Monday, September 19, 2005

The Bubble Boys

Though watching the team beat up on the Leafs is fun, the most important and intriguing part of the pre-season for the Ottawa Senators is the fight for the jobs. Because they've been so deep, usually there are few roster spots open come training camp, and the line-up can usually be guesstimated. This year, not so much. Some guys seem to be ahead of others, but there is certainly an opportunity for a player to win a job.

With that said, let's look at who the contenders are, and what their chances of cracking the big team are.

Brandon Bochenski

Based on the fact he played on the Spezza-Heatley line in both the training camp scrimmages as well as the first pre-season game against the Leafs last night, it’s clear the organization has high hopes for BB. I must say I’m somewhat surprised at that, as I had a few players ahead of him in what I thought their depth chart was. One factor in his favor is he’s a natural left winger. The team has been soft at that position for as long as I can remember, but were able to neutralize it because they were so deep at right wing, with three 30 goal scorers on that side last season. This year, they’re moving Martin Havlat over to the left to play on Alfredsson’s line. I assumed, wrongly of course, that Peter Schaefer would be given the spot on the line, particularly because he’s so good defensively, an area neither Spezza nor Heatley excel at. Defensive play is not said to be a strength of Bochenski either, so the idea of that line scares me a little bit, especially because as fans we’re so used to our forward core being superb in their own end. The new system, especially with the new rules, will be more free flowing and open, which suits this forward group a lot more as far as their skill set. Playing a defensive system makes sense if you had the Florida Panthers circa-expansion year line-up, but with Spezza, Heatley, Alfredsson, Havlat, etc., run and gun seems more appropriate.

The fact that Bochenski played with Spezza a lot down in Binghamton last season also helped put him over the top when deciding who would be the third piece of that line’s puzzle. He’s a player who’s scored at every level he’s played at. At age 18, he scored 30 goals in the USHL, making the first all-star team. In three years at the University of North Dakota, he scored 79 goals. And last year, his first as a pro, he scored 34 in Bingo, making the AHL’s all-rookie team. Offensive output has never been the question surrounding Bochenski, but all the other intangibles that are a major part of being an NHLer remain questionable. His skating, though said to be improved last year, was still not considered up to par, and at 6 feet and 180 pounds, he’s small by modern standards.

Based on where he’s been positioned, it appears like it’s Bochenski’s job to lose. Whether or not he’s able to deliver is the question.

Chris Kelly

While I said Bochenski making the team would’ve surprised me a month ago, Chris Kelly was the player who I thought had the best chance. Much of that is because of all the bubble players from Bingo, he’s the one with some experience with the big Sens, having played in four games last year, and though he didn’t produce much as far as score sheet contributions, his strong play was impossible to ignore. Former coach Jacques Martin even went out of his way to praise Kelly’s play after a few of those games, which made sense because he’s Martin’s kind of player. In many ways, he’s the anti-Bochenski. Even though he put up 60 points in 77 games last year in Bingo, his best AHL season yet, Kelly’s rep does not include extensive offensive upside. He likely won’t be a top six forward on any team, and certainly not the Senators, but his skill set fits in perfectly for a third and fourth line role: he’s fast, works his ass off, is a sound two-way player, and despite not being all that large, can play a physical game. He’s a natural center, and at this point, I doubt the team wants to put someone who doesn’t have much NHL experience in a role where they’re playing out of position. The Senators four centers look to be penciled in already, with Bryan Smolinski, Spezza, Mike Fisher, and Antoine Vermette ahead of Kelly. I had thought that perhaps Vermette, who has some LW experience, might move over, whether to play with Heatley and Spezza or on the third or fourth line, creating an opportunity for Kelly. That doesn’t look all that likely anymore. In all likelihood, Kelly will not crack the main line-up when the season starts.

Patrick Eaves

I’ve written extensively about Eaves here on this blog, so I think those of you who read regularly know how I feel about him. His reputation preceded Eaves before he came to the city for the rookie tournament, however he only solidified it with his play. In the game I saw, I was more than impressed with how he carried himself, as he was their best forward for the majority of the game, and was always making himself a presence on the ice. I said that he looked NHL ready to me, and those who saw the remainder of the Senators games in that tourney mostly echoed that sentiment, however I also said I wanted to see how he did in the training camp with the main players. I was not able to get out to any of the practices or scrimmages, so I can’t say first hand how he fared, but the fact he wasn’t in the line-up against the Leafs could be indicative of something. Many who did, however, mused that he might need a year of pro at the AHL level before coming into the NHL, as the jump from college hockey to the big league is a difficult one. There’s likely some merit to this school of thought, but he sure looked good enough to me, and I like what he brings to the table. He can skate, is an agitator, works hard, and has decent hands. While it wouldn’t be smart to put him on either of the two top lines, in a third or fourth line role, I think he would fit in nicely, as his style of play fits what a coach expects from those lines (lots of energy), and he can put some pucks in the net when called upon. I had him on the right side of the third line, but it seems as though Chris Neil, who’s been a perennial fourth liner since coming to the team, has been given a shot to improve his standing by playing on that line, leaving Eaves the odd man out, but that could depend on what they plan to do with the fourth line, which brings me to…

