Saturday, August 01, 2009

Enough is enough; Oilers cut off talks

Let's think this one over - is this big news or just another blip on the radar? It has been exactly a month since Dany Heatley said he needed more time to decide if he'd go to Edmonton in the completed trade. So when the Oilers say that they are no longer interested in pursuing this trade this week, is that really a big deal?

My initial reaction was one of surprise and disappointment. I truly thought that Edmonton would stay in this until training camp. It really isn't much different than a team pursuing a free agent that is holding out for a better option. Teams put together videos of their program, they visit the players at their homes, and they publicly discuss their interest. In the case of the Oilers here, it always seemed to have a touch of desperation, but it was really just a team doing everything it could to acquire a 50-goal scorer. I thought they'd stay in it as long as it took.

But perhaps the writing was on the wall on June 30th when said he needed more time to think about it. When the Oilers called Heatley's agents to confirm that he'd waive his no-movement clause, the call shouldn't have shocked anyone. Barry and McAlpine must have known that this conversation was taking place and must have passed that information on to Heatley. Regardless of if they thought Slats and the Rags would put together a better offer, they must have had that conversation within their camp about Edmonton and what their response would be. So when Heatley said he wasn't sure, it wasn't about needing more time; it was strictly about hoping that another team would put together a better offer. That clearly hasn't happened and again, I see this as a gross PR disaster for Heatley and company.

Why a PR disaster? Well, they basically held the Oilers hostage and used and abused their offer to go shopping elsewhere. Is it okay for Murray to use Edmonton's offer as a standard to go shopping? Absolutely, because he always knew that he would come back and accept that deal if Slats or Wilson or anyone else wouldn't match it. But Heatley clearly knew before June 30th that he wouldn't go to Edmonton and instead of flat out saying no to Murray before the trade leaked, he let his agents spend the next month lobbying for other teams. If Heatley had no intention of going to Edmonton, then it was the responsibility of his agents to say in mid-June, or at the draft, or prior to free agency, to tell Murray an emphatic no, to stop talking to the Oilers.

And where do we go from here? Most pundits are now assuming that it is inevitable that Heatley is back in Ottawa this Fall when camp opens in six weeks. Some are still thinking that another team might finally step up and find a way to get this guy under their cap. One thing is for certain - Murray's bargaining power just took another hit. If you're Doug Wilson, you no longer have to match the Penner/Cogliano/Smid offer, right? Booboo says Cheechoo/Ehrhoff/1st rounder was already turned down by Ottawa so the question becomes whether or not Wilson feels he needs to up that offer and whether or not Murray feels that Heatley must not return to Ottawa. We've all heard the players, Murray, the Euge and others say they'd welcome Heatley back with open arms, but that has got to just be public relations.

Everyone from Heatley, his agents, and the entire Ottawa Senators organization wants this thing to end with Heatley sporting different threads next season. If the Oilers ship has sailed and they and Heatley don't want each other, then this might just come down to Murray taking whatever offer is on the table, regardless of the return.

Let me as you this: does Murray have to take a lowball offer just to move Heatley, or just bring him to camp and make amends?

Friday, July 31, 2009

Blueline top to bottom - Gator, Picard, and Lee

Okay, so we're gonna cram the last three guys into one installment so that we can wrap up the Blueliners Top to Bottom in one work week.

Jason Smith

This guy was brought in on a two-year contract to be a wrecking ball on defence and to carry on a long career of top leadership. This guy was fresh off the C with the Flyers and his signing was more or less applauded in hockey circles because he could skate decently and was a rock star as a leader.

