Kukla's Korner


On Shaky Ground, Sens Try Another Shake-Up

Emery doing well in Russia, and a look at the honest words on the team from Melnyk, Hartsburg, and Murray, but first…

From the Ottawa Senators’ website, Hartsburg goes back to the drawing board,

When the Senators face off against the Devils in Newark, N.J., on Friday night (7 p.m., Rogers Sportsnet East, Team 1200), Daniel Alfredsson, Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza will find themselves spread across three lines instead of together as one.

While Hartsburg and his coaching staff haven’t sorted out exact combinations just yet, he admitted “we have to do something different” to bring an end to his team’s struggles at the offensive end of the ice. The Senators have netted just four goals in their last four games and, with a total of 67 in 29 starts to date, are the lowest-scoring team in the National Hockey League.

“Probably the best thing right now is that they all play on different lines,” Hartsburg said of his top offensive guns. “They’re three good players in this league and I believe in all three of them. I think all three of them can help a line be better and right now, that’s what we’ve got to look at.”

Whether it makes a difference or not, the Sens have nothing to lose. You play a physical game because it takes a toll on your opponent no matter the outcome, and sometimes it will make them hesitate or stay out of the high traffic areas. In this case, the offense was not clicking when stockpiled on the first line, so spread it out.

Each of the big three earns a king’s ransom, and should be able to play through thick and thin to that effect. $1.2-1.7 million should not be the difference between $7+ million players who only work well together, and guys like Malkin and Crosby, who turn their Chris Phillips and their Chris Neil into premium snipers.

One thing I am excited to see is Vermette with either Heatley or preferably Alfie. I’ve gone over it before, and I still think that Vermette’s tied-for-2nd in the League face off percentage (62.1%) has more than enough potential to boost any offense. When he’s taking only a sixth of the team’s draws though — as he did on Monday when he won 9 of 10 draws, the team having taken 59 overall — it’s not going to mean as much, especially not when you whittle away the opportunities further by focusing on using him in penalty killing.

Give him a Heatley or an Alfie, rather than a Kelly and a grinder, and you might find something different happens; does anyone really think Alfie could to a bit more if he had the puck 50% more than his opponents off the draw (62.1% to 37.9%), rather than the even split he gets with Spezza’s hair-over-50% success rate? No doubt part of the interest will be to see if the team can have success with either Fisher or Vermette playing more minutes with better wingers (assuming the head-scratcher doesn’t arise, seeing Vermette once again relegated to wing), because that will of course make it an easier sell should the question of trading one of their centers come up.

Update - 1:25PM EST

According to Sportsnet, the lines are as follows:

Vermette-Fisher-Alfredsson: You can laugh that I care, but I cry a little inside that Fisher’s 25% success rate on the draw from Monday (48.2% on the season) will be in rather than Vermette’s 90% success rate in that same game (63.1% on the season).

Heatley-Kelly-Foligno: Not exactly what I predicted, taking Foligno over Neil on this line, but it doesn’t surprise me much. Foligno must not be a passenger in order for this line to have any success.

Ruutu-Spezza-Neil: Definitely not what I hoped for. I want Spezza to make those around him better, but this is a big stretch, and Ruutu’s the only defensive conscience on this line. I expect Jersey to try to punch through here, though the 2nd line would be the next best bet.

Schubert-McAmmond-Donovan: solid grinding line, likely Hartsburg hoping for more Dean-o Don-o bang-o magic.

Zubov’s work visa has apparently expired, and so he cannot make the trip. This confuses me: would he have been off Bingo as well, seeing as how they are an American squad as well? Or is it his Canadian work visa that is up, preventing him from playing for a Canadian team?

Winchester has an upper body injury and will not make the trip. Bass will be called up. Volchenkov is back, leaving Lee as the odd d-man out.

From the FAN 590, a phone interview with Ray Emery,

Emery tells the guys that he’s in a good ‘place’ in his life right now after a long season in the NHL, both on and off the ice. Emery also says he’s in no hurry to come back to North America and believes he’ll probably stay in Europe for awhile.

Whether you hate him or love him, he’s finally doing what he should have done from day 1: be clear and honest about who he is. Asked whether it was the hectic schedule or the media that might have been causing his negative actions last season, he puts the blame squarely back on himself, and his habits. Whatever lies in his head, whatever goes on outside the rink and the media eye, that’s Ray’s business. Now though, he seems ready to put on the right suit as Cherry might suggest, when the job calls for it.

