very good at juggling, but his options are pretty thin on the blueline.
I've been looking around the league for D-Men that will be UFAs next year (possible rentals.) Anyone else notice Milan Michalek's brother Zbynek in Phoenix? This guy is GOOD...would look nice in a pairing with Kuba. I wish Phoenix would just play crappy like they were supposed to...maybe he would be available. After seeing Milan play up close, it's easy to want to be a Michalek-aholic!

duff said...

Sacul, re: the fourth line, this wasn't planned out. There is no way Murray pencilled Kelly in as fourth line centre when he gave him over $2M per year on draft day two years ago. I'd bet he even thought Ruutu would compete for third line checking minutes. He didn't intend to put together the most expensive fourth line out there.

I'm also not suggesting that Spezza's production or skill is replaceable. I know that depth refers to the ability to fill holes, roll four lines, and score through the lineup. I just think we overstate just how 'deep' we are. I know there is no point complaining Cheechoo because we had no choice but to take him. I can, however, say that I still detest the Kovalev contract. Fair or not, we are stuck with $8M in two players that provide very little benefit. That kills depth. Kovalev, to me, is poor cap management on Murray's part and cost us the opportunity to have a few warm bodies that are actually NHL calibre players (sorry, Ryan Shannon).

Sacul said...

I don't think the fourth line was out of the question when signing Kelly. If he wasn't the only guy capable of playing centre out of Neil-Ruutu-Donovan and himself, he'd spend less time down there. It just shows how versatile he is. If you look at his minutes played, he's much more than a typical "Fourth Liner", as is Ruutu.
The emergence of guys like Regin, Foligno and even your fave pal Shannon have made the Sens a team where the lines a blurred, so to speak. It's often tough to name them 1-2-3-4.
I really give Murray credit for identifying some good values and snapping them up. Don't forget that Kelly had interest around the league, just like Neil.
As for Kovalev, he could score 10 goals in 6 games and still be controversial. He's very frustrating to watch, as he always has been. I really think he's being paid $5 Million to win the team about 5 games, and the total is at 0 so far. I also think he's the type of guy that doesn't react well to coaching or direction of any kind, but doesn't get too vocal about it. I'm sure he'd rather just be on his off side right wing with a couple decent forwards that would let him have the puck most of the time. I'm also pretty sure Clouston doesn't feel like rearranging the whole team to accommodate a floater. I guess only time will tell if Kovalev decides to show up often enough to dominate those 5 games.