What happened, though, was that Gator had lost a step out there and couldn't really keep up with the new, fast-paced Eastern Conference. Gone was the clutch and grab and here were the Ovechkins and Malkins that could skate like the wind. Smith certainly was one of the toughest guys on the team, but he had a tough time with the speed. What really hurt his time in Ottawa, though, was that he had a tough time finding his game in Hartbsurg's defensively responsible system. Doesn't make sense, eh? But Gator quickly became a stopgap out there, a guy that was solid in the dressing room and tough on the ice, but a slight liability against offensive opponents. It pains me to say this because I've loved this guy since he was captain in Edmonton because he'd go to hell and back for his teammates and that is the mindset we need in Ottawa, but the problem is that his time on the ice is becoming a problem.

Best moment as a Senator: The triple minor and game misconduct (16 minutes, if you're scoring at home) he took on Kaleta for trying to run Alfie. The penalty call was bogus, but this was a perfect representation of what Gator brings to a team. You don't mess with the captain.

Worst moment as a Senator: March 7th, 2008 - Jason Smith leaves the game against Buffalo with a lower body injury and nobody has seen him since. Rumours are abound that he is on LTIR and rumours are abound that this is Ottawa's professional and classy way of letting Gator retire with dignity (instead of sending him to the minors). Either way, it is probably the last time we see Smith in Ottawa.

2009-10 Expectation: Honestly and unfortunately, we should probably have zero expectations for Smith this season. There is zero indication that he fits into Murray's plans this Fall and it sounds like he'll either be packaged into the Heatley trade to Edmonton or he'll be placed on LTIR or he'll retire (and his contract will come off the books since he signed at 34 years old). As much as I love this guy and think he is one of the last true warriors in hockey, it appears his time in Ottawa, and maybe even the NHL, are over. We'll miss ya, Gator!

Alexandre Picard

I'm going to be honest with you here - I don't care much for this kid. He is a major liability defensively as he has shown terrible positioning and an inability to handle a forecheck. On the attack, he has a decent slap shot but isn't good enough with the puck to truly run either powerplay unit. Where does that leave this guy? On the third pairing and on the fast track out of town. There were stories that Murray insisted on Picard in the Meszaros trade with TB last year and if that is the case, then I think Murray and his comrades missed one. Kuba is solid, but Picard doesn't seem to have the potential to really step up like a Campoli or Lee. To me, Alex Picard is an equivalent of Brendan Bell but on a one-way contract. Rumoured to be trade bait, I don't think Picard is a lifer here and wouldn't be surprised if he is gone by the deadline.

He was hurt shortly before the trade deadline and didn't play more than two games under Clouston. In the interest of time, I'm not highlighting his best and worst moments in Ottawa. In other words, he didn't make many highlight or blooper reels.

2009-10 Expectation: I'll go a step further than in the Gator analysis because signs point to Picard still being on the roster this season. We know who the top four will be and that leaves Picard in that 14-16 minute range. My hope is that he is peddled out of town, but my belief is that he'll get some time on the second powerplay unit alongside Campoli and will muster up a few points. I'll agree that he has a strong shot and is something that we'll need on the man advantage, so he has the potential to pot some goals. That being said, he'll really have to earn his minutes under Clouston because he doesn't do anything 'great', including positioning. If he can get off to a fast start on the PP and in moving the puck through the neutral zone, he has a shot at getting decent minutes.

Projection: Limited playing time, look at Picard to get 10 goals and 12 assists for 22 points and he'll play to an even plus/minus. This is his last year before becoming an RFA, so Karlsson and Cowen's development will have a lot to say about whether Picard is retained. He's young but I just didn't see where he is going to improve.

Brian Lee

Why is it that so many Sens fans have given up on this kid? Quick reminder that this guy was a top ten draft pick and is 22 years old. While I understand that he was a Muckler pick and that guarantees nothing, and that I just called out Picard, a 23-year old, I truly feel like there is more to come from Lee. When Mucks drafted him, it was when we still had Chara and Redden on contract for another year and the GM was asked if Lee would be ready to step up in two years if one of those guys were gone. Muckler's response: "He better be". Now, it is clear that Lee wasn't completely ready for that jump but we have to keep in mind that players like this take a while to learn the game and fit into their role.