From the Ottawa Sun, Melnyk appears to have faith,

“Are you kidding?” said Melnyk when asked if he thought the Senators are still a legitimate contender. “I fully expect us to be in the top four teams in the conference.”

Melnyk said there is still plenty of time for the Sens to turn things around this season, adding Murray and Hartsburg’s jobs are safe.
“Listen, we had nine new players coming on. We have a new coach. We have a new system. It takes time and patience to let the system work because they know it’s going to work. It just takes time. It’s now time to perform. They’ve started to perform. The most depressing thing in the world is to start off a season 16-4 or 16-5, whatever we did last year, and then down the stretch fall apart and then get blown out in the first round.

“Nobody is going to remember the first 25 games. What everybody will remember is what happens in March, April in May. Let’s get this out of the way. Let’s get this perfected. I can tell you right now, mar k this down: Come March they are going to talk about the miracle turnaround of the Ottawa Senators. I’m telling you right now it’s no miracle turnaround, it’s just grinding, grinding, grinding.”

Such an attitude is exactly what I’ve come to expect from Melnyk from the times I’ve met him, but when you leave one of the few games you get to attend early, it might speak louder than you’d like.

From TSN, Hartsburg and Murray have plenty to say about the team,

“The three guys that we have counted on, for lots of different reasons, haven’t been able to produce - and I can get in to all of them, but it is what it is, and we’ve got to change it,” Hartsburg said.
“I think the fact for all three of them, and I don’t like to talk about money and all that, but they are paid a lot of money,” Hartsburg noted.  “They should be able to make players around them better and in the past they have counted on the three of them playing together to carry the team.  From what I have seen so far that’s not going to happen.”
“We can point fingers at anybody (management or coaches) around them, but the bottom line is good players should be good players, unless they are playing hurt or unless they have reached a stage in their career where they are on a downward decline or whatever that may be,” Murray said. “I don’t think that is the case here. Certainly that’s why we made commitments here to get continued improvement and results from them, and it is astounding that we don’t score goals, in particular. We have that ability and that’s not the coach, that’s not the manager, that’s not the teammate - that’s the player doing, to their best of their ability, what they can do.”
“What disappoints me the most is our work ethic as a team and individually, too,” said Hartsburg.  “There are some players that just do not work hard enough. They do not work hard enough to have success individually and that’s what hurts our team…
“There are some things we haven’t been able to get ingrained in the group and that’s the frustrating part. I have always had teams that worked and competed, and that’s the frustrating part for me.”

Murray said he still believed in the roster.

“If we thought we weren’t good enough, if we thought we only had one or two players and the rest were just fill-ins, that would be a different scenario,” Murray said.  “But I think we have a nice core of players here that should compete with most every team in the NHL, and some night’s we don’t do that.”

There’s also a video clip of the comments they’ve made.

Is there a logical explanation for the Sens’ troubles? Nobody’s really been able to offer one up. Why they waited so long to sink in with these messages might have something to do with the fact that they followed a near-identical path a couple seasons back. In 2006-07, they started their first 20 or so games playing poorly, sitting back in the pack, but burst forth, all of a sudden finding their stride, and rode it to the Cup Finals.

Every player, coach, and manager has admitted at some point that the team they’ve assembled should have more than enough potential to be in contention, far more than they have been. Fans never like losing, but you can bet that if Murray’s given in this early two years ago, the team wouldn’t have been the same, likely not making it to the Cup Finals.

Fans, especially Sens fans, have to remember some of the acts they’ve chastised over the seasons, notably the revolving door this season in Tampa Bay, and the endless muddling moves in Toronto. Murray could give in to the fans wishes, or Melnyk demand that he make moves, but the Sens would be as much fools as they are now losers to believe quick fixes work. It was the hard work of bonding through tough times that got them to the Cup Final; Comrie and Saprykin were Murray’s moves that year, Comrie coming in halfway through the season when injuries sidelined Spezza, Fisher, and Vermette all at once.

If you take the post-lockout years as your baseline, here’s one obvious trend for the team, as simplified as it is. Looking at those rosters, and considering only goals, you can calculate each players’ Goals/Game rate for that season. Then, taking the top 18, you have what should have been the best possible roster to ice, game in and game out, had the best players been chosen and been healthy enough to play all 82 games.