Brian McGrattan

Obviously, what he brings to the table differs greatly from Patrick Eaves, but that might be the reason he makes the team over the youngster. As I said yesterday, new coach Bryan Murray has spoken a lot about this team needing to be tougher, and if that’s what he sees as a hole, McGrattan fills it beautifully. At 6’4” and 230 pounds, he’s a mountain of a man, and based on the fact he set a new AHL record for penalty minutes last season with over 500 PIMs, it’s safe to assume he likes to drop the gloves. Though the team has a reputation of being soft and unwilling to fight, we saw last season in their brawl with the Flyers that they have a few guys who can go. Chris Neil has had that role for the past three years, and done well for himself (Andre Roy held it down before that), however, under the previous regime, fighting was frowned upon and rarely were the tough guys allowed to be off their leashes, which is one of the reasons Roy was sent out of town. Zdeno Chara has also been known to fight every now and then, but I don’t think the team wants tough guy responsibilities on someone who they count on so significantly in other areas. The question regarding McGrattan is whether or not there is more to him than his fists. I’m all for toughness, but not at the expense of talent. I’d much rather a roster spot be given to someone like a Chris Kelly, who’s gritty but also has some talent, than a one dimensional fighter who’s a liability in every other aspect of the game.

Steve Martins

Signed in the off season, Martins was someone who, I thought, would be a depth player, and a guy who would be up with the big club but not in the line-up, occupying the press box most of the season. He seems tailor made for that role, as he has a reputation (based on his previous two stints with the Sens) of being good in the locker room, a team player who’s unselfish, but able can step in when needed and play. However, Murray eliminated that scenario by announcing that he plans to carry the bare minimum of 20 players on the main roster, which means no alternates. Under these guidelines, it’s doubtful Martins will have a job with the Senators, and will likely either be cut or sent to Bingo to bring some veteran leadership, which isn’t a bad idea considering the team will be very bare without much of the players from last year who will be back in the NHL this season. During his other two tenures here in Ottawa, Martins was extremely popular with fans, which was somewhat strange because he was mostly a fourth liner with some brief penalty killing exposure. Yet his neverending work ethic made him a fan favorite. I hope the Sens keep him in the organization because I’d feel comfortable with him filling whatever holes are left from the inevitable injuries that come up.

Denis Hamel

For someone who was a first team AHL all-star two seasons ago and having put up almost a point a game in Binghamton last year, Hamel’s name has not been in the conversations about who will win jobs as much as you might think. A lot of that could be because of the perception that he’s a career minor leaguer. At 28, perhaps the thinking is that he’s done developing. Hamel does have some NHL experience, having played 130 games with Buffalo over four seasons. He’s another player who’s skill set and playing style is appropriate for the roster spots open. Though he’s displayed a good scoring touch in the minors, his game has always been very sound defensively, and he can take the body due to his good size. In that sense, he seems ideal for a fourth line job, but there doesn’t seem to be the buzz around Hamel that there is around the others.

Andrej Meszaros

Moving onto the defence, with Brian Pothier being pretty well guaranteed the no. 5 defencemen spot, the battle is over that remaining job, and it’s an intense one. Many perceive Meszaros to be the favorite to win that job. The Sens first round pick in 2004, he had a solid rookie tournament, looking good in the game I saw. There were mixed reports from people who saw the rest of the games, with some noting that he was inconsistent, but others, who watched the exact same contest, commenting that Meszaros was their best defencemen. So it’s all perspective, I suppose. In the game vs. the Leafs I was able to attend, I was especially impressed with his puck moving abilities and his excellent shot. There were certainly a couple brainfarts, but that’s to be expected with a 19-year-old. Whether or not he makes the team depends, I think, on what the Senators want from their 6th defencemen. If it’s offense, then Meszaros could very well have the job locked up, as that’s his speciality. If they want reliability and experience, then clearly that’s not where Meszaros shines right now. In addition, some have lamented that Meszaros would be better served to spend a year in the AHL, for many reasons. One, he’s still developing as a player, and it would make more sense for his growth to play somewhere where he will log a lot of minutes, get powerplay time, etc. than serve on the third defence pairing that doesn’t see much ice. Two, for contract purpose. Under the new CBA, a player can be an unrestricted free agent either at 25 or after seven years of NHL experience. It would be more logical, some say, to have Meszaros from 20 to 26 than 19 to 25. I previously under the impression time with an AHL affiliate counted towards that, but have since been corrected. Though you’d like to think what dictates who makes the team will be strictly hockey related, in this new NHL, decisions based on off ice factors are a reality we have to live with.

