by SENShobo on 10/21/10 at 11:04 AM ET
Ottawa not displaying mobility that Gonchar was supposed to usher in, Hale comes up with Ottawa desperate for defensive dependability, Smith sent down to get back into form, Clouston losing patience with Ottawa’s lack of focus, and Kovalev looking as listless as ever, but first. . .
When Ottawa Senators general manager Bryan Murray holds a press conference, it usually comes with a couple jokes, a handful of ‘wink-wink, nudge-nudge’ asides and a big helping of coyness.
On Wednesday morning, there was no such joviality. With his team sitting last in the National Hockey League standings and fans panicking left and right, this was all business. So it was an angry, blunt Murray who stepped to the podium after coach Cory Clouston ran his squad through a breath-stealing bag skate at Scotiabank Place.
Few escaped his criticism and all heard this threat: “I’ve talked to a number of people, as I said. I talked to (Minnesota Wild general manager) Chuck Fletcher for a long time yesterday and said, ‘can I help you, you help me’ type of thing, so we’re talking to management of other teams, trying to find if there is a need and a possibility of making a move. That’s not always the solution, but I think it’s something that maybe sends a little message to our players, so we will continue to pursue something.”
If you wanted to boil it down to a sentence, it would go something like this: Get it together if you like living here.
Anything for a win, right? Hopefully not quite so.
While the thought of a trade, even with Minnesota, sounded exciting yesterday, Murray needs to start taking decisions with the future in mind. Putting Minnesota out to the press yesterday was likely less about announcing the future than it was about getting a response from the catatonic team. It’s out in the public now that some members of the team might not stay in Ottawa much longer if the current trend keeps up.
Unlike the leaked “signing” of Eric Belanger this summer with Washington doomed their attempts to find room for him, Murray has merely let it be known that he is serious, and that enough pressure will make him deal, perhaps putting a bit of pressure on other organizations to inquire about Ottawa’s players, rather than offer too little and get left out of the dealings. That, and as the 30th place team in the League, nobody was under any delusions that Ottawa was dealing from a calm and patient position of strength.
From the Ottawa Citizen, Ottawa has yet to adapt to Murray’s puck-moving team build,
“We’re giving up far too many chances. I think that’s a big issue. I just think we turn the puck over in our end and we haven’t battled defensively the way we should and the way we’re capable of doing, in my opinion. The result is we’re scrambling for the puck too often. And, as a result, we don’t create any offence and we don’t keep the puck out of our net enough.”
“We have a couple of young guys on the blue line (Lee and Karlsson) who have really struggled to play their game and I think it has become contagious. I can’t say that one of our (defencemen) has played to where I thought they would play to.”
Gonchar, signed as a free agent in July, has largely been a non-factor so far, which largely explains why the Senators power play has only two goals and ranks 27th in the 30-team NHL.
“We enter the zone, but we don’t make that safe pass to get control first,” Murray said. “We try to make the home-run play right away or shoot the puck from a bad angle. So, I’m hoping with time and work here and not much time, mind you, that it gets considerably better.”
Perhaps lost in all of this is Kuba’s injury. He has often been frustrating to fans for not fitting either end of the spectrum: he does not put up prodigious amounts of points, nor does his 6’4 frame get physical in his own end to help out his teammates. What he does offer is a calming presence, and a combination of sound play in both ends that does work.
Just ask Karlsson. It was partnered with Kuba that he saw his stock rise last season. His partner was skilled enough with the puck that Karlsson was not without options, and not the only one responsible for transitioning the play, but not so grandiose as Gonchar’s resume, which could lead to Karlsson seeking to defer responsibilities. Unlike Campoli or Lee, Kuba also has enough defensive skill to help cover for Karlsson’s lapses, while still being able to lead defensive work ethic from a more mobile platform, in ways that Carkner and Phillips would not be able to match or lead Karlsson with.
At the moment, only Phillips and Gonchar are experienced on the back end: Karlsson, Campoli, Carkner, and Lee are all too green to be dependable on their own or paired together, and it leads to rotations of partners. This cannot help Phillips or Gonchar, not knowing what to expect from their partner anywhere on the ice, or how they will have to complement them. With Kuba back, either you have three dependable pairings with a veteran each, or you limit the two most dependable of the green crop to just one pairing, stocking up in the top four and allowing for familiarity to develop, chemistry as important to a guy like Spezza looking for Alfredsson as it is for Phillips and Gonchar knowing when to jump in or break out in Ottawa’s end.
Kuba did skate yesterday in a track suit, and is still two weeks away, which no doubt played a role in Ottawa’s moves yesterday.
From the Ottawa Senators, Hale called up to give Clouston some confidence on the blue line,
The Senators have assigned forward Zack Smith to their American Hockey League affiliate in Binghamton, N.Y., and recalled veteran blueliner David Hale. “He’s got a bit of experience,” Clouston said of Hale, who impressed the team during training camp. “If he’s a safe, solid, defensive defenceman, we’ll be happy.” Smith has been a healthy scratch the last two games and Clouston said “we feel it’s important that he gets back to Binghamton (where he spent most of the last two seasons) for a short period of time and gets his confidence back and gets back up here.”