2005-06, the best roster could have been clicking at a rate of 4.89 G/G; in actuality, they ‘only’ scored 3.80 G/G. A year later, the potential and output dropped, to 4.05 and 3.49, and then again last year, to 3.72 and 3.15. A straight downward trend, but this year, a fork: taking the current roster, based on their past four seasons and their best total in those four seasons, had this roster played to its utmost, it could have scored 4.23 goals. Taking their current output, had the ‘best’ players played all 29 games, they could have scored 2.44 goals per game. Instead, it’s a mere 2.28.

What happens now? Fire Hartsburg some say, and yet the Sens have gone through Paddock and Murray as well in the past year, failing to be changed as desired by any of them. Trade players now? Because of the ‘loser point’, teams are in the hunt longer than ever. If you’re not San Jose, Boston, or Detroit, you’re not yet totally confident that you can coast to the finish line; if you are, why change what works? Trading now, most teams won’t offer much, since they don’t want to be the fools that went to patch the boat that was going to sink anyways. Not to mention it, but players aren’t doing a very good job selling themselves.

Heatley’s and Spezza’s G/G production are both 20% lower than their prime; even Alfie’s a whopping 50% smaller on the stat sheet than his prime post-lockout numbers from last season. Fisher’s down 63%, Neil’s down 57%, Vermette, McAmmond, and Kuba are all scoring 74-81% fewer goals per game. Only Volchenkov is having a career year, with his two goals in 27 games. Ruutu, Kelly, and Schubert are all down about 40% from their normal pace, and there you just have a team that’s looking like it’s got very little shine up on the trading block.

Murray’s admitted that there’s been interest in dumping terrible players and salaries on him, but what’s the use? He also shot down the one inquiry about Spezza, and even if that trade does happen, it won’t occur without Spezza getting a chance to boost his value with better play, and as the trade deadline approaches. Scream “shake up” all you like, but trading down at every position is not going to make this team better.

So what now? Now, we wait; wait and see what’s going on, because it’s hard to imagine the team playing any worse and decreasing their value any further, and the price for players will only go up as the trade deadline approaches. Putting the big three on separate lines (hopefully three separate lines) will surely shake things up, even if it changes nothing. Next might come some benchings, possibly to remind both the benched players and those with new linemates that the deadline is fast approaching. Finally, the axe will fall.

It’s been a classy ride, watching this team get treated so well, rarely as a pawn. Emery was bought out for bad behaviour, Kaigorodov and Nikulin traded for wanting to bolt to Russia, Corvo given the door when he asked for it, and pretty near only Eaves being dealt in recent memory because of nothing but lacklustre performance. The respect for the players continues, even as the shadow looms ever closer.

Maintaining that balance is key, on one hand giving players every opportunity to prove themselves worthy to stay, and on the other never treating the players like numbers, but human beings who have families and friends, lives and hopes, dreams and nightmarish times in their lives on the job and at home. That proper balance is what will help ensure that no wrong players fall off the roster, that future players see the genuine respect given to Senators day in and day out, and will help ensure the team bleeds as little as possible should any limb need to be severed, another chaotic dressing room being the last thing on anyone’s wish list.

Filed in: NHL Teams, Ottawa Senators, | SENShobo | Permalink


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About SENShobo

Native of Northern California.  Hockey fan since 1998... sort of... there's a hiatus in there that I still can't explain.

I want to know about anything and everything related to the sport and the spectacle.  I watch, I react, I write it down.

My interest in the Sharks was initially a matter of geographic convenience and regional loyalty because that seemed to be how it worked.  I had no prior interest (at all-- AT ALL) in professional sports of any kind.  When I met hockey, it might have set off a chain reaction of general sports fandom.  It hasn't, I don't think it will.  At all.

Since then, that interest developed into full blown (mostly sort of usually almost completely) exclusive loyalty to the Sharks.

I started blogging a couple years ago on wordpress. I still occasionally put things there that I don't think fit here because they are not about the Sharks. Wherever my words wander, here on Kuklas Korner, they will (usually) hang on to a teal thread.

I can be found in cyberspace on Twitter @petshark47, or emailed at talkingstick@petshark.net