Saturday, January 30, 2010

Happy Hockey Day in Canada! updated post-game

Update post-game:
Great win, back and forth action, and amazing overtime. Hate blowing a two-goal lead, but the right team came out on top after a solid effort top to bototm.

Nick Foligno broke his leg on the shot block and is out 6-8 weeks. Awful news for a guy that has been playing well. Donovan or Winchester - who takes his spot?

Nine in a row, baby!

We all know that the Outdoor Classic on New Year's Day is a huge hit for the league. This year was no exception as the venue was great, the game was competitive, and the weather held up. A real great time.

I can make an argument that Hockey Day in Canada is just as special of a day for hockey fans...just not to NBC. There's something really amazing about how the event is put together in small town Canada, showing our true passion for the game and sharing so many incredible stories about the people and their love of hockey. It's funny that NBC has the Winter Classic to try and promote hockey to mainstream sports fans. In my opinion, if a mainstream sports fan really wanted to understand what this great sport meant to its passionate followers, they needn't do anything more than watch a few hours of Hockey Day in Canada. One of my favourite traditions on the schedule.

Perhaps what makes this one even better is that our team is playing so well right now. I've made no secret about my love for this team, but also about my cautious opinion on their ability to crank into the top eight. As it stands today, I'm eating my words. We're playing so well that instead of looking at the standings and saying how far up we are on 9th place, we're actually looking to see how far we are from 4th place!

I was listening to my iPod in the car on the way home from work today and on random play, the Sens theme song came on. If you think it's weird that I have the Sens theme song on my iPod, then you need to get a hold of yourself. It's a beauty of a song. Anyway, it got me thinking of some memories I have of the team over the successful years and how amazing it would be to get back to the playoffs. You know, it can be something that teams, fans, etc., can start to take for granted. Look at the Atlanta Braves when they were running the NL East for 13 years - their fans stopped coming to divisional series and just waited for the NLCS (if it came). It is safe to say that we ran into that trap a bit, too, don't you think? Of course we still packed the place, but we were always just assuming that we'd go through the 82 game stretch and then focus on the 'real' games. I compare it to the feeling you have when your car breaks down for a few days and you realize how crappy things can be when you don't have something that you assumed would always be there to help you.

But a funny thing happened after the Finals trip, didn't it? We now haven't won a playoff game since losing Game Five in Anaheim.

As the Sens theme song came on, I started thinking about the Duchesne goal to get us into the postseason in 1996, of the Tugnutt goal in Game Seven in Buffalo, of the back and forth games with the Leafs, of the heartbreaking loss to the Devils in 2003, of Patty Lalime owning the Flyers that same year, and then of the new rivalry with the Slugs with the pinnacle being the five game series win against the 1st place Slugs in 2007. Goosebumps, people. Think about those games, think about where you were, think about the excitement of every goal, every hit, every odd man rush. Holy crow, do I ever miss the playoffs!

Anyway, if you were wondering where this random ramble came from, it was just from thinking about Hockey Day in Canada and just how great it is to have a team that makes you proud to follow. Beyond the lunchpail approach, the blue collar workmanship, the solid effort, these guys are just fun to watch. For the first time this year, I started actually thinking about what it would be like to win a few playoff games. So as we take on the toilet seat tomorrow, I'm going to be thinking of the amazing game we love, the amazing team we bleed for, and the amazing possibilities of getting back into the playoffs.

Happy Hockey Day in Canada, Sens Fans!

Friday, January 29, 2010

What is it about these Sens?

Well sports fans, Sens win again! Are you surprised? Maybe. But over the last 8 games this team is hard to take as a surprise. Solid, convincing games both at home and on the road have made us and all Sens fans alike believe again. After an up and down first half, the boys seem to have found their groove and look like the elite team we've hoped they can be. Maybe Pierre Lebrun said it best when we commented on just how good of a team they are. But I want to break it down and discuss just what about this team has them on a 8 game winning streak and climbing up the Eastern standings.

The Stars are Aligned...and Scoring!
The boys are back in town! Since the return of our idol Daniel Alfredsson, the Sennies have never looked back. After missing too many games, in our mind, and on the end of a 5 game (horrific) losing streak, Alfie returned to spark the team into a winning juggernaught. Is he not the most valuable captain, nay player, in the NHL? He's proving it now. And remember how yours truly discussed that Spezza's injury, leading to a 20 game absence, could have been the best thing to happen to him? He was able to put his awful start and relentless media attention to bed, watch some games, rest his back and return with a vengeance! Spez is on a 5 game tear and despite a terrible pp effort earlier in the game, has played inspired, smart and effective hockey. And with the Watermelon Warrior back after a short absence, we're once again able to field two strong, threatening lines. Oh, and shall I include Kovalev in this group? I wouldn'tve after his troubling first half, but our $5MM man has picked up his game and his scoring, which we've been waiting to see.