Lee stepped into the bigs two years ago, late in the year, when we choked our way through the 4 game sweep to Pittsburgh. He looked strong on the puck and showed great vision with his movement up the ice. Dare I say, he looked like and NHLer. Last year, though, he didn't really seize the opportunity to be the puck mover that Murray wanted. As a result, Lee is going to be under immense pressure this year to really show a solid step forward. Karlsson, Wiercioch, and Cowen will be on the roster in two years, so that gives Lee this season to show his worth. Add to this that it is a contract year for Lee and we'll see first hand if he is going to have a future in Ottawa. As far as I'm concerned, he is going to make a strong top four defenceman in the league someday. Whether that it is in Ottawa is in his hands, so we'll see what he does with this.

Low moment for Lee was that February 26th game hosting San Jose where Lee took 6 minutes in penalties, a minor followed almost immediately with a double minor, giving SJ the opportunity for two powerplay goals and a 2-1 win. This was seen as a low point and a solid learning experience for Brian Lee as he was taught to shut his damn mouth to the refs.

2009-10 Expectation: Like I said, Lee has 82+ games to prove his worth in Ottawa. If he doesn't become trade bait (courtesy of a strong Karlsson camp and first half), then he'll get third pairing minutes and will have to blow this up to work his way into Campoli's ice time. Like Campoli and Picard, Lee is in the last year of his deal before RFA status, so he needs to outplay those guys and show that he can handle a hit. He's very smart with the puck, but he hasn't figured out how to absorb a hit and keep the puck. It doesn't matter how poised you can be, if you can't take a hit, then you're up Brian Burke Creek.

Projection: As I said, I'm a Brian Lee fan and think he'll go down swinging. Look for 9 goals and 15 assists for 24 points and a +2. Good for a third pairing, but not great. Preissing put up better stats in a similar role. If he can play like Murray thinks he can, he'll stick around:

What are your thoughts? Who of Picard, Lee, and Smith will be here through next season?

Thursday, July 30, 2009

BTB - Chris Campoli

I kinda struggled with who to list fourth here in our Blueliners Top to Bottom feature. In terms of performance and games played last year, Campoli wasn't really around that long. But in terms of depth chart and importance to the team this year, Campoli slides nicely into that second pairing and top four minutes on the depth chart.

I was a big fan of the Campoli trade not just because it brought Comrie back (I haven't hid my affection for the skill that Comrie brings), but because I've seen Campoli as an untapped potential. Whether he was misused on the Island is irrelevant as he's ours now, and the question is whether or not he can thrive under the Clouston model. Campoli is a very strong passer and very strong skater, but isn't great at taking hits or a lot of pressure from a forecheck. If Clouston wants us playing an up-tempo game in all three zones, then Clouston will have to modify his game so that he can make a strong first pass a little bit quicker. Like Kuba, Campoli won't have to face the Ovechkins and Crosbys of the league and instead will be passing up ice against role players.

Another thing that I like about Campoli is that he seems like he's a good dude. I think he knows a good opportunity when it's in front of him, and he knows that his trade to Ottawa, coupled with this being a quasi-contract year (RFA next summer) presents him with a golden chance to make a permanent spot for himself on this roster. The downside is that if he does pretty well and Karlsson develops quickly, his agent might Preissing him right out of here with a contract demand that doesn't fit the structure. We're going to need to keep Campoli in that $2M range after this season for this to work. But that's next summer, let's focus on the now. I see Campoli rising to the occasion this season and putting up similar numbers to Kuba and really establishing himself as a legit NHL defenceman and not just a guy that cracks the lineup on non-playoff teams.

Best moment as a Senator: Well, he only had 25 games in town, so this is a tough one. He put up a pair of assists in his first game in Ottawa in a losing effort to Montreal and went on to post 7 points in his first 7 games. And here's a look at his first goal as a Senator against the Oil

Worst moment as a Senator: Again, not much to draw from as he wasn't around long enough to screw up too much. Plus, Campoli benefited from skipping the Hartsburg era and jumping right into the euphoria of the Clouston era.