With 302 games of NHL experience, the 29-year old Hale will serve as a more experienced Carkner, and will allow Clouston a less-mobile experienced player to either stock the top two pairs with, or to create a balance of experience throughout the three pairings, with Lee or possibly Campoli the odd man out.
From Blogging the B-Sens, Smith will get a chance to improve in one direction or another in Binghamton,
B-Sens oach Kurt Kleinendorst will have to adjust his lineup around the addition of Zack Smith and departure of David Hale before the team’s game against the Hartford Wolf Pack on Friday, and he’s already preparing for those changes.
He would not commit to who he’d be pairing Smith with, but did seem to favor the idea of using him as a center.
“Down the middle, he definitely helps,” Kleinendorst said. “He’s more of a natural centerman. He’s a strong guy, and he competes, so you’re getting character. For whatever amount of time he may be here, it’s all just trying to come up with something that compliments everyone. He’ll be on one of our top lines, for sure.
“At the end of the day, he needs to play,” Kleinendorst added. “He had the opportunity to be up there with the big club, but he’s just been sitting around the past couple weeks. That’s not fair to him. This is a healthy decision for everyone involved.”
In Ottawa, Smith has seen time both as a center on the fourth line, and on the wing in the top six. It will be interesting to see what situations Smith is asked to work in, and whether they will speak to his expected duties upon returning to Ottawa, or if they will purely be meant to help the B-Sens succeed in their most hopeful season yet, even if his role their strays him from what he will need to succeed early on with Ottawa.
On the practice ice, head coach Cory Clouston, his deep voice easily heard by reporters in the stands, was teaching fundamental hockey, “back to the drawing board,” as he put it later, barking out commands for defensive-zone coverage.
“You have to protect the middle,” Clouston called out, pointing to the high slot area between the faceoff dots. You can’t let Alfie just (effing) rip it. Talk to each other. Switch (positions).”
“We’re not so good that we can just play haphazardly, we have to rely on simple, structured hockey,” Clouston said.
It forechecks well, but not wildly, he added. Minus any stars on the blue-line and missing a stalwart shot blocker like Volchenkov, it defends as a group, defencemen and forwards.
“We don’t have the big powerful defencemen that are going to knock guys down. We have to have good structure, good position, good technique,” Clouston said. “And, if we do that, we’ll be fine. We’re a team that has to do the little things well.”
Yet this structure has not been easy for the Senators, given even the smallest of changes in the lineup. When pairings are switched, the Senators falter. When Spezza isn’t playing with familiar wingers, he works too hard on his own and the offence of the line falls apart. In Clouston’s kind of structure, where the system is key but not meant to completely stifle players, it’s no easy feat to balance it all.
Any change means not only new responsibilities as players fit into a different spot in the system, but also figuring out how that role is interpreted by the others in that situation. It’s not so simple as in the Jersey days of old, when consistent approach from all players was expected without question, or where freewheeling in other times meant simply complementing the key players as best you could.
“Not very good,” said Murray when asked how he felt about Kovalev’s play. “It looks like his skating isn’t where it was last year. I think there are lingering effects maybe from the surgery he had.
“I’m hoping that’s part of it and I’m hoping as time goes on, he gets going. I don’t think Alex is where he will be. We need him to be a good hockey player and to be a creative player. He doesn’t need to be a star. He has to be creative and help players he plays with. I expect that will happen.”
Kovalev didn’t agree with Murray’s assessment of his skating.
“Last year, people talked about how I wasn’t skating, either,” said Kovalev. “I don’t know where the truth lies. Last year or this year? I’m skating better than last year. Personally, that’s the way I feel.”
No challenge for Clouston will be bigger than making sense of the $5 million player who should have every motivation after a disappointing season, being able to play with fellow Russian legend Gonchar, and wanting to prove that surgery on his knee hasn’t hampered him in a key contract year.
So far, Kovalev has looked more like Schaefer of old, flashing great work along the boards to strip others of the puck or to protect it. But it has been unmotivated play, as much as he is pushing beyond his limits, playing a team-leading 55 seconds per shift, despite spending 39% of his even-strength time on a line with Regin and Shannon (Dobber), who average just 48 and 47 seconds per shift, respectively.
What is left to motivate Kovalev? Really, considering Ottawa is an Olympic-gold-winning long jump from the Stanley Cup, one has to hope that he wants to keep playing, and that he wants to keep his value as high as possible. Considering how much success he’s had on the power play to augment his value in previous contract years, that, along with his linemates, might be the only carrot Clouston has, lest he break out the healthy scratch stick, or Kovalev suddenly feel he has reason left to defend his pride.
Just another sign that it’s no longer about the here and now for Ottawa, it’s time to start focusing on the future.
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