No Sinking in the Deep End
Maybe secondary scoring is a better place to bring up Kovy. And while he's putting up points, I don't think his are expected to be secondary. I'm more referring to our third and fourth liners, even if some of them step up on the second. But guys like, Kelly, Shannon, Regin and Foligno have been pitching in where they should and when they need them to make a difference. Superior teams are able to field effective depth. Think of previous dynamos like Detriot and Jersey, even Pittsburgh last year - these teams had all forward lines rolling and contributing and this Ottawa team looks the same. And it doesn't stop there. Guys like Neil andRuutu are working hard to keep a spot deep in our hearts by playing good, solid hockey. Now if only Cheechoo can pot 50 goals in the last 30 odd games...

De-fense! De-fense!
What a turnaround for the back half! Where do we start? How about the most obvious and pleasantly surprising of the group in Karlsson. I'm not ready to give him the Norris, Calder and Hart like PMac was last night, but man he's looking great! Let's be honest, there was a lot of disappointment in our young hope early in the season. He looked small, out of place and with no flash of this 'awesome offensive ability' we were expecting. But the kid has made us all forget, hasn't he? He's playing with NHL confidence, showing some offensive flash but, more importantly holding down his own defensively. He's still a rookie, sure, but he's playing like the rookie we were hoping for the instant he was drafting. But it doesn't stop there. Big Rig and A-Train are once again the shutdown pair of two, or was it three, years ago. Not to say this is surprising, but I'd argue that Philly is playing some of the best hockey of his career, while A-Train keeps us relaxed whenever he's on the ice. While we remember than Karlsson's a rookie, does anyone remember that Carkner's technically still in his first campaign? I love that this guy consecutively kills penalties, plays his heart out and seems to make fewer mistakes each game. What a great story for the hometown kid. Even Campoli is finding his groove? When's the last time we bitched about Picard? Don't need to no more! Unfortunately Kuba holds that honour now, but I still have faith that he'll continue to find a steady game down the stretch.

Keepin' BE's and Winning G's
So, I'm very scared to board, sit down, throw on my iPod and order a $5 snack on the Brian Elliot train just yet - but even I can't argue that he's playing as best as any goalie I can remember in recent Sens history. TSN mentioned that the last goalie to put up such strong and consecutive numbers was Martin Prusek (which maybe justifies my hesitance to throw my eggs in the Elliot basket). The fact is that Elliot has been unstoppable. He's everywhere and seeing the puck through screens, it seems. And despite my concerns, I love it! This streak started with everyone jumping on the Mike Brodeur bandwagon and maybe that sparked Elliot's spectacular play. Whatever it was, who cares! The BE Keeper has been real, and he's been spec-tac-u-lar of late. Is he the backbone of this streak?

Glorious Cory
It seems Cory Clouston has finally become a legitimate NHL head coach. For most of us, this isn't a surprise because we all believed he could be the guy with the way he had the guys playing down the stretch of last years lost season. But now, he's certainl the real deal in the eyes of the media and hockey fans around the league, and for good reason. Clouston has had a heck of an uphill battle. From losing a bitter superstar to some awful (pre-winning streak) goaltending to a rash of heartbreaking and consecutive injuries, it would have been understandable if this team couldn't string together back to back wins. Despite these frustrations and hardships, the Sens record speaks for Clouston's success. Not all is perfect as we lead the league in too-many-men penalties and have the league's worst PowerPlay, but Cory is getting the most out of his guys...and then some. Everyone works hard, which is key to our depth and abitity to always fight. Lines have been mixed and matched and then thrown into a hat, but he's able to find successful pairs and trios game in and game out. Offence is rolling and the D is coming together. This success didn't happen overnight, but Clouston has made it all come together just in time, a crucial time in the season. Oh, and he rocks the best hair in the league, which rules.

So, there are five pieces of this team that have been crucial to this winning streak. But, I ask, what's the most important? Which of these factors has been the most valuable in the Sens playing as well as they are? Is it the return of Alfie and the Spez Dispenser? How about Regin and the secondary offensive efforts? The emergence or Karlsson and the steady play of the Freight Express? Do you like potential back-to-back first star of the week winner Brian Elliot (hope I didn't jinx it!)? Or, the voice behind the bench?

This is not a test, there are no wrong answers. I'm even going back and forth as I write this! But I'm gonna go ahead and say that it all starts with...Clouston! You don't just get these guys to turn a 5 game losing streak into an 8 game winning streak without great coaching. He's bringing the best out of our guys and it's fun to watch them. And as much as I love Alfie, it's Clouston all the way.

That's my take. What do you think?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Anton Volchenkov - Taking the A-Train Out of Town?

Okay, two straight days without a game is never good when you're on a 6-game winning streak. Even with bumps and bruises, I'd bet a poll of the players would say that they would want to play Sunday and Monday leading into the Tuesday nighter against the Devils. When you're winning, you just want to stay on the ice.

The two days here have given a chance for fans and media to discuss the future of uber-shutdown defenceman, Anton Volchenkov. After riding out this last year of a three-year, $7.5M deal that included a slight hometown discount, Bryan Murray is faced with a question of what to do with the rugged blueliner. Make no mistake, Volchenkov is a great talent and is a huge asset to this team. He's easily the toughest guy on this team and has taken more shots to the body than any goalie in our history (someone look that up in Elias...).