2009-10 Expectation: Like I said earlier, this is an important season for Campoli. In fact, it isn't a stretch to say that this will be his most important season in his young career, given that he is being given an opportunity to put up some points and he's up for a new contract next summer. Add to that the pressure of being in the middle of the depth chart with two first round picks starting to breath down his neck in Karlsson and Cowen (three, if you are in the camp that believes Lee will have a big year). Look to Campoli to play 18-20 minutes a night, including a key role on the second powerplay unit. I really think he'll rise to the occasion as he has the speed to play Clouston's system and the hands to move the puck up the ice. His biggest weakness will need to be addressed and that is taking a hit and not giving up the puck in the process. He reminds me a lot of Happy Feet Corvo as he wants to absorb the hit and let the puck sit at his feet. The problem is that the hit can take him out of the play and the puck is there for the forecheckers to scoop away.

If Karlsson cracks the lineup, then I think he's paired with Kuba for the learning experience. If Karlsson goes to Bingo or back to Sweden, then Campoli will get those minutes alongside Kuba and will have a great opportunity to exceed his totals from last season. Kuba can help him with defensive zone coverage without holding him back offensively. Long story short, I think Campoli will be worth the first round pick.

Projection: Write this down - Campoli will be our goal scoring defenceman. Count on 15 goals and 22 assists for 37 points and a +6.

Am I out of my mind with this projection? Those 15 goals would be the most from a defenceman in Ottawa since Chara in 05-06.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

BTB - Filip Kuba

Slated in as either the third defenceman or the best offensive dman we have (take your pick), Filip Kuba is here to stay for the next three years. He is a solid offensive player, doesn't overwhelm anyone, and is pretty strong positionally. He'll rarely have to play critical defensive zone minutes or go up against top offensive players, and that allows Kuba to be our leading puck mover. Whether that is a good thing is still debatable, just because he isn't typically seen as a true puck moving defenceman (PMD, I believe is the acronym that Murray coined last year).

Kuba joined the team last year by chance as Andrej Meszaros negotiated his way out of town. Originally seen as a cross between a toss-in and a guy that could kinda plug a hole, Kuba turned out to be hands down the best player in the trade. According to rumours, Kuba was on the trade block leading into March's trade deadline for the simple fact that we hadn't extended him, but that was put to rest when he signed a 3-year extension at $3.7M a pop.

Best moment as a Senator: Rather than just one game, how about we recognize Kuba for putting on the new threads and opening the season with 11 points in his first 8 games. This quickly put to rest how we did in the Meszaros trade and gave us a bit of comfort on who was going to pass the puck up the ice.

Worst moment as a Senator: Kuba didn't really have a truly awful moment in what was a truly awful season for the team, but I'm sure he'd like to forget the 82nd game of the year in Toronto when he put up his season worst minus-3 in a 5-2 loss to the Leafs. What felt like an uplifting finish to a disappointing season turned out to just be...a disappointing season.

2009-10 Expectations: Seeing as how we didn't sign anyone else on the blue line other than the saviour, Erik Karlsson, Kuba will carry some expectation on his shoulders this year. Whereas last season, Murray hung it out in the media that he was looking to bring in another dman via trade, it is clear that our cap position this year doesn't allow much flexibility on the blue line. With that, we're going to expect Kuba to exceed his performance from last season. He's going to have to get far more pucks in the net (3 last year) and at least match what he put up in assists (37). Face it, he's our top offensive defenceman barring some unbelievable development in the off-season from Campoli or Lee.

Kuba can also take on a leadership role with guys like Lee and Karlsson. Obviously Phillips will help them with positioning and how to take a hit on the backcheck, but Kuba will help them read a defensive system as they carry the puck up the ice. The NHL is going to be much faster than anything Karlsson has seen, so any insight that Kuba can provide will just help with his development. Ironically, it will be Karlsson that slowly takes Kuba's icetime away, but that's not our point here. Now that Kuba has been around the block in Kanata, it is time to speak up in the room and really help Phillips with the defensive leadership.