Christoph Schubert

The big German was the one who I figured would get the remaining job when the Senators packaged Greg de Vries in the trade with Atlanta. Coming off a so-so season in Binghamton, Schubert, who’s 25, is almost at a sink or swim point in his career. They have to see if he’s an NHL caliber defenceman or not. Previously, there were no real opportunity for that test, as the defence position was a log jam for the Sens. Having spent three years in the Ottawa system in the AHL, you’d think Schubert would’ve developed as much as a player at that level as he’s going to, so another year down in the A wouldn’t help him, would it? Those who observed the training camp have said they were impressed with Schubert’s play, as he’s a big guy who can skate and move the puck. He might be more equipped to handle NHL play than Meszaros because of his extensive AHL experience, as the jump from the A to the NHL isn’t as drastic as from junior to the big time.

Lance Ward

Much of what I said about Martins can be applied to Ward. When he was signed, I figured it was a depth move. He’s a veteran who’s bounced around from team to team, but he gives them NHL experience that Meszaros and/or Schubert do not. Ward also brings a game that neither do. Though neither of the Europeans are considered soft, Ward is definitely harder around the edges. He has no problem scrapping, which as I discussed on McGrattan, appears to be a virtue Bryan Murray looks highly upon. As well, one of the factors that made me think he’d be a depth player was that he’s extremely versatile, capable of playing both forward and defence, which makes him an appealing taxi squad member. But again, because that role doesn’t exists under Murray, you have to wonder where Ward fits into their plans. He might, like Martins, be someone who they plan to be one of their leaders in the AHL, however, I wonder if that’s a role he wants. Did he come to Ottawa under the impression he would be with the main team in some capacity? If I were a defencemen, I doubt I’d come to Ottawa without some kind of understanding because it’s pretty clear, on paper, they’re strong at the position. At this point, he might have an edge over the others because he’s been an NHLer before, but as I said, it also depends on what the coaching staff wants.

Tomas Malec

The wildcard of the bunch, Malec, like Ward, was signed as a free agent. He’s someone who was highly rated coming out of junior, where he excelled, however for whatever reason, he’s never been able to stick and succeed with an NHL club, as the Sens are the third NHL team he’s been with at age 24. His name hasn’t been tossed around very much when people talk about who will get the 6th defenceman job, which might reflect how the Sens organization sees him, or could just be that he’s been overlooked thus far. As well, I didn’t hear much about how he fared in camp, so it’s difficult to assess where he will land, but I would guess he will not get the look the other three will.

The remaining seven pre-season games will likely decide which of the above are in Sens uniforms on October 5th in Toronto. As I’ve said, some players do appear to have a leg up on others, but at this point, nothing is etched in stone as far as jobs, and over the course of the next two weeks, anything can happen. If nothing else, it should be fun to see it all unfold.


At 3:42 PM, Anonymous kjs said...

One small correction: Schubert did not have a "so-so" campaign in Bingo last year. After a disappointing start he made huge strides last year and finally started to show the talent he was initially touted for. He was quite possibly Bingo's best defenceman last year. Muckler saw him play and has singled him out before for praise. I don't know if he'll beat out Mez but even if he's not on the initial roster he'll almost certainly get substantial playing time with the big club this year.

At 3:48 PM, Blogger CMcMurtry said...

I guess it depends on who you speak with. I've talked to many Bingo Sens fans who say his season was mostly subpar.

At 3:58 PM, Anonymous kjs said...

I'm surprised to hear that, but I guess these things are pretty subjective. Fair enough. Just so you have a sense of where I'm coming from, here's what one hardcore Bingo observer, whose judgement I trust, had to say:

"#13 Christoph Schubert, A-. Spezza’s improvement was huge, but no one improved more than Schubert. He started the year in typical Schubert fashion, but then he became the player we knew he could be and more. He saw far less power play time than Pothier and Volchenkov, yet he was able to produce 32 points on the season. He also finished among the league leaders for defensemen in plus minus at +24. He was second among defensemen in the league in game-winning goals with five. Half of his goals were game-winners, which speaks to his game-breaking ability. On top of that, he amassed 110 penalty minutes, displaying his mean streak and occasional dirtiness. For my money, he was the best defenseman on the team. I kept waiting for him to revert back to how he used to play, but he never did. He’s now a gamer and his future is bright."

At 7:54 AM, Blogger just'cuz said...

I saw Meszaros play in the rookie tournament and was impressed with his puck skills. However, I think Schubert deserves a long hard look (I too, have read that Schubert was the best d-man in Bingo last season) and Meszaros could use a season in Bingo (if the Sens are allowed to send him there).

With Varada injured (6 weeks), it looks like Eaves and Hamel will get a longer look.

We may find out later today what direction Coach Murray is leaning when it comes to the d-men, (Sept 20) as the first cuts are to be announced after the morning scrimmage.

At 2:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

One other thing about Schubert. He's only 23, not 25 as you stated.


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