The problem is our good friend, the salary cap. As it stands, we have 15 players signed for next season at a total cap hit of $48M. That still includes the Emery buyout and for some reason that I didn't know about, we're paying extra on Alfie's old contract for a declined option (perhaps someone can check that out and see if it is real). Those 15 players cover off four defencemen (Phillips, Kuba, Karlsson, Carkner), both goalies, and nine forwards. Regin and Foligno are the top forwards up for contract and both are RFAs, so you have to think that they'll get short-term re-ups for around a million.

But back to the A-Train - is there a hidden message in the fact that Murray hasn't even opened up talks with the kid yet? With Phillips here for another year on this contract, you know that he's a lifer. Hometown discount doesn't cover what Phillips will do. I think he'll just re-sign in Summer 2011 for $3M and be here until retirement or taking over Luke Richardson's assistant coaching job. Matt Carkner was also given a two year deal, so he'll be here next year. Add in Jared Cowen and we're starting to get a bit clogged up with 'rugged, lunchpail defencemen'. For a team that stinks on the powerplay and really doesn't have a quarterback on the blue line, do we really want to set ourselves up with four shutdown defencemen that don't have an offensive instinct?

The one variable here is that Cowen probably won't be ready for next season. I know he stepped into the preseason and held his own, but I can't get over the fact that he didn't make a name for himself in the junior tournament. I can't accept the 'he came off knee surgery' argument because that was a year ago and he's played all fall. I wasn't expecting him to follow in Karlsson's footsteps and get Top DMan honours, but he could barely crack the lineup. For the hype that we've given him, it just doesn't seem like he's as far along as we all thought. Does that mean that he needs to bang out two years in Bingo? I don't know, but he sure might be there next year.

Back to A-Train. Everyone and their dog is talking about fair contract for the guy. Some say that he is worth $5M but for 2-3 years because of his injury history, while others are saying that he should get a small dollar amount over five more years. For what it's worth, I think Komisarek's disastrous season has made it clear to GMs that you can't give over $4M to a one-dimensional defenceman. Many can make an argument that prior to this season, Komisarek was a better defenceman than A-Train. So our guy can't make more than $4M. Then you have to figure out the number of years for a guy that sticks his face in front of pucks, literally, and misses a handful of games every season. Will he still be a force in five years? Three years?

My argument here, though, is if we can really fit him into our payroll at all. There is a legitimate case to say that Murray has been planning for this and is prepared to move the Russian rock. Perhaps I'm reading too much into this, but the two-year deal for Carkner in the first week of the season was telling. It gives time for Cowen to develop. Carkner could have waited until the summer to sign, or he could have just played out this two-way deal. But Murray signed him for another two years, guaranteeing that with Phillips, we have at least two shutdown guys signed.

You can also bring in the Kovalev deal to the discussion. If AK27 had no other significant offers, couldn't Murray have signed him for one year at $5M and still landed l'egnima? That would have given him the flexibility to fit A-Train into next year's payroll.

I'm saying here that Murray is going to dangle A-Train at some point. It is a shame because the guy is very valuable to us. I just don't see how we can keep going with all shutdown defencemen, then Karlsson and Kuba. While my guarantees are on a vicious losing streak, I'm openly wondering whether the guy will even get a contract offer. Murray will be a 'buyer' in the next five weeks leading up to the March 3rd deadline, and maybe A-Train is dangled along with a pick to go and get either an offensive defenceman, or another scoring winger. I know A-Train isn't signed, but something similar to the Bouwmeester trade where an unsigned Leopold went the other way and was quickly inked is the M.O.

Don't get me wrong, I don't want Volchenkov gone. I love the guy, I love his shot blocks and open ice hits. I think his toughness and team first attitude is an inspiration to the team and to prospects. I wish there was a way for him to stay with us for his career because he makes you so proud to be a Sens fan. He's so respected around the league and it is kinda cool that even if other fans hate the Sens, they still love A-Train and respect his toughness.

I just don't think he'll be here much longer. I'm saying it, folks. If Murray has a chance to get a decent scorer like a Ray Wizard, a Kariya, a Penner, a Brunette, then perhaps A-Train is part of a deal going the other way. As a trade alone, A-Train is worth a high second rounder or maybe, and I mean maybe, a late first rounder. Anybody that thinks he's a hot commodity is just a bit biased, methinks. He's great to us, but he's a 3-4 defenceman on most other teams and really just a piece to a contender that would want him. A team like the Caps could use him to keep Green out of trouble, for example, but they wouldn't give up a ton to get him.

Anyway, perhaps I'm crazy, but I think this team is going to start to get crowded on the blue line and I don't know that A-Train will last. He is a warrior, but he's also a trading chip as we continue to fine tune this roster for a postseason run. While he is the hard working defenceman that this team loves, the salary cap just might now allow him to stay, even at a hometown discount. That's why we draft Cowens.

What do you guys think? Don't just tell me how much his contact should be for dollars and term, tell me why he should stay or why he should go. Get deep, kids! Can we fit that salary in with Kuba, Phillips, Carkner, and Karlsson (Picard and Campoli...)...