Projection: Understanding that last season was Kuba's best statistical season, it would be great to see him build on that success with the responsibility that Clouston will give him. Look for 9 goals and 35 assists for 44 points, and a modest +3 in the plus/minus.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Foligno, Yzerman, and Bell

First and foremost, my sincerest condolences to Nick Foligno and his entire family after the passing of his mother, Janis (link). The link allows you to leave a message on the Sudbury Wolves page, the organization where Mike is coach and GM. Awful news for the entire hockey family and Nick will no doubt be playing with a heavy heart. It reminds all of us during a wild summer of Heatley talk that there is so much more to life than hockey. Our thoughts are with you, Nick and family!

On the business side of things, Off the Posts is noting that Director of Hockey Operations, Brent Flahr is on his way to Minnesota to join the Wild as Assistant GM. Let the rumours begin - does this open the door for Steve Yzerman to come to Ottawa? He's sitting in Detroit as Vice President of Hockey Operations and knows that Kenny Holland isn't going anywhere. Compare that to Ottawa where Bryan Murray is on the last year of his contract and it is widely speculated that he MUST make the playoffs this year. He and his nephew Timmy have their work cut out for them and perhaps Stevie Y recognizes this as his fast-track to a GM job. I'm officially starting the Yzerman to Ottawa as Director of Hockey Ops. It would at least cheer up the whole city, wouldn't it?

And finally, in news that I don't care much about, Brendan Bell is getting antsy in his pantsy. Look, reviews were mixed on his value to the team last year, but one thing is for certain - he's a 6th-7th defenceman at best and if he took a 2-way contract, I'd be happy to have him back. Otherwise, we're just too stacked with mediocre defencemen. I don't like Picard much, but he totally negates the need for Bell. At least now we're all coming to terms with this.

Thoughts on Yzerman?

BTB - Anton Volchenkov

Can I just cut and paste yesterday's post about Phillips? These two play such a similar style and both lack any sort of offensive instinct. The most glaring difference, outside of nationality, is that Volchenkov is often looking for the big hit at the blue line even if it pulls him out of position while Phillips will let the incoming forward across the blue line before trying to stand him up in the slot. When Volchenkov connects on his hits, it lights up the crowd and fires up the bench. When he misses, he has been able to count on Phillips to cut down the open ice left by his partner.

While Phillips takes barbs about slowing down, Volchenkov has made his way to iconic status in Ottawa for sticking his face in front of shots. This isn't necessarily fair to Phillips, it just means that people are starting to notice A-Train's shot blocking and hip checks quite a bit. Good timing since his contract of $2.5M is up this year and he's due for a sizeable raise. Personally, Volchenkov means as much to Ottawa as a Komisarek, wouldn't you agree? So does this mean that we have to give him $4.5M? We need to hope for the return of the hometown discount and trust that Murray can keep him for under $4M

Best moment as a Senator: Game winner in Game 4 at Pittsburgh, 2007. (give it til the 2 minute mark before Comrie's magic sets him up)

Worst moment as a Senator: Hard to come up with one. The puck in the face in the 2008 playoffs was a bit gross, but getting beat up by Shane Doan is probably the low point in an otherwise solid career.

2009-10 Expectations: Count on A-Train to continue on developing into a premier shutdown defenceman in the NHL. While he'll never receive Norris consideration and isn't in a league with a Chara or Stevens, he is solidifying his spot as a terribly difficult defender to play against. If paired with Phillips again this year, then he'll continue to get 20-22 minutes and play against the top forwards of the league. If the two of them are split up and Phillips gets a mentor role, then perhaps Volchenkov can be paired with an offensive player like Campoli or Kuba. What this does, though, is demand more of him positionally. My thought is that he's best when he can step up at the blue line and make a big hit or step into a slot and take a slapshot in the teeth. He needs another defensive partner that can match that style.

Projection: 27 years old and entering his 7th season, A-Train will up the numbers a bit this year in a contract season. Look for 4 goals, 17 assists for his first clip at 21 pts, with a nice +20 to go along with it. His performance with Phillips will go a long way toward getting our goals against back down to a respectable number.

If you question whether or not this dude is worth $4M or more on the open market, enjoy this. Might want to put it on mute, the song is just terrible:

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Blueline top to bottom - Chris Phillips

Here's the first of a daily segment this week where we're going to look at each defenceman in Ottawa. We'll do a quick historical look, then talk about potential and expectations for the upcoming season, and then give our point prediction.

First off, let's look at lifer Chris Phillips. Phillips has been a stalwart shutdown defenceman in Ottawa and the go-to defensive man since Chara left. Paired together with Anton Volchenkov, Phillips was at his best during the 2006-07 season en route to the Finals in holding top lines in check. He appears to have a lost a stride in the past two seasons, though, and fans are wondering if the game has gotten too fast for a slower defensive player. Phillips is the second in command behind Alfie and is one of the most popular players in the room and in the community. A good season in 2009-10 would go a very long way in restoring the faith of the fans, especially with two years remaining on his $3.5M contract and some young stars like Cowen and Wiercioch about two years from joining the roster.

Best moment as a Senator: Game 6 in 2003 in the Eastern Conference Finals against New Jersey, Phillips scores the winning goal in overtime to send it to a Game 7 back in Ottawa.

Worst moment as a Senator: This one is easy - the own-goal in Game 5 in Anaheim. Let's not talk about it anymore than that. We will not share video of this moment. I know we were losing that game anyway and the goal had little effect on the outcome, but it was a low point for the guy.

2009-10 Expectations: As I said earlier, Phillips needs to have a strong year. I still see him as a lifer in Ottawa, regardless of the accusations that he's 'losing a step'. I'm not pitching this as a 'because he does so much in the community' idea, I just believe that Phillips is very good at what he does. He's a shutdown d-man, not out there to score points and give the breakout pass, but to keep the puck out of our zone. Is he as fast as Ovechkin or Crosby or Malkin or Lecavalier? Absolutely not. But he's an extremely smart player and is rarely caught out of position. Add to this that he can play physical and block shots and he is a foundational defenceman. He is a poor man's Adam Foote and if he can come back this year with a plus season and get around 20-22 minutes a night, then he'll have served his purpose. Let's be honest here - Phillips isn't trade bait and he isn't in danger of not getting renewed when his contract expires in 2011. The sooner a kid like Karlsson can ramp up and hopefully take top pairing time, the sooner Phillips can settle into more of a 16-18 minute/night role. In the meantime, count on Phillips and Volchenkov being counted on for top pairing minutes again this year and a huge bounce back season.

Projection: Phillips isn't a point producer, so keep expectations in check. Count on 6 goals, 18 assists, for 24 points, and a strong +23 plus/minus rating. Statistically not his best season, but a firm step back in the right direction.

Draft Day 1996, for the nostalgic folks

This Week's Focus - Defence

First off, if you haven't seen them yet, here's a link to a handful of pictures from Spezza's wedding by Tony Caldwell of the Sun. Highlights include Brendan Bell in a clubbing black golf shirt, Bobby Orr the agent, and my favourite, Ray Emery shaking hands with a police officer. How did that conversation go down? "Thanks for pulling me over 3-4 time a week during my time in Ottawa, have we met?"

Second, the theme for this week is going to be on the defencemen on the roster. Each day, we'll dive into expectations, potential, strengths and weaknesses, etc. In the meantime, let us know who you think will be our top defender this year, who will surprise, who will disappoint, who won't be on the team by next summer...

Happy Sunday.